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Dissertation abstracts

Urbanism, environment and the buildings of the Anglo-Egyptian Nile valley, 1880s-1920s

PhD thesis in Architectural History, under the supervision of Professor Alex Bremner and Dr. Richard Anderson, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, September 2020
Sam Grinsell

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Index géographique :

Afrique, Afrique du Nord, Égypte

Index chronologique :

XIXe siècle
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Texte intégral

1“Urbanism, environment and the building of the Anglo-Egyptian Nile valley, 1880s-1920s” examines the ways in which imperial officials and others attempted to transform the built environment in Egypt and Sudan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This history is used as a way to read the broader project of Nile valley imperialism. This shows that architecture and urbanism were elements of a broad project of environmental management, encompassing attempts to restructure the landscape, hydrology, agriculture, politics and society of the region. Whereas existing studies have treated hydrology, politics, or economics as the keys to understanding imperialism in the Nile valley, this project emphasises the connections between these various fields and their realisation through the management of space.

  • 1 For an overview of the Nile’s hydrology and history see Henri J. Dumont, (ed.), The Nile: Origin, (...)
  • 2 See Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, Berkeley, CA; Los Angele (...)
  • 3 Gilbert F. White, “The Environmental Effects of the High Dam at Aswan,” Environment, vol. 30, no.  (...)

2The River Nile flows through the structure of this thesis.1 The world’s longest river rises as the White Nile in the lakes of Uganda, and as the Blue Nile in the highlands of Ethiopia. These two flows gather together in Sudan’s capital region, and are reinforced by the Atbarah tributary to the north. After this point, the river runs for 1,670 miles through the desert with no new water added. The annual flood carries silt from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean, depositing it along the river banks to produce some of the world’s most fertile land.2 At least, such was the system until twentieth-century dams began to store vast quantities of water at Aswan.3

3The Nile is of course essential to the human settlements of Egypt and Sudan. Its course shapes the location and form of the cities and agriculture of the region. The nineteenth century saw momentous shifts in how hydrology was conceived: whereas for millennia people had constructed small-scale barrages and channels to harvest the Nile’s floodwaters, now there were grand attempts to force the river to dispense its water in a more reliable way. Muhammad Ali, the modernising Khedive of Cairo under the Ottoman Empire from 1805 to his death in 1848, was the first to call for designs that would deliver perennial irrigation. A system of barrages was constructed to divert the river into various storage culverts that could be used to store water through a longer period of the year. During the decades of mounting financial crisis that followed Ali’s death, this system fell into disrepair as money was ploughed into, among other grand projects, the Suez Canal. This neglect persisted for some time under the British, but ultimately they would attempt the most ambitious Nile project so far: the construction of the first Aswan Dam, now sometimes referred to as the Low Dam to distinguish it from the later High Dam built under President Nasser. The first full damming on the Nile was intended to provide truly perennial irrigation to the cotton fields of northern Egypt, creating a vast crop to feed the global economy and pay off Egypt’s debts. At the outset, it is important to understand that the river defines this region. In order to keep this clear throughout the text, the thesis itself follows the flow of the river.

4Following the introduction and literature review, the first case study is chapter three on Khartoum, Omdurman and Khartoum North. This urban region lies at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. The chapter explores the relationship between war, water and railways in constructing urban space, and also examines the importance of history-writing for imperial planners. Following the river north, chapter four looks at representations of the first Aswan Dam. It explores the ways in which confidence and anxiety were bound together in the imaginations of colonial officials. The river then carries the reader to the suburbs of Cairo for chapter five, which covers attempts to harness the power of the sun and to use the garden as a model for urban development. North of the Egyptian capital, the river spreads into the delta as the land gradually gives way to the Mediterranean Sea. Chapter six compares two cities of this region, Alexandria and Port Said, through cultural and environmental histories, to better understand port cities as products of both the global and the local. Before embarking on these case studies, chapter two provides a review of the literature. The final chapter draws together the conclusions of the thesis, and also makes a broader argument about the relationship between architecture and the environment, calling for more fluid architectural histories.

  • 4 Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, January 2003, p. 11-40.DOI: https (...)
  • 5 For an example from elsewhere in the British Empire see Prashant Kidambi, The Making of an Indian (...)

