Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal

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9780375408830: Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal
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The building of the Suez Canal was considered the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century, but, as Zachary Karabell shows, it was much more than a marvel of construction. It was a moment when the dreams and hopes of two cultures, several states, and thousands of ordinary people converged to change the face of the earth.

Parting the Desert describes an extraordinary meeting between East and West. The Egyptians hoped the canal would lead to a national renaissance and renewed power in the eastern Mediterranean. The French expected the canal to enhance world trade and advance Western civilization. Napoleon Bonaparte first raised the possibility of building a waterway during his occupation of Egypt in the late eighteenth century. The idea was kept alive by the utopian followers of Saint-Simon and was then taken up by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the energetic, ambitious French diplomat who masterminded the project.

As Karabell points out, Lesseps was often in the right place at the right time, and he had the good luck of forging a friendship with the young Egyptian prince Muhammad Said. In 1854, Said became the ruler of Egypt and granted Lesseps the concession to cut a hundred-mile-long canal across the isthmus of Suez. It would take fifteen years of ceaseless effort before that dream became reality.
A brilliant entrepreneur, Lesseps traveled throughout Europe and the Near East to raise support and money. He convinced thousands of ordinary French citizens to invest in the canal company, and though he never won over the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, he did convince British merchants and businessmen that the canal would benefit them. During years of careful diplomacy, Lesseps neutralized the Ottoman sultan, and with the help of his cousin the Empress Eugénie, he won the backing of the emperor of France, Napoleon III.

By the time the canal was completed, it had become a symbol of progress and a sign that East and West could coexist and cooperate, and Lesseps was lionized throughout Europe as a hero of the industrial age. But it was not smooth sailing all the way: the company relied heavily on forced labor, diplomatic intrigues continued to the very end, and technical and financial obstacles constantly threatened the project’s completion.
The creation of the Suez Canal captured the imagination of the world. It was heralded as a symbol of progress that would unite nations, but its legacy is mixed. It was supposed to strengthen the Middle East and bridge cultures; instead the gap widened, and the region remains a flash point for conflict. Parting the Desert is both a transporting narrative and a meditation on the origins of the modern Middle East.

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About the Author:

Zachary Karabell was educated at Columbia, Oxford, where he received a degree in Modern Middle Eastern Studies, and Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1996. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Dartmouth. He is the author of several books, including The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland prize. His essays and reviews have appeared in various publications, such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, and Newsweek. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

The Twilight

It was late afternoon in the desert when they emerged from the labyrinth of eddies that flowed through the Nile Delta. The breeze carried the trace of salt from the Mediterranean, and though the wind was less harsh than it had been several weeks before, the area was still desolate. The day had been warm; the night promised bitter cold, but at least they had finally arrived at their destination on the coast, where the easternmost branch of the Nile used to meet the Mediterranean Sea. Pitching their tents, Ferdinand de Lesseps and his companions settled in for the evening.

They had sailed from Damietta, where St. Louis died centuries before in a fool's errand of a crusade, and where much later Napoleon's troops stumbled on the Rosetta Stone. They had crossed Lake Manzala, in four fishing boats outfitted with small cabins to shelter them at night. And then they camped on the thin littoral separating the brackish lake from the waters of the Mediterranean. They were not there to explore. They were there to begin.

At dawn on April 25, 1859, they packed their camels and hurried to their destination, where they were joined by a group of Egyptian laborers. There were 150 altogether, diplomats, businessmen, engineers, and peasants. Their silhouettes moved across the sunrise, and over each shoulder there was a pickax.

At a spot known only to him, Lesseps raised his hand and ordered the company to halt. They unloaded their gear and stood, picks in hand, waiting. Lesseps looked toward the sea and then back toward the desert. His compact energy conveyed a surprising vigor for a fifty-three-year-old widowed former bureaucrat. His eyes set, his mustache elegantly trimmed, he was at a pivotal point in his life, and he knew it.

It was an act of theater, carefully staged. No official representatives of any government attended the ceremony, and the story of what happened was disseminated only by Lesseps himself. He unfurled an Egyptian flag and planted it in the ground, yet there was something furtive about the whole endeavor. He had sought but not formally received the blessing of the ruler of Egypt. He decided to proceed anyway. He paused for a moment, not just because he was taking a risk, but because he was about to change the political landscape of three continents, because he was embarking on an adventure that would alter the terrain of the planet. Then he spoke.

"In the name of the Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal, we are about to commence this work, which will open up the East to the commerce and civilization of the West. . . . The thorough surveys that we have done give us the confidence that the enterprise that commences today will not only be a work of progress, but will return immense rewards to those who have striven to make it real." He told the group to lift up their axes. "Remember," he continued, "you are not simply digging up soil. Your work will bring prosperity to your families and to your countries." Then he asked one of the workers to hand him an ax. Shouting, "In honor of the viceroy Muhammad Said Pasha," he raised his arm, and 150 arms raised up with him. Row after row of metal picks gleamed in the sun and descended into the earth. The building of the Suez Canal had begun.1

The states of Europe competed over it; the Ottoman Empire tried to prevent its construction; and, later, the armies of the modern Middle East destroyed the cities along its banks. In 1869, the kings and queens of Europe gathered to celebrate its inauguration, for a week of festivities so lavish that even the jaded royalty of Paris, London, and Vienna were awed. It was the triumph of the mid-nineteenth century, a joint venture between the ruler of Egypt and an ambitious Frenchman. Heralded as a symbol of progress, lauded as proof that geography would no longer separate the Orient and the Occident, the East and the West, the Suez Canal was the center of the world.

