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

4.1 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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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
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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

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: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,513,844 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.

Unfortunately, I got only the former.

Author Karabell spends most of the book on the history of Egypt in the 19th century focusing on political relationships between France, Turkey, Ferdinand De Lesseps (FDL), and Egypt. FDL, France's emperor Napoleon, and the three leaders of Egypt in the mid 1850s are the major characters. Their interplay and fate is Karabell's story.

FDL was driven to be someone in his time, and the Suez Canal made him someone in the late 1800s. It was his political skill, connections, and drive to avoid failure which brought the project to fruition. What I hadn't known, and was well covered by Karabell was the fate of the canal -- considering what country opposed it from the beginning to the end (read the book to know more).

What I didn't get from this book was any detailed sense of the technical details of the creation of the canal. This was a main interest because I am an engineer. I doubt Karabell spent 1,000 words in 200+ pages on technical details. The other thing I didn't get from this book was a useful map to follow what was done where. Yes, there is an apparently complete overall map. But it's printed in a non-contrasty way which makes it hard to read anything. I used Google Maps to find places which were mentioned in the book about which I was reading.

In summary, this is a useful book -- worth reading for the political context. But it's nearly silent about technology and hard to follow without a good map. Minus 1 star for each defect.
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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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