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Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  123 ratings  ·  29 reviews
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 extraordin
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published May 20th 2003 by Knopf (first published 2003)
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Czarny Pies
Apr 18, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those interested in the history of the British Empire.
Shelves: european-history
In what was a very unfortunate decision, Zachary Karabell's "Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal" was assigned the Dewey Decimal Code of 386.43029 which implies that it is about "Transportation" and specifically "Inland waterway and Ferry Transportation" which it is not. Thus many GR readers have had the wrong expectations raised and had have been very unhappy. For those expecting something similar to David McCullogh's masterful "Path Between the Seas", the disappointment has been ...more
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
an excellent, and rather sad, reading. Not only covering the story of how the Suez Canal came to being, but also describing the contemporary politics and interactions covering players based in Egypt, France, Ottoman Empire and England. The last two chapters are sad as they briefly summarized the unfulfilled dreams that were set for the Canal and it's impact on Egypt's, and global economy and geopolitics.
It is a must read book
Feb 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Recommended for - Readers looking for the political history of the Suez Canal.
Not Recommended for - Technical detail seekers.

The creation of the Suez Canal was a monumental achievement. Ferdinand de Lesseps went through great efforts to complete his "borrowed" ambition.The book describes the political atmosphere during the creation of the canal.The creation of the suez canal company and its operations are followed through the creation of the canal.
Those looking for elaborate technical descriptio
Karabell is at his best when he's giving broad strokes history. I know very little about nineteenth century France, so I can't judge his accuracy, but the background he gives on Saint-Simonianism and the general intellectual climate of the era is fascinating. I enjoyed, too, the political history of the constant fencing between France and England, and the sections that looked at the rise of an economic middle class with money to spend on small-scale investing were interesting.

But what he's not v
"Parting the Desert" is a quick read that will fill-in the interested on the Suez Canal. However it reads more like an ode to Ferdinand de Lesseps and could have been his biography.

Frankly, I believe the story would have been better told if there had been a larger discussion of the technology and management developed rather than the battle of egos that delayed the project. A better story of accomplishment is "A Thread Across the Ocean by John Steele Gordon about the first transatlantic cable. In
Jun 21, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Definitely one of the best history books I've ever read. The story is written so compellingly as to be almost novel-like. ...more
Brien Desilets
Sep 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) was born in Versailles, France, to a diplomatic family. He enjoyed his own diplomatic career from 1825 to 1854, serving posts in Alexandria, Cairo, Barcelona, Madrid, Tunis, Rotterdam and Rome. He was influenced by the Saint-Simonians of the early 19th Century. In 1854, after retiring from diplomatic service, Lesseps received a concession from Said Pasha of Egypt to build the Suez Canal. When stationed in Egypt 20 years earlier, Lesseps had read Napoleon’s memo o ...more
I read this book as part of my research for a foreign policy discussion on "The Red Sea."This is a surprisingly engaging history of the building of the Suez Canal by Ferdinard de Lesseps, a Frenchman.Others had dreamt about a canal, as far back as antiquity but de Lesseps ultimately succeeded in completing this colossal effort of joining the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. It was not a straight forward project especially because Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and the Sultans were not ...more
May 15, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: egypt
The rating here has nothing to do with the achievement of the Sues Canal or the men who made it happen. That was a sheer force of will and an engineering, political triumph. The telling of the Canal, though, included too much backstory and not enough on the actual building, for my taste. However, if you are looking for a story of leadership where compromise, patience, and grit come together, Ferdinand Lessep is your man.

My hope was to read about the building process of this canal, with the impa
Cyndy Clayton
Apr 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved it. Hugely dramatic history, and it's much more about the international diplomacy that was necessary than about the engineering. Author knew how to make each of a large cast of characters come alive, well enough for a reader to remember the names and personalities when the same characters were referenced again in later chapters. ...more
Libby Beyreis
Feb 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating and enraging. The story of how a borderline con artist convinced rulers of multiple countries (not to mention countless investors) to finance a project that ended up being built at the cost of bankrupting a country. Reading this makes the nature of our current interactions with the middle east make so much more sense.
Jan 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
History, politics and industry.

Not necessarily the most exciting subjects, but this book left me at times enthralled, at others exasperated.

The strength and influence of nations, and how the fate of communities can change based on the whim of just one individual.

Highly recommend this to anyone who is at all interested in geopolitics.
Mar 03, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The story itself is interesting, but I just could not get into the style of the author. The journey was frustrating, because I had really high hopes for the book. Perhaps others will find the book enjoyable, but it was just a struggle to get through.
Jan 24, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-own, history
A good book, though mostly a geopolitical history of the canal, with a lack of significant detail on the actual engineering problems that were encountered.
Jeff Jellets
Feb 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction

“Nearby is another orphaned stone pedestal, where a statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps once stood.”

With Parting the Desert, historian Zachary Karabell pens an enthralling history of the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century: the construction of the Suez Canal. Linking Occident and Orient, the canal becomes the cause célèbre of nations, wrapped in the great imperial chess match between England and France and inexorably bound to the aspirations of an upstart Egypt and their masters in a
Matt Kuhns
Nov 29, 2012 rated it liked it
Fairly good, if rarely rising to the level of greatness.

The book gets somewhat repetitive, at times, in telling of the extended struggles over money and political support. It features some interesting bits of history along the way, though. For example, the much-different character of pre-fundamentalist Arabian societies compared with what is at least the prevailing image of those societies today. And the real, conscious effort made by leadership in some of those societies to adopt “western” adv
Lauren Albert
Oct 04, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-world
Not just about the building of the Suez Canal, this book manages to teach a lot of history. What was the relationship between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire (in theory and in reality)? Why did a canal built by a Frenchman and funded by an Egyptian leader end up owned and managed by the British? Considering that, why were British politicians so vehemently against the building of the Canal? A very interesting glimpse of history and an excellent history of the building of the Canal.
Todd Stockslager
Jun 09, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Boring take on what sounded like it would have been an interesting subject. Mostly about the byzantine wanderings of Lessep, the Canal's driving force, through the politics and marketing of the canal, with pedestrian writing.

Brings to mind Steve Martin's line from Planes Trains and Automobiles: "These little stories you tell. They should have a point!"
William G Russell
Dec 18, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very detailed overview

Inasmuch as I worked in Ismalia and lived two years on the
Bitter Lake, I was fascinated by the references to them. The back and forth dialogue of the history was a bit wordy.
Sep 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good primer which is largely narrative in nature. At times Karabell can be rather vague and paint broad strokes which seem rather lopsided (perspective wise), but its not exactly an academic text and probably a compromise for easy reading.
Adam Morris
A very interesting account of all the players associated with the venture from inception to completion.
Stuart Blades
Sep 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A terrific book, engaging history at it's best, and incidentally almost a primer on the source of discord between the Arab world and the West ...more
Great overview of the people and politics involved. For me, it's only 3 stars because I wanted way more engineering and that was mostly glossed over. ...more
Aug 08, 2008 rated it liked it
More about moving minds of political leaders and investors than sand. Shows that canals were the monorail fever of the 19th century.
Kevin Donahue
Jul 27, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Very dissapointed. There was virtually no technical content or any details about the construction methods, use of labor, machinery, etc. There were no diagrams, there was not even a map!
Wayne Lorentzen
Oct 08, 2011 rated it liked it
McCullough's "Path Between The Seas" is much better ...more
Jansen Wee
A very good and enjoyable read. As one other reviewer said previously, the author does not waste his words or sentences to convey his intended meaning.
rated it liked it
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