Today, all that marks its southern point is a pediment encased in graffiti. No statue, not even a memory of the forgotten soldier who once stood there to commemorate Egypt's wars. A few rusting parts of tanks serve as a reminder of the battles fought between Egypt and Israel, but that seems long ago. The day when Gamal Abdel Nasser stood in a square in Alexandria in 1956 and defied the French, the English, and the Americans by nationalizing the canal-even that belongs to another era, when Suez still mattered, when its fate could send the world into panic.

Where fleets once sailed, now there are tankers from third-rank nations. Freighters from Doha and container ships from Monrovia glide past that ruined pediment at the southern tip. They enter or exit the canal in convoy clusters of four or five. On the journey south, they spill out into the azure waters of the Gulf of Suez, where at sunset, the sharp brown cliffs of the Gebel Attaka rise quickly to block the dying rays.

On the journey north, they make the hundred-mile voyage to the Mediterranean Sea in less than a day. They sail through the Bitter Lakes and past the city of Ismailia, until they empty into Lake Manzala and arrive at the terminus of Port Said. There they pass by the headquarters of the Canal Company, a decaying Victorian fantasy of white crenellation and green domes. Nearby is another orphaned stone pedestal, where a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps once stood. Freighters and tankers pass through a canal bounded not by heroic monuments, but by pockmarked pediments.

The canal was built by the sweat of hundreds of thousands, but it was Lesseps's child-his, and that of the rulers of Egypt, Said and Ismail. Lesseps, a French diplomat who worshiped at the altar of progress; Muhammad Said, the Egyptian viceroy who saw in France and England all that his country could be but wasn't; and Ismail, his successor, who tried to purchase a better future for Egypt using European loans. Lesseps saw his vision vindicated. Said and Ismail died before realizing that theirs would not be. But decades later, enraged at the lost promise of the canal, their great-grandchildren seized it for themselves.

In July 1956, Egyptians listened as Nasser claimed the canal for Egypt and believed that after years of disappointment, the future had finally arrived. They thought that the progress promised in the nineteenth century had only been delayed until the twentieth. But their moment of triumph was brief. The British, French, and Israelis attacked, and the city of Port Said was partially destroyed by British jets. Nasser scuttled ships in the canal to prevent its use by Egypt's enemies. A decade later, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, all of the cities along the canal were bombarded, this time by Israeli forces on the eastern bank. Ships were scuttled once again; the harbors were mined; and the canal was closed for years. A war of attrition followed, and Ismailia was decimated. In 1973, Suez was a battle zone one more time, when Anwar Sadat ordered his army to cross the canal and confront Israeli troops on the other side.

Today, half a million people live in the reconstructed cities of Suez and Ismailia, and a million in Port Said. The port of Suez has been inhabited since Roman times, but today it is a concrete jungle of prefab apartment blocks, with no trace of anything earlier than the 1970s. Ismailia nestles Lake Timsah, where Moses may or may not have led the people of Israel out of Egypt thirty-five centuries ago. Its shores are now guarded with barbed wire. A few Victorian houses survived the Arab-Israeli wars. The mansion where Lesseps and his family lived still stands. It is a museum filled with bad copies of nineteenth-century furniture and Parisian drapes, closed to the public except on permission from the Suez Canal authorities, which must be obtained in Cairo many days in advance. Port Said, the jewel of the canal, which guards its Mediterranean entrance, is cloaked in pollution. Miles of anonymous buildings give way to petroleum-soaked beaches that seasonally fill with middle-class Egyptians on holiday. The main street is one of the prime shopping centers in the country, but only for a few months each year, when those thousands of vacationers arrive to lie on the shore and watch the ships as they line up to make the journey south.

The canal still makes money for Egypt, but the commerce of the world has found other outlets. When the canal was completed, the journey from Europe to India was sliced from months to weeks, and the arduous route around the Cape of Good Hope was rendered obsolete. The twentieth century reversed the process. Modern tankers and container ships can take the longer route, and the cost is not much different. The trip around the Cape requires more fuel, but the shorter route entails canal dues, and for many companies, it is six of one, half a dozen of the other. Some newer ships are too large for the canal, and the Egyptian government is left with a Sisyphean task: by the time it dredges and widens the channel, the next generation of supertankers will have arrived. The navies of the world take advantage of the canal for reasons of convenience, but outside of Egypt or Israel, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, it is no one's strategic priority.

That was not the future its creators imagined. A vision of progress energized Lesseps, a vision that East and West could be joined, and that the union of the two seas and the two worlds would allow the energies of mankind to flourish as never before. A similar dream animated the rulers of Egypt, the emperor and empress of France, the engineers who designed the canal, and the shareholders who invested in it. In the middle of the nineteenth century, mankind was on the verge of conquering the world. Nature would be harnessed for the betterment of all. Disease and ignorance would be no more. Where superstition and archaic religion had once kept people fearful and timid, science and industry would allow human beings to claim the birthright of Eden.

Ferdinand de Lesseps was a potent combination of vision, pragmatism, and will. Without ...

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