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Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal [Kindle Edition]

Zachary Karabell
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $18.00
Kindle Price: $11.84
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

Award-winning historian Zachary Karabell tells the epic story of the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century--the building of the Suez Canal-- and shows how it changed the world.

The dream was a waterway that would unite the East and the West, and the ambitious, energetic French diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps was the mastermind behind the project. Lesseps saw the project through fifteen years of financial challenges, technical obstacles, and political intrigues. He convinced ordinary French citizens to invest their money, and he won the backing of Napoleon III and of Egypt's prince Muhammad Said. But the triumph was far from perfect: the construction relied heavily on forced labor and technical and diplomatic obstacles constantly threatened completion. The inauguration in 1869 captured the imagination of the world. The Suez Canal was heralded as a symbol of progress that would unite nations, but its legacy is mixed. Parting the Desert is both a transporting narrative and a meditation on the origins of the modern Middle East.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In an ably researched and well-told account, Karabell (The Last Campaign) chronicles the origins and legacy of one of the greatest undertakings of the 19th century. While the construction of the Suez Canal across a 100-mile stretch of arid Egypt to link the Mediterranean and Red seas was largely (and rightly) seen as a marvel of engineering and planning, Karabell demonstrates that the political machinations behind the project were just as intricate and daunting. European involvement in the canal stretched back to Napoleon, but the two main players in its execution were the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Said. The book skillfully outlines the intrigue among their supporters and detractors without getting bogged down in meticulous detail, and it does the same for the exacting creation of the canal itself. But Karabell does an especially fine job of balancing the ballyhoo and symbolic grandeur of what the canal was meant to be and the more or less forgotten entity it has become. He quotes de Lesseps as saying to Said, "'The names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored. The name of the Prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity.'" Ultimately, he was wrong, and the canal became a mixed blessing for Egypt at best. But Karabell's book is more sensitive than damning, and it provides a fascinating look at an early attempt to bridge East and West at a time when such history is particularly relevant.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* A middle-aged ex-diplomat rusticating in the French countryside hardly sounds like someone who could bring off an audacious feat of engineering, but such was the case with Ferdinand de Lesseps. Known to readers of David McCullough's classic The Path between the Seas (1977), de Lesseps later came to grief attempting to carve a canal through Panama. In depicting de Lesseps' glory days on the Suez Canal, Karabell proves just as able a raconteur as McCullough, as he thematically contrasts the dreams invested in the construction of the Suez Canal with its fading importance today. Long gone, Karabell notes, is a statue of de Lesseps that overlooked his creation; vanished, too, is the dreamy romanticism invested in all things Egyptian by French artistic and progressive thought in the first half of the 1800s. Although de Lesseps was fascinated with the exotic, Karabell appraises him as a salesman who viewed the canal as a way to etch his name in history. Because de Lesseps' personal connections to potentates were crucial to his success, Karabell amplifies his story with figures from the worlds of diplomacy, finance, and French and Egyptian societies. A brilliant narrative. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 1587 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (August 26, 2009)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #366,718 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars POLITICS & ENGINEERING: Building the Suez Canal July 9, 2003
Arguably building the Suez Canal presented political challenges and problems as great as the engineering problems. The author, Zachary Karabell, does an excellent job outlining the political challenges encountered in planning and constructing the canal noting "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." The text observes, "The canal was not just a monumental act of engineering and organization. It was the culmination of ideals and ambitions, and a symbol of all that the culture of the 19th century held dear. It was a hundred-mile-long trench that signaled the triumph of science, the creativity of mankind, and the beginning of a wonderful future."
Incredibly, in 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte when occupying Alexandria, Egypt investigated digging a canal connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The author narrates the many political differences over a proposed canal especially the opposition of Britain. In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps (out of a government job) adopted and promoted the dream of building the Suez Canal but he was strongly opposed by a group of French socialist technocrats and the British government. The book notes "Most of Egypt was desert and had been ruled for centuries by Turkish lords." In November 1854, the viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, who "...was intoxicated by the promise of an Egypt restored to prominence and no longer under the control of the Ottoman Empire..." in 1854 gave a written concession to Lesseps to build a canal updating the concession in 1856. Lesseps wanted to follow a direct route, but canal opponents used the route argument to delay or defeat the project.
The Suez Canal Company was to be a publicly held stock company.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A man, a plan, a canal August 21, 2003
This is a very well-written book on the history of the Suez Canal, from the inception of the idea for its digging until today. There's not a lot of description of the actual work that was involved; we are primarily given the political and diplomatic machinations that were involved in the beginning of the work, and continuing until it opened, and beyond. There are thumbnail sketches of the major players, and they were quite interesting. There are also occasional mistakes of fact in the book, which should have been caught by a good editor. The first time Napoleon III is introduced, he's called Napoleon's son, but later in the book he is correctly identified as his nephew. Also, the date for the conquest of Constantinople is given as two different years in two different places. They didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book, but they were distracting nevertheless. Not knowing a lot about the history involved in the Suez Canal, I enjoyed this book very much.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars compelling, poetic book July 3, 2003
By A Customer
Parting the Desert tells the story of one of the most important engineering feats of the 19th century. I knew about the canal mostly because of the 1956 crisis, but this book takes you back to its orginis. Parting the Desert is a wonderful read, and it highlights what people can achieve when they come up with a dream and dedicate their lives to it. Who knew that the idea for the modern canal began with Napoloen Bonaparte, or that the Statue of Liberty was orginally designed for the entrance of the Suez Canal? One man, Ferdinand de Lesseps, was the driver of the work, but he was aided by many others, such as the emperor and empress of France, the rulers of Egypt, and talented engineers. But what makes the book so much richer is that it also had a tinge of sadness. Karabell celebrates the people who made the canal, but he also puts the accomplishment in context and shows how the subsequent history of the canal in the 20th century didn't really live up to the dreams and ambitions of its creators. A marvelous book that makes you think about the world today, especially the Middle East, and how it came to be.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Building the Canal January 17, 2005
This is the story of the building of the Suez Canal. The idea of a canal first gained currency with the invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon. Several odd mystical intellectuals promoted the canal but the leader came to be diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, a practical, ambitious fellow who conceived the canal as a monument to himself. The canal was finished in 1869 and royalty from all over Europe flocked to Egypt for its inauguration.

