Urbanism, environment and the building of the Anglo-Egyptian Nile valley, 1880s-1920s
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date30/11/2020
Grinsell, Samuel Thomas Adrian
This thesis examines the ways in which imperial officials and others transformed 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. It will be shown 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. Three intertwined, mutually reinforcing themes flow through this history. The first is violence: the ways in which military conquest and the constant threat of force shaped the development of urban form. British power over Egypt was established with a brief but fierce campaign in 1882, while Sudan was taken by Anglo-Egyptian forces led by 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 also a central aspect of how colonialists viewed cities across the region. The second theme is environment: the cities of Sudan and Egypt are dependent on the unusual ecology of the Nile valley, in which the fertile river banks provide the basis for life. This creates a distinctive form of riverine urban development which has persisted in one way or another for millennia. British responses to this environment shaped their urban as well as agricultural policies. The Aswan Dam, perhaps the most significant hydro-engineering project of the age, was also an impressive building designed to remake the environment. The third theme is infrastructure: in trying to control and dominate the 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. The Nile defines the flow of this thesis, just as it defines the geography of the region. Rather than reaching from north to south, as imperial power did, this account runs from south to north: from the contested space of Sudan’s capital region to the shores of the Mediterranean at Alexandria and Port Said. Four case studies reveal various aspects of British imperial attempts to control the environment: Sudan's capital region is studied to understand how imperial environmental imaginaries interacted with urban planning; images of the first Aswan Dam expose the fragility of imperial ideology, and the centrality of water management in its vision of modernity; the fringes of Cairo reveal the relationship between scientific innovation, suburban development and imperial power; in the final chapter, ancient Alexandria is compared to the modern development of Port Said, in order to shed light on the different roles port cities might play in empire. This research, exploring a series of case studies through an important region of 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. It is hoped that this will contribute to emerging conversations between historians of politics, environment, science, empire, architecture and urbanism.
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