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The History Of The Suez Canal

NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Zachary Karabell, author of Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal, about the dream to build a waterway that would unite the East and the West.


The Suez Canal is unclogged. Tugboats and dredgers freed the massive container ship called the Ever Given today, which means this shortcut connecting Europe and Asia is back in business. We're going to talk now about how this 120-mile man-made ditch became such an essential part of global trade. Zachary Karabell wrote the book "Parting The Desert: The Creation Of The Suez Canal," and he joins us from Wyoming.



SHAPIRO: The canal opened in 1869. How long had people been talking about doing something like this?

KARABELL: People had been talking about it for thousands of years. And there is some evidence of a canal in ancient Egypt, although it didn't go that full 120 miles between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. But the idea of, like, building a canal there, especially when the British began to expand into India and Asia and the French into Africa and Asia - that's when the idea of - wow, wouldn't it be a great idea if we didn't have to sail 7 or 8,000 miles around the Cape of Good Hope in order to get into the Indian Ocean when we could just go to the eastern Mediterranean and south? That would be great.

SHAPIRO: If people had been talking about it for thousands of years, why didn't it happen sooner? What was the big hurdle?

KARABELL: Well, part of it's political. Part of it's technological. Part of it's economic. All those things together combined with the fact that, really, the golden age of human beings and particularly in the West, thinking, OK, we can manipulate the physical world to the advantage of mankind - that's a mid-19th century European idea. And that's where the idea of the canal turns into the reality of the canal.

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