Friday, May 11, 2012

sailing the sands

I am a sucker for big engineering projects. 

Bridges.  Buildings.  Highways.

But canals top the list.

I began my recent cruise spree in 2000.  My cousin had tried luring me onto cruise ships for a couple of years.  But nothing worked until he dangled the Panama canal in front of me.

It was another of my boyhood dreams.  Born of a history lesson in the sixth grade.

Teddy Roosevelt.  Big shovels.  Yellow fever deaths.  French failure.  Could there have been a better recipe to fuel the passage of puberty?

And, of course, that French failure was managed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man who was responsible for the success of the Suez canal.  A completely different project.  But still a big one.

Mediterranean leaders had dreamed of a canal through the Isthmus of Suez for at least two thousands years.  On a map, it seemed so easy.  A small neck of land separated the Mediterranean Sea from the trade routes of the Indian Ocean.

A canal would not only avoid the need for land-based caravans subject to the whims of the Ottoman sultan.  It would also allow the European empires to swiftly move their navies and avoid the need of long routes around Africa.

For the British, it would be a way to protect their possessions in India,  For the French it would be a potential valve to choke off British ambitions.

And whenever the political stakes are that high, men of flexible principles are often called on to prove that relativism can work as well in ethics as its namesake does in physics.

Cue Ferdinand de Lesseps, The perfect man to pull off the project with crony capitalism, nepotism, misinformation, and fraud.  It is no accident that Tom Stoppard lifted the surname as shorthand for avarice and ambition in Shakespeare in Love.

De Lesseps was not trained as an engineer.  But he had two far more effective transferrable skills.  Through his diplomatic background, he was friends with the then-ruling family of Egypt.  And, better than that, he was the cousin of the French empress, Eugenie.

He was the Professor Harold Hill of his time.  With connections.

He would play both cards shamelessly in misleading the directors of the private company he formed to build the canal.  Lying and bullying until, after ten years of construction, the canal opened in 1869.

As smug as the French were with their success, the British had not been outmaneuvered in the least.  The British government bought up Egypt’s share of the canal and became the company’s largest shareholder. 

Leaving Napoleon III, who had just suffered a foreign policy catastrophe in Mexico when he abandoned his puppet to a firing squad, with another failure to his name.  (Of course, in a matter of years, the Prussians would relieve him of any further worries.)

The international compact providing the neutrality of the canal fell apart in 1956 when President Nasser nationalized the canal.  The canal was closed for six months due to ships sunk during a French-British-Israeli invasion.  And then closed between 1967and 1975 as a result of two wars between Egypt and Israel.

The Egyptians are still fortifying the east bank of the canal.  Egyptian army engineers are installing pontoon bridge platforms for quick military access to Sinai -- in the hope of avoiding another humiliating loss to Israel when the next war comes.

The canal is now opened to ships of all nations.  With the exception of supertankers, most ships can transit it.

We did in our large cruise ship.  It was an odd sensation to wake up and discover the Sinai desert on our port side and the greener irrigated fields of Egypt on our starboard side

Unlike the Panama canal, there are no locks.  Merely an almost-straight line across most of the desert, then a series of lakes before the canal terminates at Suez.

Even though it is a sea level canal, the Egyptian laborers who removed the sand from the canal’s bed were nearly as amazing as those who built the great pyramids at Giza.  And they completed their task in half the time of their ancient ancestors.

Like most canals, traffic passes through in convoys.  We formed up with a line of freighters and tugs in the Mediterranean at Port Said and traveled south in single file.  While other ships waited for our passage to begin their journey north.

During our transit, a large number of passengers in swimwear crowded the pool deck rail to wave at Egyptians along the canal.  As if we were some sort of royal procession.

Several times we heard yells from the men on shore.  Which, of course, were interpreted as friendly native greetings.

A Syrian woman standing next to me started laughing.  She said: “They are telling the women to dress up -- to put on some clothes.”  In an Arab country, that is a bit more than the old joke about the aged stripper to “put it on.”

I suspect I will never pass through the canal again.  But it is one of those modern engineering projects that are easily understood.  De Lesseps was a scoundrel who used all the tricks of a big enterprise to avoid the free market.

In Suez, he succeeded.  In Panama, the free market caught up with him.  And he failed.

I suppose there is a lesson in there somewhere for politicians.  But we will let it rest today.  After all, this is a trip to celebrate being a boy.


Irene said...

Just how irritated are those Egyptian fields?  Hope you have a safe journey through the Red Sea. 

Steve Cotton said...

 Yikes!  Better fix that.

Muycontento said...

It was about the last French success with the outside world, coming before the Panama Canal, WWI, WWI, loss of colonies and Vietnam just to mention the big ones.

Andean said...

Do you remember this history from school or... I'm just guessing it must have been one of your favorite subjects.

Curious said...

Why are the fields so irritated?

Mommy with Commuter Husband said...

Steve - will not surprise you that Oldest Son's favorite 6th grade subject is history ...

Steve Cotton said...

 I have always loved history.  And it was one of my majors in college.

Steve Cotton said...

 I was thinking of him the other day.  There are two Australian boys about the age of yours.  The eldest boy is also a reader.  They will show up in the Petra title.

Steve Cotton said...

 Maybe their systems are upset from not enough water. :-}

Steve Cotton said...

 I count Edith Piaf as a success.  But the list is rather short.

Andean said...

Not a subject that irrigated my mind in college...interesting now--somewhat, if art is involved. :)

Steve Cotton said...

 As I age, I have started taking time to relate my studies to one another.  Universities have a way of dividing up music, painting, history, architecture, languages, mathematics, and history as if they bore no relationship to one another.  But, taken together, it is who we are.  It has taken me a long time to get there.

John Calypso said...

Your interest in engineering of passage ways caused me to recall the film Fitzcarraldo'- have you seen it?

Fitzcarraldo's plan was to cross where two rivers nearly
meet with his huge old steamer ship with the manpower of enlisted natives. They physically pull
his three-story, 320-ton steamer over the muddy 40° hillside portage. An amazing film - I think it was based on a true story. There is even a movie about the making of the film getting that ship through the passage way.

One of my favorite movies ;-)

Steve Cotton said...

 I haven't seen it.  But it is going on my list.  I doubt Netflix streams it.

John Calypso said...

 How exciting - I know when you see that film it will remind me of you - I will be stuck in the archives of your brain - because that film will get high on some list of yours.

I should mention that another Herzog film: Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Also starring Klaus Kinski. WOW if you have not seen that one! You are lucky to have those films in your future because they are truly a couple of the best films ever made.I guarantee it!

Steve Cotton said...

 Two new films are on the list.  I like Kinski.  A lot.  I may have seen Aguirre.  Was that the film where his son was lost in the Amazon and grew up with natives?

John Calypso said...

 Aguirre, Wrath of God”, about a doomed expedition in South America,

The Aguirre of the title is a member of Hernando Pizarro's mad 1560 expedition to find EI Dorado.

I think it was on Time Magazines 100 best films ever made (certainly should be - both of them).

I think if you saw it you would definitely remember ;-)

Steve Cotton said...

 It is going on The List.

Curious said...

You're a funny guy.

Steve Cotton said...

 I do my best.