Century Magazine/Volume 57/Issue 4/Harnessing the Nile

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General view of the first cataract from Elephantine Island.

Engineering skill is to rearrange nature's surface on the Egyptian frontier, and pond back into Nubia a body of water a hundred and forty miles long, crossing the tropic of Cancer, and extending southward nearly to Korosko,—a goodly step on the journey to Abu-Simbel and Wady-Halfa,—by means of a great dam across the Nile at Assuan. The Pyramids and the Sphinx have borne testimony through the centuries to the grandeur and power of execution which dwelt within the Nile valley; and what more fitting now than that the same valley be the theater of a gigantic engineering exploit, audacious perhaps, but certain of success, and ministering to man's necessities, rather than to his vanity?

The Nile and northeastern Africa.

As a building achievement the scheme is on a scale worthy of a Rameses or a Pharaoh. To create in the heart of the African desert a lake having from two to three times the superficial area of Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, and control it with scientific precision, so that the impounded flood may be turned into distant channels at will, is a stupendous undertaking. But the engineers claim that their plans can be carried out to the letter; they have estimated the exact cost of the dam, computed almost to the gallon the volume of water that will be imprisoned, and figured the necessary resistance to be provided at every point of the masonry. In Cairo, the experts of the ministries of public works and finance, likewise, have calculated to a nicety the sum from taxation that will come into the public treasury through the country's augmented productiveness.

Subordinate to the great dam, a smaller one, not unlike the barrage at the apex of the delta, ten miles to the north of Cairo, is to be made at Assiut. Its function will be to give a sufficient bead to the river to force the water into the system of irrigation canals that vein hundreds of thousands of acres between Assiut and Cairo. The completion of the Cairo barrage (it was begun by Mehemet Ali Pasha, from the plans of a French engineer, but not made effective until England took the country in hand) so developed cotton-culture as to add to the public revenue of the country at least $10,000,000 annually. It may safely be concluded that the Assuan reservoir is but one of a series which will in time be constructed southward to the Victoria Nyanza. The reëstablishment of khedival authority at Rhartum will determine this.

The agricultural industry that will be chiefly benefited by the Assuan reservoir and the tributary weir at Assiut is cane-culture. With Cuba's productiveness destroyed for several years, the time is considered propitious, doubtless, for doubling or trebling Egypt's output of raw sugar. The Nile cane is of such exceptional quality that much European capital has been invested in recent years in its cultivation, while crushing-factories have gone up on the river's banks as if by magic.

No subject is receiving wider attention at this time than that of territorial expansion. Great Britain, as well as France, Germany, and Russia, is yearly pressing forward its domain in Africa and Asia, preceded by the soldier or the explorer; and the fortunes of war have carried the Stars and Stripes oversea, and brought an Asiatic archipelago under administrative guidance from Washington.

But the triumph of a practical science, such as irrigation, which bears no relation to the sword or diplomacy, and turns a single acre of desert sand into a productive field, must be a thousandfold more valuable to the world than the victory of arms that merely changes a frontier or deprives a defeated nation of sovereignty and territory: it is the victory of peace; it is creation.

Old Egypt is now so fairly in step with the march of progress as to be attracting the attention of the civilized world. Irrigation is the lever of this progress—the irrigation of definite science, rather than of chance or guesswork; and the move to harness the Nile and compel it to surrender its magical richness to the soil is a project that will be watched by millions of students of utilitarianism. Stated simply, it means the increase of the country's productive capacity by twenty-five per cent., bringing, as it will, considerable stretches of desert soil within the limits of cultivation, while vast tracts of land already arable will be rendered capable of producing two, if not three, crops in the year, by having "summer water" supplied to the thirsting ground.

The Egypt of the map shows more than 400,000 square miles, an expanse nearly seven times as great as New England; but the practical Egypt—that which produces crops and sustains life—is barely as large as the States of Vermont and Rhode Island taken together. This is the ribbon-like strip of alluvial land bordering the Nile, a few miles wide on each side, and measuring not more than 10,500 square miles. The extension planned, and to be completed in the next six or eight years, wholly by irrigation, is no less magnificent in conception than the rescuing from the Libyan and Arabian deserts of 2500 square miles, or twice the area of Rhode Island. This will be exploitation in its truest sense, and its accomplishment will be a verification of the ancient saying that "Egypt is the Nile, and the Nile is Egypt."

As an object-lesson, this Egyptian enterprise should have no more interested observers than in America, especially in Colorado, Nevada, California, and other States of the West, where the irrigation expert is succeeding the railway-builder as a developer.