Most of the book concerns Lesseps and his diplomatic and commercial machinations to get both political approval for the canal and the money to build it. The most interesting of the politicians in the book are the Egyptian leaders, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Said, and Ismail, whose effort to westernize while staving off the West were ultimately futile. One wonders how history might have been different if these three Egyptian leaders and Egypt might have been treated with more consideration by the Western powers. Lesseps, much as one might admire his steadfastness, is not a very likeable person, nor are any of the other Westerners in the book.

Karabell is an excellent writer and the book never lags in attention. As one person's opinion, however, I would have appreciated a little less focus on wacko intellectuals and high-society hijinks and more on the challenges faced by the engineers and the construction workers on the ground. There is only one unreadable map -- when will publishers learn that good maps are essential to a book? -- and not enough detail about the extraordinary engineering challenges faced by the builders.

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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful historical book
Writing a history book is one thing, but when you can tell a wonderful story at the same time it's a thing of beauty. Read more
Published 2 months ago by M. Brown
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Its detailed history, but it tells the story.
Published 5 months ago by Shirley - California
4.0 out of 5 stars Great read on a voyage transiting the canal
So glad I found this. I read it during the sea days preceding our Suez Canal entry. Fascinating history of the politics surrounding this project. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Frances C. Morrier
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but not compelling
The Suez Canal is a fascinating adventure and a testament to Ferdinand de Lesseps' tenacity and diplomatic skills. Read more
Published on December 4, 2012 by Jane C. Webb
1.0 out of 5 stars politically corrrect
I was looking forward to reading an account of this fantastic feat, in the context of the Industrial Revolution, 19th century adventurism, enlightened colonialism. Read more
Published on April 2, 2012 by Lawrence Bohme
4.0 out of 5 stars If you build a canal in a desert, they will come?
Karabell has written the definitive work on how the Suez Canal was built. The political, diplomatic, and jingoist intrigues stretching across several deserts and continents is... Read more
Published on November 24, 2011 by john purcell
5.0 out of 5 stars review of a greek,born and grown up in suez canal
although i did not finish it yet,i am sure that it is a very good book,with many details,absolutely useful for anyone interested in this very important part of the world.
Published on February 20, 2011 by isidoros
3.0 out of 5 stars Only Half a Book
I liked this book, because I didn't know anything about this project and wanted to know more about politics and technology in the Middle East. Read more
Published on August 15, 2010 by John Durkee
4.0 out of 5 stars How it got built against the odds...
The idea of the Suez Canal, a means of connecting Asia to Europe for purposes of trade and power, was not new when Lesseps began his quest to build it. Read more
Published on June 9, 2007 by James D. Crabtree
4.0 out of 5 stars A political essay on the Suez Canal
I was expecting a book on the construction of the Suez canal but there is scant information about the engineering accomplishment. Read more
Published on March 13, 2006 by Malcolm J. Mckay
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