5Three intertwined, mutually reinforcing themes flow through this history. The first is violence, the essential underpinning of colonial power. Military conquest and the constant threat of force created and maintained empire, shaping the development of urban form and management of the environment just as it shaped other aspects of the colonial state. Achille Mbembe, drawing on work from Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault, has argued that power over who lived and who died was the fundamental feature of empire, threaded through all its forms of governmental, social and cultural control. He terms this mode of governmentality necropolitics.4 British power over Egypt was secured with a brief but fierce campaign in 1882, while Sudan was secured by Anglo-Egyptian forces led by Lord Kitchener in a war that lasted from 1896-8. Sudan’s capital region was fundamentally shaped by the military railway, and by its first generation of British rulers, military men who planned the new capital at Khartoum and set the priorities of the early British period. The threat of riot and rebellion was a central aspect of how colonial cities were perceived by their rulers.5 British rule was shattered by the Suez Crisis, when the empire proved unable to assert its power through sheer military force. Violence, understood as a tool of necropolitics, is an important theme in chapters three and six of this thesis: first in the importance of the invasion in defining Khartoum, and then in street violence and military bombardment in Alexandria.

  • 6 Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, New York, NY: Hill and Wan (...)
  • 7 On actants see Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New (...)
  • 8 Scholars from various disciplines have been seeking to absorb what this means for the ideas of env (...)

6The second theme is environment. The cities of Sudan and Egypt are dependent on the unusual ecology of the Nile valley region, in which the fertile river banks provide the basis for life. This creates a distinctly intense form of urban development, huddled close to the river, which has persisted in various different forms for millennia. British responses to this environment shaped their urban as well as agricultural policies. The Aswan Dam, among the most impressive engineering projects of the age, was also an attempt to remake the environment into what Richard White calls, in the case of the Columbia River, an Organic Machine.6 The urban settlements of Sudan and Egypt were themselves part of this machine: centres for political power, trade, military force, extraction of resources. By environment I mean the multiplicity of relationships in which life is always entangled. Not a totalising ecosystem in which every individual thing is reduced to its place within an imagined organisation, but rather an emerging characteristic of multiple interrelated actors.7 Life forms (and indeed other entities) do not relate to a static system that sets the rules or context for their existence, but rather meet and modify their environment through every interaction with other things. Even the smallest organisms and chemical processes reshape the relationships around them in vital ways, and it is the sum of these interactions that we call the environment.8 The environment is the totality of interactions between living and non-living things through which the habitable world is produced. This way of thinking was not available to the historical actors studied in this thesis, and so older words such as landscape and wilderness are used when discussing specifically their perceptions and representations of the environment. This second theme is a particular focus of chapters three, four and six.

  • 9 Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, Durham, NC: D (...)
  • 10 Ashley Carse, “Nature as Infrastructure: Making and Managing the Panama Canal Watershed,” Social S (...)
  • 11 And also to networks of colonial power and structures of western politics, see On Barak, Powering (...)
  • 12 Peter H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, New Haven (...)
  • 13 Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol.42, (...)
  • 14 And has long been of interest to architectural historians, see Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and A (...)

7The third theme is infrastructure: in trying to control and dominate this environment, British officials drew on all the technical expertise available to them, and the region became a site for innovation and experimentation. In this the British were continuing work from the Ottoman period, notably the building of the Suez Canal and its associated new towns at Port Said and Ismailia. Just as rule of Egypt saw the development of new forms of political economy, so the urban and environmental management of the Nile valley involved technological innovation harnessed to the dominant forces of empire and capital. In everyday language, infrastructure is generally used to mean the physical mechanisms through which various kinds of flow are managed: pipelines, power stations, dams, fibre-optic cables, sewers, railway lines and electricity cables are all classic examples. Beyond this, people also create legal and institutional infrastructures that enable or control movement: postal services, legal jurisdictions, international trade agreements and global corporate governance might be thought of as infrastructure in this sense.9 And while most physical infrastructure is made by people, it should also be stressed that this is not always the case: forests, rivers and oil-fields were not created to serve an engineered network, yet they may become part of infrastructure where people have particular need for wood, water or petroleum, or to control the movement thereof.10 Coal was sealed under the earth of Great Britain for millennia without having a role in infrastructure, before suddenly becoming vital to the industrial revolution.11 The construction of physical infrastructure, and the representation of this work to both colonised and colonising societies, was a central element of liberal imperialism. Technical expertise was used by Europeans to project their superiority into the world even in settings that were not strictly colonies, or were ambiguous in their relationship to empire.12 It is a misleading cliché to claim that infrastructure is always hidden: colonial and postcolonial governments have often sought to display it in order to demonstrate the benefits of their rule.13 The making visible of infrastructure was, thus, a key part of the production of the modern technocratic state. While environment is a term for a wide field of relations, infrastructure signals an interest in particular ways in which cultural and material practices could make space.14 Infrastructure is especially important to chapters four and five.