British contractors have agreed that the dam that is to "hold up" the historic river on which Cleopatra floated in her gilded barge, and on which Moses was cradled, will be completed by July 1, 1903. It will be built of granite ashler, much of which will be quarried from the Assuan side of the river, coming from the ledges that furnished the obelisks that now stand in Central Park in New York, on London's Thames Embankment, and in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It will be seventy-six feet high in places, and, with its approaches, nearly a mile and a quarter long. The difference in water-level above and below the dam will be forty-six feet; and the top of the structure, thirty or forty feet in width, will give bridge facilities to pedestrians, camel-trains, and other traffic of the region. It may interest arithmeticians to know that it is estimated that two hundred and fifty billion gallons can be stored in the reservoir.

The contractors present what looks like a moderate bill. They are to receive $800,000 a year for thirty years, aggregating about $24,000,000. As an incentive for them to live up to their agreement, the first payment by the Egyptian government is not to be made until the work is completed and accepted. The credit is a long one, certainly, and its present actuarial value cannot be much in excess of $10,000,000. The ability of Egypt to make such a favorable contract, by which she apparently takes little risk, and is to pay away each year only a portion of the sum the reservoir brings to her exchequer, reflects the enviable position of her national credit. The transaction may further be taken as an earnest of Great Britain's intention to retain indefinitely her grasp upon the land of the Pharaohs. English engineers and surveyors and a horde of native laborers are already at work at Assuan, and a single order for three million barrels of European cement is in process of delivery.

For years Sir William Garstin, Mr. Wilcocks, and other English engineers in the khedival service have strenuously advocated the creation of one or more reservoirs that would give perennial irrigation to Egypt. Experts of other nations have been called into consultation, and all have admitted the feasibility of the project, though they were not at first in accord as to the location of the principal dam. They were agreed that the natural advantages of the Assuan site, with its bed of syenite granite beneath the river, the conformation of the surrounding country, and the inexhaustible supply of stone near by, offered advantages approached by no other location.

A situation thirty miles south, at Kalabshe, was favored by some; but the structure proposed, necessarily resting on a foundation of crumbly sandstone, could not be regarded as permanent or safe as if it rested on a foundation of granite. The Silsila Gate, fifty miles north of Assuan, having the same underlying sandstone, was rejected as a site on the grounds of insecurity. A dam there, besides, would submerge the temple at Kom-Ombos, as well as a good part of the town of Assuan. Hence all the engineers in the end favored damming the Nile at the first cataract, at a point about four miles south of Assuan, and not far from the island of Philæ. There nature has been lavish in providing hills of solid rock on each side of the river that will stand the ravages of the elements as long as the world lasts.

Log-swimming down the cataract.

Little time was wasted in the preparation of the original plans for the dam. But the officials having the matter in charge, intent only on the utilitarian aspect of the problem, brought about their heads, four years ago, a wide-spread outburst of indignation, when it was announced that the treasured ruins of Philæ would be submerged for months at a time, were their recommendations carried into effect. Meetings were held by learned societies everywhere to protest against any desecration of Philæ, and their memorials poured in to the Egyptian government for months. From every country in Europe, from the United States, and from the centers of learning in the East, antiquarians, Egyptologists, archæologists, and literary people generally, joined in vigorous protest. The late Sir Frederick Leighton, president of England's Royal Academy, did not hesitate to say that "any tampering with Philæ would be a lasting blot on the British occupation of Egypt." This stinging remark brought the subject into the realm of British politics, and did as much as all the protests to cause the too practical plans of the English engineers to be held in abeyance until a modified project, conciliating archæological interests with engineering necessities, could be devised.

To silence their critics, if possible, the engineers proposed many makeshift plans, some of which displayed surprising ingenuity. Sir Benjamin Baker, of Manchester Canal fame, favored the raising of the island, as a whole, some twelve feet, and offered to do it for a million dollars, guaranteeing its safe accomplishment. Another gravely proposed that the temple of Isis, pylons, and all, be moved to a neighboring and higher island and erected anew, and submitted a proposal for the contract. Still another recommended building a caisson of masonry around the island, that would protect it from flood, but make it necessary to descend a flight of stairs to view the buildings.

The proposal to remove Philæ stone by stone was too fantastic even for the pen of a Jules Verne. An American writer suggested that if Philæ's great structures were to be disturbed at all, they should be floated six hundred miles down the Nile and rebuilt in Cairo. This, the writer urged, would bring to the doors of the tourists's hotels one of Egypt's greatest attractions, and carry business enterprise to its utmost extent. This bit of sarcasm had its effect.

Philæ as it is.

The publicity given to these absurd proposals caused scholarly Europe and America again to protest against the threatened vandalism, and a torrent of newspaper invective was hurled against Britain's rule of Egyptian affairs, which threatened to destroy one of the world's most precious gems in order that European holders of Egyptian bonds might be more certain of their interest and security. The reservoir project was now in danger of drifting into European politics, and it was wisely concluded in Cairo and London to let the matter drop for a few years from public notice.

"What is a useless temple," asked engineers, "in comparison with a work involving the welfare of millions of human beings?" "Are sordid commercial motives," replied archæologists, "to override everything artistic in the world, and is a priceless monument of antiquity to be lost to civilization that a few more fellaheen, already prosperous, may grow more cotton and sugar and grain?" "Why must the Philistine come to Phike at all?" inquired sentimentalists everywhere.

With these conflicting claims to reconcile, the engineers were compelled to weigh the pros and cons of their project in every aspect before again testing public opinion. That they succeeded in their task is shown by the general approval expressed relative to their modified scheme, by which the dam is to be only two-thirds as high as first proposed, and which was recently sanctioned by decree of Khedive Abbas. A head of forty-six feet of water satisfies the engineers, and does not alarm the archaeologists; for, although submerging unimportant portions of the island, it leaves the temple, pylons, and prized sculptures above water-level.

When the builders have finished their labors, nearly five years hence, visitors to Upper Egypt will be unable to realize the present beauty of Philæ. The Isis temple, the chapel of Hathor, the Diocletian portal, one of the legendary graves of Osiris, the well-preserved pavilion called "Pharaoh's Bed,"—the designer of which was no stranger to Greek art, and within whose walls thousands of tourists have partaken of their midday luncheon,—will all be there, like jewels wrenched from glorious settings. The structures will rise from a placid lake, deprived of the graceful elevation and artistic symmetry that add much to their fame.

Standing without meaning upon a wide stretch of mirroring water, Philæ will completely lose its character, and will no longer be the stately sentinel guarding the natural boundary between Nubia and Egypt. The artist's dahabiyeh, drawn well up on the strand beneath Pharaoh's Bed, will never again give a touch of color to the scene. Nor can the patriarchal sheik of the cataract load his clumsy boats at the point of the island with tourists sufficiently courageous to "shoot the rapids" on the way back to their steamers or hotel at Assuan. The making of the dam will force the nude population of the region to prosecute their amphibious pursuits elsewhere—most likely in eddying rapids farther down-stream. But the daring soul who has "shot" what will remain of the cataract will, as of old, be landed on the bank at Assuan to the resounding "Heep, heep, hooray! Zank you, zank you!" of his crew of black rowers, whom he will liberally bakshish while yet believing himself a hero.

Probable appearance of the cataract on the completion of the dam.

The American sun-seeker or English milord, making the voyage to Wady-Halfa by his own dahabiyeh, will no longer have his craft hauled up the Assuan cataract by a hundred shrieking Arabs and Berberins, for most likely it will be taken up the rapids and through the locks by electricity generated by the rushing Nile itself. Indeed, a practical Britisher is in the field for utilizing the cataract's force for electrically lighting Assuan and propelling irrigating machinery for a hundred miles or more down-stream, to the relief of the familiar shadoof and creaking sakieh.

The Assuan dam will differ in several respects from any great dam hitherto constructed. In the first place, none for impounding water has ever been made on any river approaching the size of the Nile; and, in the second place, it is to be both a dam and a waterway, a conjunction exceedingly difficult to effect. To confine Father Nile in flood-time would be hopeless, and therefore the river must be allowed to run unimpeded through the dam during several months of the year. As soon as the flood subsides, but while the discharge is still greater than can be at once used for irrigation, the water will be retained for use during the parching summer months. For this purpose the structure will be divided into a large number of piers, with openings that can be closed at will by gates.

Each pier must be capable of supporting its own weight and the pressure of water against the adjoining sluice-gates, and the piers must be able to pass the torrent without damage. At times the velocity of the escaping flood-water will be very great; consequently the piers will be enormously massive. The locks for steamers and other craft navigating the Nile will be on the west side.

Tourist boat leaving Shelal for the cataract.

