The Lived Nile
Environment, Disease, and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt
Jennifer L. Derr



A River, Remade

Making Subjects on the Perennial Nile

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1902 and the inhabitants of Shallal lay in wait. In the winter to come, the waters of the Nile River would accumulate behind a new dam, Khazan Aswan, and drown the southern Egyptian village. A handful of other communities situated upstream of the dam shared its fate; some would be totally submerged, others only partially, by the reservoir that would stretch south of the dam for sixty miles.1 In June 1902, the month that construction on the dam was complete, the Egyptian Council of Ministers published a decree in Le Journal Officiel, the published record of the state, outlining processes of expropriation and compensation for those who would be displaced. The state seized all taxable lands in the district of the village of Shallal, as well as those that made up portions of five other villages. Within the village of Marwaw, it took land that belonged to thirteen hamlets.2 Claimants were offered compensation for the value of their land, and that of the buildings, date palms, and henna plants that stood on it. Should anyone object, challenges were to be brought to a special commission within thirty days.3 The first filling of the reservoir began in October of 1902, when the dam’s sluices were lowered to allow a reservoir to accumulate. When all was said and done, the aforementioned villages disappeared underneath the waters of the Nile, with the partially submerged form of the ancient Egyptian Philae Temple being the most visible reminder of the world that had drowned.

The villages displaced by the construction of Khazan Aswan belonged to the territory of historical northern Nubia, which began at the town of Aswan, near the site of the dam, and extended south to Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan. While the political history of this region was linked to that of more northern regions of Egypt, the Nubians possessed a culture that was ethnically, linguistically, and historically distinct. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Nubia lost its political autonomy when Egypt’s strong Ottoman governor Mehmed Ali invaded and occupied Sudan. In the century that followed, the very ground on which it stood would disappear. For those displaced by the construction of Khazan Aswan, the Nile that they had once known would exist no longer and their relationship with the river would take a turn.

The progressive erasure of the territories that once constituted historical northern Nubia is but one chapter in a story about the emergence of a new Nile River. In the period that stretched from the second decade of the nineteenth century, the built space of the Nile River was transformed. Networks of irrigation canals replaced the large basins that had lined the Nile Delta and Nile Valley and given form to Egyptian agriculture. Barrages augmented the height of the river and fed irrigation canals. Khazan Aswan stored water that was released in the late spring and early summer to irrigate crops when the Nile sunk lowest. Egyptian agriculture had long paired with the temporality of the annual Nile flood and its seasons, its primary crops planted following the recession of floodwaters. Canals, barrages, and the dam facilitated the practice of perennial irrigation, which severed the relationship between agriculture and the flood. Perennial irrigation facilitated year-round agricultural production and the cultivation of multiple crops on the same piece of land each year. By the second decade of the twentieth century, “the perennial Nile River” had spread throughout the Nile Delta and central Egypt and extended into portions of Egypt’s deep south.

FIGURE 1. The inauguration of Khazan Aswan, either the one held in December 1902 or the second inauguration in December 1912. Photograph P768876 belongs to the Henry Mowbray Cadell Photographic Archive, deposited at the British Geological Survey.

At the root of this riparian transformation lay the coalescence of a colonial economy based on the production of cotton for export, which helped to cement the political economic relationship between Egypt and Britain. In the approximate century over which Egypt’s colonial economy stretched, an ascendant class of large landowners held sway in the countryside, and many peasants were forced into existences as sharecroppers and agricultural wage laborers. A rich body of historiography recounts the history of Egypt’s colonial economy from the vantage point of its primary commodity and the social relations of rural Egypt.4

The Lived Nile approaches the history of colonial economy from a different angle, that of the environmental transformations that enabled it. Its object of analysis is the perennial Nile River, which I argue was central to the production of particular forms of subjectivity within Egypt’s colonial economy. Authority was made manifest through the practices of perennial agriculture; the river helped to shape the futures of technocratic knowledge; the bodies of those who inhabited rural communities were transformed through the environmental intimacies that constituted their daily lives. At the root of this investigation lies the notion that the Nile is not an always, already constituted singular entity but a realm of practice and a set of temporally, spatially, and materially specific relations that helped to structure experiences of colonial economy. The Lived Nile is an exploration of the scalar, material, and bodily histories of agrarian colonial economy; it is also an argument for the centrality of a dynamic and material environment in our readings of political economy.

Beyond the History of Egyptian Cotton

Before the nineteenth century, the agricultural year in Egypt consisted of three seasons—flood, winter, and summer—that corresponded to the temporalities of the annual Nile inundation. Egypt was the richest of the Ottoman provinces, its production of wheat central to its wealth.5 The crop grew in large basins that lined the Nile Delta and Nile Valley.6 Each year after the flood arrived cultivators cut the banks of the river to admit its waters into basins where they soaked the soil. When basins were full, Egyptian villages resembled small islands dotting a vast riparian sea. Following the evacuation of floodwaters, cultivators planted crops in basins. Egypt’s primary agricultural bounty came in the form of these crops, shitwi or winter crops, which were harvested in spring. Other produce grew during summer, sayfi crops, and the season of the flood, nili crops. Summer crops included sugarcane, cotton, rice, and a rich array of fruits and vegetables. These crops could not be planted in basins, as they remained in the ground after the flood arrived. Some grew in separate enclosed basins. They also covered the berms that formed basins and the banks of the river. While the surface area planted in summer crops was smaller than that occupied by winter crops, these crops were important as exports and in local diets.

