On Sunday, I went on a field-trip with the small AUC class devoted to the study of the River Nile. The destination was al-Qanatir (القناطر), the place where the Nile splits off into the Damietta and Rosetta (or Rashid) branches, marking the beginning of the Nile Delta. Interestingly, I just learned a few hours ago that the current word “Nile” was likely derived from an early Egyptian word for the various branches of the river in the delta. This word was then incorporated into the Greek (understandably, since this would most likely be the point of earliest contact between the two), from whence everyone since then has taken the name “Nile”. “Delta”, of course, also comes from the Greek.
But, Greek contributions to the region were not the focus of the present field-trip. The greatest focus was, on the contrary, on public works ordered under the regime of Muhammed ‘Ali, nominally Ottoman Governor of Egypt, often credited with bringing Egypt into the modern age. A significant part of that modernizing project came in the form of the public works meant to tame the Nile. Those works and the effects produced by them are evident in the contemporary aerial photograph above. Across the two branches of the Nile (Rosetta on the left, Damietta on the right) can be seen several barrages, short dams with gates through which the river can flow and which can be closed in various configurations to control the volume of the river’s flow (see photo at top). The purpose of this is primarily to raise the level of the river in order to supply water to canals, four of which can be seen in this photo, two (Beheria and Nasiri) run alongside one another directly to the west (they split downstream), one (Menufia) runs between the two branches and the last (Tawfiqi) can be seen just beginning at the top of the photo, where it jogs to the west to accommodate the construction of a new lock.
Part of Muhammed ‘Ali’s effort to modernize the country consisted of this system of barrages and canals to vastly expand the cultivated area of the Delta, as well as to convert from basin irrigation, dependent on the annual flooding of the Nile and allowing generally for only one (winter) crop to perennial irrigation, whereby two or more crops could be cultivated per year, including during the summer. Unfortunately for the people of Egypt, much of the incentive (and even funding) for this modernization came from Europe’s textile industry and its appetite for cotton, which had little interest in the welfare of the majority of Egyptians (except for those few enlightened Saint-Simonists who recognized the utility of happy, satisfied workers in streamlining and rationalizing the industrial productive capacity of the nation). So eager was European industry for a reliable source of cotton, particularly after the Union navy blockaded the South in the US Civil War, that it was happy to help Muhammed Ali and his son and grandson who followed him to surmount numerous successive technical challenges in the building of the irrigation systems. For a fuller understanding of this, I highly recommend the works of Timothy Mitchell who situates such public works and the cotton industry in the larger regime of modernization, rationalization and colonisation through such disparate phenomena as mosquito-born plagues, high-fashion, international exhibitions, military discipline and utopian socialism in both Rule of Experts and his earlier book, Colonising Egypt, available in full online here.
In any case, our tour took us through the geographical confluence of many of these phenomena at the divergence of the branches of the Nile. The Irrigation Museum is unfortunately closed at the moment, so we were unable to visit there. Most of the area between the two branches of the Nile is lovely parkland, built, we were told by Rick Tutwiler, by the British engineers who designed the barrages. We disembarked from the Desert Development Center micro-bus (which a great many commuters had attempted to board en route to al-Qanatir) near the first barrage on the Rosetta branch. This is apparently the site of the President’s Retreat or something like that, so security was tighter than usual (though it’s always a bit touchy at major public works). I took a picture of a machine gun mount in the tower leading to the barrage before noticing the several signs indicating that photography was prohibited. The guards didn’t seem too concerned. Motorcycles, the only motor vehicles allowed on this barrage, zipped past us, a couple of which were ghost ridden. A pile of bicycles lay locked up at the gate to the barrage. A fellow in the area asked if we wanted one when we exhibited some interest in them, but we declined. We walked for a short way out onto the barrage, far enough to take note of the old (now non-functional, obviated by upstream regulators) sluice gates and mechanisms for opening and closing them. We turned back toward the administrative offices of the Irrigation Museum, passing a few more piles of bicycles and an impressive banyan grove, thick with aerial roots.
At the administrative offices, we met up with a fellow from within who agreed to take us on a bit of a tour, since the museum was closed. We stopped near one of the barrages over the Damietta branch and he gave us a brief history and statistical summary (number of sluice gates, how many are functional, etc.) in Arabic, translated by someone who accompanied us for the field trip who I presume is attached to AUC in some way.
He then took us to a newly-constructed lock on the Menufiya canal where we were given some idea of how locks work. The highlight for me, however, were the trees filled with white egrets. We had seen quite a few of the birds along the way, most of which were filthy and picking through the endless piles of rubbish, many of them smouldering, which flanked the road to al-Qanatir from Giza. The ones here, however, were a well-preened white.
Our next stop was the first barrage over the Damietta branch, another bridge open only to pedestrians and two-wheeled traffic. This one was more of a popular thoroughfare, with groups of boys, groups of girls, young couples and the occasional motorcycle or scooter. Her, again, we walked out only a short distance to see the old sluice gates and their mechanisms and watch a dredge work in the section of the river between the two barrages. We left our guide here and headed downstream a short ways to the Hydraulics Research Institute.
Despite a lengthy and involved PowerPoint presentation in one of the fanciest rooms I’ve seen in Egypt, I still wasn’t quite clear what the relationship of the HRI is to the Egyptian government, but it’s clear that it has some relationship through the Ministry of Water Resources & Irrigation. It does, however, clearly rely on outside funding, which is, I’m guessing, the use of the PowerPoint presentation and the state-of-the-art conference room. Bechtel and the World Bank are among the funding sources. A large part of the HRI’s function appears to be the building of river models to study the effects of development and public works projects. The models we were given a tour of were a) a study of the effects of narrowing the course of the Nile in Cairo proper (to widen the Corniche ostensibly to alleviate traffic), b) the replacement of a barrage somewhere in Upper Egypt with a powerhouse and c) shoreline erosion on the Mediterranean. The building housing the second of the above models featured some impressive portraits of Hosni Mubarak (who always looks magnificent, of course, whether sporting his cool new shades or photoshopped in front of the Giza pyramids or the megaproject of the day). While these models were all supposed to represent Egypt (although the shoreline one might have been in Libya), they also build models for other places. They were quite proud of their work with…the Danes was it? Something like that. Anyway, the models seem kind of suspect to me (you can’t easily scale something like silt or sand), but whatever.
This was more-or-less the end of the tour, except the drive through the Delta villages on the way back to Cairo, over heavily pot-holed streets, crowded with commercial vehicles of all sorts. In the villages were work animals of all different species and many carts stacked high with clover to feed them all. Shut-down fired mud-brick factories lined the road in parts. They went out of business after the government prohibited the use of the Nile sediment that makes up the primary ingredient of the mud bricks because of the resulting loss of soil fertility. There was a camel market on the way, approaching Giza. Giza itself is always a sight to see, with dense agricultural fields nestled in between and smack up against five-story+ apartment buildings.
Here are some more pictures, for your enjoyment and edification: