Parting the Desert (Hardcover)

The Creation of the Suez Canal

By Zachary Karabell

Knopf, 9780375408830, 320pp.

Publication Date: May 20, 2003

Other Editions of This Title:
Paperback (5/11/2004)

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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.

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.

Praise For Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal

“Karabell writes with the authority and power of a gifted arabist…an entirely splendid book.” --Simon Winchester, The New York Times Book Review

“Karabell tells the story of a crucial development in the history of the modern world with economy and lively grace.” --Los Angeles Times

“Zachary Karabell reminds us in this concise and pleasantly digressive history [that] the waterway’s creation stirred great passions in the 19th century.”–The Economist

“Read Karabell’s wonderfully written book to remember the dreams people had about the Middle East–and what became of them.”– Newsweek

"A fascinating saga: of diplomacy involving primarily the French and the Egyptians, of raising gigantic sums of money, of overcoming massive geographical and technological obstacles long before the invention of mechanized earth-moving equipment. . . . The business aspects sometimes seem as if they are ripped from last month's headlines." —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“A rich and engaging narrative of one of the greatest engineering feats of the nineteenth century [with] resonance beyond its time.” —Alexander Stille, author of The Future of the Past

“An absorbing, well-written narrative. . . . [Karabell gives] dimension to the personalities, eccentricities and strengths of key figures. . . . [A] fascinating account.” —San Antonio Express-News

“Karabell tells his story elegantly . . . distilling a large cast spread across several countries into a manageable one. . . . A gifted crafter of sentences, Karabell seldom wastes a sentence as he offers one well-chosen anecdote after another that sheds light on the greater drama of this important and historic construction project.” —Charleston Gazette

“A fascinating, epic, elegiac story. Zachary Karabell’s account of the political intrigue, quixotic dreamers, and engineering genius that led to the construction of the Suez Canal vividly brings to life one of the underappreciated marvels of the modern world. The book is a triumph of history and art.” —Bruce Feiler, author of Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

“A tale shot through with . . . unexpected twists. . . . Karabell tells his story concisely and with narrative skill, peppering the account with many wry anecdotes.” —The Jerusalem Post

“Engrossing. . . . As accessible and vividly written as a novel. . . . It maintains a page-turning pace. Superbly researched, it is a volume to keep.” —The Sunday Times

“Zachary Karabell has written an absorbing narrative. . . . [He] traces with skill the complex diplomatic and engineering feat. . . . [and] prompts reflections . . . about the futility of human effort and the evanescence of glory.” —Times Literary Supplement

“Excellent and well-written. . . . A riveting story, and Karabell tells it handsomely. . . . An exceptional book, one of the best of its kind I have read. . . . A splendid account of a great project.” —Sunday Herald

“Well-researched and very well-written . . . The tens of thousands of the Egyptian fellahin peasantry who dug the canal . . . did indeed part the desert, and their story cannot have been better told than by this fine book.” —The Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Fascinating. . . . Elegiac. . . . Parting the Desert is an excellent story, skillfully told. Even those who are bored to tears by canals, whose eyes glaze over at the first mention of engineering, will find themselves, as this reader did, racing through it.” —Justin Marozzi, Literary Review