A Man, a Plan, a Canal


They called it the Overland Route, its initials capitalized to underscore its imperial importance, and for years it was the only sensible way for anyone of significance to get from England out to Queen Victoria's possessions in India and the East. A remarkable Royal Navy officer named Thomas Waghorn had created it in the late 1830's -- a wide sand track that stretched 84 miles across the dunes from Egypt's Mediterranean resort of Alexandria down to the Red Sea port of El-Suweis. It had seven fully staffed relay stations ready to provide travelers en route with good food, fine French wines and teams of fresh horses to help them on their way.

The great liners of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company called once a week to discharge their passengers and mails at what came to be known as Alex; and some days later the weary and sand-stained pilgrims found their India-bound boats ready and waiting for them at what was called the Port of Suez. The P. & O. contentedly ran the Overland Route for nearly 30 years -- until a Frenchman named Ferdinand de Lesseps did in 1869 what no Englishman had the foresight or temerity to do. As Zachary Karabell reminds us in his superb book, ''Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal,'' de Lesseps dug a canal all the way to Suez, roughly parallel to, and so competing with, the Overland, putting the route out of business at a stroke (though de Lesseps courteously erected a statue to Waghorn, since ''he opened the route, and we followed him''). At the same time, de Lesseps created one of the most crucially important and contentious artifices ever made in mankind's history.

For years the Suez Canal was a symbol both of exotic convenience and of European imperial might. The British soon became the largest shareholders -- thanks to a diplomatic coup by Benjamin Disraeli, who (courtesy of the Rothschilds' bank) had his government purchase the canal company shares that belonged to Cairo's near-bankrupt Ottoman khedive for four million pounds. The British effectively ran the canal, and Egypt too, for most of its commercially valuable existence.

Travel through it then became a rite of passage for a generation. Who could forget the legendary gully-gully men who came aboard at Port Said, juggling with the tiny chickens they produced from beneath their ragged galabias? Who was not tempted by the smooth-talking straw-hat-and-topee salesmen from Simon Artz, oleaginously reminding the fairer-skinned passengers of the perils of the blazing Bombay sun? And though lexical purists dispute the etymology, who does not want to believe the story that the word ''posh'' derives from the labeling of baggage for the choicest and coolest cabins on the trans-Suez liners, those that were sited Port Out, Starboard Home?

The mystique of Suez always far outweighed its real importance -- for though its existence did permit the passage of warships to the troublesome Orient, it was rarely a truly successful commercial enterprise. In the end it caused far more irritation and cost far too much to protect and preserve than its makers ever imagined.

In reality, that is what most of the world's great canals -- like most of the world's great dams -- truly are: immense, ill-conceived memorials to human vanity. To stop up a river or to join up two seas, titanic ambitions that allow men to feel themselves temporarily gifted with godlike powers, are ventures that have rarely proved as worthwhile as their creators imagined. Suez was no exception.

Those who yearned for a canal across the Isthmus of Suez that would connect East to West, Old World to New World, Orient to Occident, Europe to Asia, became positively intoxicated by the notion. As Karabell, the author of several books, including ''The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election,'' points out, there were French dreamers who supposed that the world demanded the kind of unity that only canals like this could bring about: ''The world had been sundered. Male stood apart from female, religion stood opposed to science, and East was cut off from West. In this duality . . . all suffered.'' And so Suez just had to be dug -- not so much to bring prosperity to its owners as to bring a metaphysical wholeness to the planet, a wholeness that nature had been impertinent enough to risk by placing, so very inconveniently, 100 miles of sand where there more properly should be 100 miles of sea.

Karabell writes with the authority and power of a gifted and fascinated Arabist. He tells the story of de Lesseps's vision and integrity, as well as the daring and brio that enabled him to create, in a scant 10 years, a canal that -- whatever its commercial or political realities -- magnificently enabled great seagoing vessels to pass between the dunes, and to pass with a casualness that utterly belied the hard work involved in allowing them to do so.

It is haunting, for instance, to recall the wonderfully dramatic scene in David Lean's ''Lawrence of Arabia'' that illustrates Suez so well: our sudden vast surprise at hearing the blare of a ship's horn across the desert, that massive wall of steel sweeping so incredibly across our field of view and then the incongruous vision of a liner's beflagged funnel sliding with perfect and utterly confident horizontality among the scimitar-curved mountains of sand. What Karabell is at pains to point out is the monumental engineering achievement that helped to bring such miracles about, and the persuasive power of de Lesseps in winning Ottoman pashas to his side whenever problems arose.

De Lesseps also persuaded, or perhaps forced, thousand of laborers to perform tasks of Stakhanovite proportions to get the job finished in time. Only it very nearly wasn't. In the late summer of 1869 a gigantic rock was found barring all passage through the Chalufa hills, in the very south of the project, and it was not until the last moment that the khedive gave his permission for hundreds of tons of gunpowder to be brought in to blow it up, and so allow the waters of the Red Sea fully to mingle with those of the Mediterranean for the first time. An immense flotilla then passed through, with wild celebrations -- not the least of them the inaugural performance of Verdi's specially written ''Aida'' at the Cairo Opera House. (Verdi chose to stay away.)

Suez lasted without controversy for the better part of the following 90 years, making modest money for its owners, providing a metaphor for the globe-girdling fragility of empire and providing an excuse for Britain's long and inexcusable quasi occupation of Egypt. However, and as might have been anticipated, the sheer effrontery of the notion that a waterway passing through Egypt might always be controlled by two foreign imperial powers meant that Britain and France eventually came into conflict with the increasingly nationalistic mood of the Egyptians, as well as with the generally anti-imperial mood of the postwar world. When Gamal Abdel Nasser suddenly took over the canal in 1956 (his use of the name ''Ferdinand de Lesseps'' in his speech being the prearranged signal for his troops to move in and seize it), even America bowed to what London and Paris still, myopically and stubbornly, refused to believe was the new realpolitik: Washington declined to support their imperially motivated (as well as cunning and underhanded) attack on Egypt, with the result that the Europeans had to withdraw their soldiers and accept humiliation, and along with it the figurative end of their colonial histories. Britain even now finds it a little hard to believe: ''Suez'' is still a word full of melancholy associations for Britons of a certain age.

AS it happens, the canal, since the events of 1956, has quite frankly faded in importance too. It is badly run, many modern ships are too broad of beam and have to go around the Cape as before and the cities on the canal's banks -- Port Said, Ismailia, Suez City -- are foul sinks that no one much wants to visit. Such exoticism as Suez once enjoyed has now all but evaporated, and such economic importance as it was once thought to possess has long gone. The statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps was blown up in 1956 (like that of Saddam Hussein, only its shoes remained) and much of the glorious story of the Suez of which he dreamed has been forgotten with him.

But this entirely splendid book now stands to remind us of his remarkable vision and all that he created in consequence -- even though in retrospect Suez seems so vainglorious and slightly ridiculous a project. History might have worked out rather more agreeably had traders and travelers been content to stick with Waghorn and his Overland Route, fine French wines and all.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/20/books/a-...