8This research, exploring a series of case studies through an important region of the British Empire, contributes to the urban environmental history of imperialism. It is the first study to examine the built environment of Egypt and Sudan together. The British Empire has often been understood through global studies or analyses of particular regions (especially the Indian subcontinent): in the Nile valley the global and the local collide and intersect. Thus, this project speaks to both regional and global histories of the British Empire. It builds on the specific environmental and cultural currents at play to establish new connections between attempts to remake the character, economy and environment of colonised societies using the power of the built environment. It places architectural, urban and environmental frames of analysis in the centre of our understanding of the practice of empire. This history shows how the colonial remaking of space, often imagined through the flat surface of the map, was a complex and lively encounter with numerous other historical trajectories. The British Empire was a projection of power not just at scale, but also through attempts to master specific contested spaces. It is hoped that this research will contribute to ongoing conversations between historians and historical geographers working on environment, science, empire, architecture and urbanism.

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Notes

1 For an overview of the Nile’s hydrology and history see Henri J. Dumont, (ed.), The Nile: Origin, Environments, Limnology, and Human Use, Dordrecht: Springer, 2009 (Monographiae Biologicae, 89); on its history under the British Empire see Jennifer L. Derr, The Lived Nile: Environment, Disease, and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019; Terje Tvedt, The River Nile in the Age of the British: Political Ecology and the Quest for Economic Power, New York, NY; London: I. B. Tauris, 2016; and Robert O. Collins, The Waters of the Nile: Hydropolitics and the Jonglei Canal, 1900-1988, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990 (Oxford Studies in African Affairs).

2 See Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, Berkeley, CA; Los Angeles, CA; London: University of California Press, 2002, p. 218–221 for a discussion of the fertility of the region and how this is obscured in accounts of it as a desert land.

3 Gilbert F. White, “The Environmental Effects of the High Dam at Aswan,” Environment, vol. 30, no. 7, September 1988, p. 4-40. URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00139157.1988.9930898. Accessed 20 November 2020.

4 Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, January 2003, p. 11-40.DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-15-1-11; Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, [First published as Politique de l’inimitié, Paris: La Découverte, 2016],Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019, p. 224; see also Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, [First published as Les Damnés de la Terre, Paris: François Maspéro, 1961 (Cahiers libres, 27-28) ; translated by Constance Farrington], New York, NY: Grove Press, 1963, p. 38.

5 For an example from elsewhere in the British Empire see Prashant Kidambi, The Making of an Indian Metropolis: Colonial Governance and Public Culture in Bombay, 1890-1920, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007 (Historical Urban Studies Series).

6 Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1995 (A Critical Issue).

7 On actants see Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New York, NY; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005 (Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies).

8 Scholars from various disciplines have been seeking to absorb what this means for the ideas of environment and materiality, see Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, [First published as Face à Gaïa: huit conferences sur le nouveau regime climatique, Paris: La Découverte, 2015; translated by Catherine Porter], Cambridge: Polity, 2017; Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, NC; London: Duke University Press, 2010; Timothy J. LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017 (Studies in Environment and History),; and Noel Castree, “Marxism and the Production of Nature,” Capital & Class, vol. 24, no. 3, 2000, p. 5-36. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/030981680007200102.

9 Brian Larkin, Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008, p. 5-6.

10 Ashley Carse, “Nature as Infrastructure: Making and Managing the Panama Canal Watershed,” Social Studies of Science, vol. 42, no. 4, 2012, p. 539-563. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312712440166.

11 And also to networks of colonial power and structures of western politics, see On Barak, Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization, Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2020; and Timothy Mitchell, “Carbon Democracy,” Economy and Society, vol.38, no. 3, August 2009, p. 399-432. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/03085140903020598.

12 Peter H. Christensen, Germany and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure, New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2017.

13 Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol.42, no. 1, October 2013, p. 327-343. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522.

14 And has long been of interest to architectural historians, see Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967, and Idem, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History, New York, NY: The Norton Library, 1969 (Norton Library); for more on the relationship between environment and infrastructure see Emmanuel Kreike, Environmental Infrastructure in African History: Examining the Myth of Natural Resource Management in Namibia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013 (Studies in Environment and History).

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Sam Grinsell, « Urbanism, environment and the buildings of the Anglo-Egyptian Nile valley, 1880s-1920s »ABE Journal [En ligne], 18 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2021, consulté le 28 janvier 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/abe/9539 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/abe.9539

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Sam Grinsell

Leverhulme Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre for Urban History, University of Antwerp, Belgium

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