(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Zachary Karabell’s Parting the Desert is a well-written and scholarly account of how one of the most important waterways in human history was conceived and constructed. Karabell concentrates on the ideas and activities of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the other prominent persons involved in the project, but his narration also provides abundant information about geography, cultural factors, political intrigue, and engineering problems. Throughout the book, Karabell demonstrates the extent to which the project was closely intertwined with the rivalries of the European powers within the region of the decaying Ottoman Empire, an imperial conflict known as the Eastern question.

The book is based on a prodigious amount of research in both primary and secondary sources. Karabell makes frequent references to the archives of the Suez Canal Company and the papers of Prosper Enfantin, both housed in France. In addition to using earlier works on the canal by J. E. Nourse and Lord Kinross, Karabell was able to study the published correspondence of Lesseps and other participants. He was also able to meet Ferdinand’s descendent Alexander de Lesseps, who provided him with significant information about the history of his family. Karabell reports that there are very few Arabic sources on the subject, either in archives or publications.

The author observes that the idea of a canal to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea goes back to ancient times. At least as early as the sixth century b.c.e., the Egyptians had constructed a canal that allowed small boats to travel from the Nile River to the Red Sea. Following several cycles of disrepair and redigging, this canal was entirely abandoned after the discovery of the trade route around the southern coast of Africa. Late in the eighteenth century, French emperor Napoleon’s engineers investigated the possibility of digging a new maritime canal across the Egyptian isthmus. They concluded that such a project was probably impossible, in large part because they incorrectly calculated that the elevation levels of the two seas differed by about thirty feet, which would have meant a major problem of flooding.

Napoleon’s expedition had the effect of instilling in France a passion for Egypt. Soon thereafter, Prosper Enfantin, a religious disciple of Henri de Saint-Simon, did even more than Napoleon’s engineers to popularize the dream of linking the two seas. With his mystical perspective, Enfantin looked upon a canal as a means for achieving a spiritual connection between the East and the West. He and several followers traveled to Egypt with hopes of constructing a canal, but the rather strange delegation was unable to convince any political or financial leaders that such an ambitious project was possible. The reigning pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, known as the founder of modern Egypt, agreed to meet with Enfantin in 1834, but the pasha had no interest in digging a canal, in large part because of his strong distrust of European imperialism.

Enfantin was a stubborn man who refused to abandon his dream. Returning to France, he organized the Suez Canal Study Group, which employed a number of outstanding engineers to do serious research into the feasibility of digging a canal. In 1847 the study group sent Robert Stephenson and other engineers to Egypt to conduct a land survey of the isthmus. The engineers concluded that there was little difference in the elevations of the two seas, which made the proposed canal seem more feasible than had been previously thought.

When Enfantin had visited Egypt, his ideas apparently had a profound impact on the thinking of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was then in Egypt as a diplomatic representative of the French government. By a strange coincidence, the diplomat developed an extremely close relationship with Muhammad Ali, who decided in 1835 to give Lesseps the supervision his thirteen-year-old son, Muhammad Said. The pasha was especially desirous that the corpulent boy should lose weight. Lesseps, however, disregarded Ali’s instructions and allowed the teenager to indulge in his craving for food, especially pasta. Lesseps took Said horseback riding almost daily, and Said came to consider him a mentor and a close friend. This friendship continued when Said later lived and studied in France.

Karabell describes Lesseps as “a potent combination of vision, pragmatism, and will.” Without his vision, Lesseps could never have supported such a diverse group of people to invest so many resources into digging a canal across a hundred miles of almost uninhabited desert. Without his pragmatism, he could never have organized a venture that required so many technological innovations, including huge machines to dredge the soil and the largest jetty ever constructed. Without his stubborn will, he would never have been able to succeed when confronted with so many political rivalries, economic challenges, contradictory agendas, and engineering disagreements. Karabell writes: “A canal might have been built without...

(The entire section is 2046 words.)