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Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 20, 2003

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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

This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (May 20, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375408835
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375408830
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,155,088 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By E. E Pofahl on July 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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 By Frank J. Konopka VINE VOICE on August 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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 By A Customer on July 3, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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 By Smallchief on January 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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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