It being the particles of soil contributed to the river by the wash of the mountains and hills in Abyssinia that enrich the fields, the dam will be so designed that the water released daily, during low Nile, will be drawn from near the bottom of the reservoir. Egyptian farmers prize the "red water," which is vastly richer in fertilizing value than clear water can be. In the autumn, after the silt-laden water has passed off, the sluice-gates will be closed gradually until the reservoir is full, which, with normal conditions, will be in January and February. From April to the end of August, when the Nile runs low, and the demand for water for the crops is at its highest, the gates will be systematically opened, and the summer supply of the river supplemented by the water which, had it not been stored, would have flowed uselessly into the Mediterranean. Thus Middle Egypt and the delta will secure more or less perennial irrigation.

The added irrigation resulting from the big reservoir, it has been computed, will permanently benefit Egypt to the value of $100,000,000. A direct annual return to the revenue of $2,000,000—more than twice the sum to be paid each year to the firm building the dam—from sale of water and taxation on lands that will be rendered fruitful is promised. The government will further realize considerable sums from the sale of reclaimed public lands, and indirect revenues traceable to the country's augmented producing capacity. The customs and railways are certain to show large increases, and the reservoir will thus add considerably to the security behind Egyptian bonds of all classes, now amounting to a trifle over $500,000,000, and which for several years have commanded a fair premium.

The British diplomatic agent in Egypt, Lord Cromer, has recently had something to say on the financial aspects of the reservoir measure, fearing that at first sight it may appear a somewhat hazardous undertaking to increase the liabilities of the Egyptian treasury while the Sudan expedition is in the midst of its work. It is Lord Cromer's belief that the expenditure of capital to improve the water-supply, thereby increasing the revenue, affords the best and most certain way out of the pecuniary difficulties which may be impending by the reoccupation of the Sudan. As regards the views of the native population, he has informed his government that he has never before known a measure to be received with such unanimous approbation; and Lord Cromer knows, for the new Egypt is largely his creation.

There is a legend that the yearly flooding of the Nile is caused by the tears shed by Isis over the tomb of Osiris, and the question has for uncounted centuries been asked as a type of impossibility, "Can man arrest the tears of Isis as they flow?" Joseph of Israel did it, at Pharaoh's command, by constructing a reservoir and canals, which fertilized the Fayum province, and gave to the Nile an equable flow. It was Joseph who conceived the idea of turning the surplus waters of high Nile into that vast depression in the desert to the southwest of the Fayum, creating thereby the Lake Mœris of ancient history.

A delving American, Mr. Cope White-known as the Wady-Rayan—by utilizing the canal of Joseph, which leaves the Nile at Assiut and conveys the water of life to the Fayum But the Englishmen guiding the Egyptian chariot of state having no wish to divide honors with Joseph, however worthy as an irrigationist, nor with Mr. Whitehouse, the latter was formally thanked for his scholarly suggestion, given a high decoration by the khedive—and the Englishmen proceeded with their studies preliminary to the Assuan dam.

To comprehend the importance of present-day irrigation in Egypt, it must be borne which, like cotton and sugar, command high prices because of their excellence. Indeed, with a reliable supply of water, farming in the Nile country can be pursued with more certainty of success than in any other country of which I have knowledge. The Egyptian farmer can rely on getting four or five hundredweight of long-staple cotton from an acre, which is readily marketed for two cents a pound more than American cotton sells for—American cotton that does not average two hundredweight to the acre. The Nile cane, likewise, is sufficiently rich to give its cultivators decided market advantages.

Successful in an unexpected degree in augmenting the population of the ancient land of the Pharaohs by enforcing hygienic measures, the British administrators at Cairo are recognizing the necessity for proportionately increasing the area of what on another page I have termed the practical Egypt. When the British occupation began, sixteen years ago, Egypt's population was about 7,000,000. An official census just completed shows that it has risen to 9,750,000, as the result of caring for child life, and teaching the common people to observe rational rules of cleanliness and order.

Natives hauling a boat up the "Great Gate."

The present census gives to the practical Egypt a population of 928 to the square mile, a density far in excess of any European country, even Belgium, and not to be equaled outside of Asiatic communities.

It will no doubt surprise most readers to be told that a fair estimate of the value of Egypt's 10,500 square miles of cultivable territory is $115 an acre. It is a fact, as well, that the foreign bonded indebtedness—naturally based upon the intrinsic value of the country—averages $75.74 per acre, while the per capita proportion of the external debt burden is no less than $52.20. The average land tax of Egypt is something in excess of $4 per acre.

These vital statistics are mentioned to reflect in its fullest importance what the building of the great dam at Assuan means to the people of Egypt and their European creditors.