In the nineteenth century, summer and flood crops crept from the fringes and berms of Egypt’s agricultural landscape to colonize its primary fields. This process began with the interventions of the Ottoman-Egyptian state, in particular Egypt’s viceroy Mehmed Ali, who exercised a strong hand in the administration of agriculture. In 1820, Mehmed Ali began to promote the production of export-oriented, long-staple cotton. Cotton was not new to Egypt. It had long been cultivated as an annual in the Nile Delta and a perennial in Egypt’s south.7 However, it was only after the French textile engineer Louis Alexis Jumel discovered a new varietal in a Cairo garden and began experiments with its cultivation that its production for export began. Mehmed Ali directed the excavation of deep canals in the Nile Delta to irrigate cotton fields during the hot months before the arrival of the flood. These canals enabled the practice of perennial irrigation. Between 1821 and 1837, the Ottoman-Egyptian state mandated export-oriented cotton cultivation in some regions of the Delta, established itself as the only legal buyer, and purchased the crop from cultivators at below-market prices.8

While production began under Mehmed Ali, it was not until the 1860s that a colonial economy rooted in cotton developed. When the outbreak of civil war in the United States and the Union’s blockade of the Confederacy drove the price of the commodity sky high, Egyptian cultivators expanded production. During the four decades of the British occupation, the country’s dependence on the commodity only increased. The colonial regime directed the construction of irrigation works throughout the Nile Delta and deep into central Egypt to enable its cultivation. When, in the period that followed World War I, the occupation formally ended, some of Egypt’s most powerful economic actors worried about the dominance of cash crop agriculture, that of cotton specifically, and the underdevelopment of industry in Egypt. Despite their concerns, under the quasi-independent state that formed in Egypt in 1923, cotton retained its position as Egypt’s top-ranking export. The modes of production that characterized Egypt’s colonial economy and the dominance of the commodity within it came to an end only in the years that followed the 1952 Free Officers coup.

Within the historiography of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Egypt, cotton more often than not serves as the measure of colonial economy. But despite its prominence—historically and historiographically—cotton was not the only product of the perennial Nile. The irrigation regimes that defined this river also facilitated the more widespread cultivation of other crops that grew during summer and the period of the flood. Maize was one of the most important of these crops, which Egyptian cultivators usually planted in the flood season.9 Whereas cotton meant capital for its cultivators, maize was sustenance, especially for the very poor. Easy to grow and quick to produce, in the second half of the nineteenth century corn replaced other more traditional food staples among rural communities in the Nile Delta. By the late nineteenth century, it had also become one of Egypt’s top-ranking exports.10

In the Nile Delta, fields were planted with cotton and maize in the scorched months of summer and during the flood. In central and southern Egypt, sugarcane was the produce of summer. While it had long grown in southern Egypt in the area surrounding the town of Farshut in the province of Qina, the Ottoman-Egyptian state began to promote the crop in the first half of the nineteenth century. Inspired by models of industrial production from the colonies of the British and French empires, Mehmed Ali built a handful of mills in central Egypt. In the 1860s, his grandson Khedive Isma‘il poured resources into an expanded sugar industry in an effort to mitigate Egypt’s dependence on cotton. He situated this project on the royal Daira Sanieh estates, concentrated in central Egypt. In the first half of the twentieth century, sugar moved south, fueled by the expansion of the Egyptian Sugar Company. While attentive to the history of cotton production in Egypt, the frame for this book is that of the geography of the perennial Nile. Cotton was the most valuable produce of this geography on the world market, but it alone did not define the terms of agricultural life. The Lived Nile explores how a more robust accounting for the geographic and ecological diversity of the perennial Nile can tell a richer story about the lived experiences of rural Egyptian subjects.

Ecologies of Pain

The spread of perennial irrigation in Egypt produced a transformation of the relational agricultural ecologies that made up the Nile River. Under basin irrigation, floodwaters deposited their silt, a natural fertilizer, on fields. They also washed soils, preventing the accumulation of salts and minerals that might stunt the growth of crops. During the dry season that followed harvest, soil dried and cracked in the sun. This aerated it and broke apart colloids, which released nutrients and moisture. Perennial irrigation produced a changed relationship between the Nile River and the fields that lined its banks. Planted with summer crops, fields were no longer rinsed annually by floodwaters. Salts and minerals accumulated, leaving soils increasingly saline. Year-round agricultural production meant that soil was not left to dry with the regularity that it once had been, and consequently it did not aerate. As the subsoil water table rose, the earth became waterlogged.11 Perennial irrigation also meant an increased demand for artificial fertilizers. Cotton leached nutrients from the soil, and floodwaters no longer deposited their silt. By the 1930s, Egyptian agriculture consumed a larger portion of artificial fertilizers per area of cultivated land than any other region in the world.12

New worlds of animal life also flourished along the perennial Nile. In 1866, the bollworm was discovered in Egypt. Laying its eggs in cotton stalks, the worm attacks the seed of the plant after it begins to flower, preventing the development of its capsule.13 In the 1870s, cotton worms, nourished by the Egyptian clover (birsim) that was often planted before cotton in crop rotations, began to feast on the leaves, shoots, and buds of young plants.14 The construction of Khazan Aswan facilitated the migration of new species of mosquitoes into Egypt. The dam slowed the pace of the river, allowing large islands of the curly pondweed (Potamogeton crispus) to form. Anopheles gambiae mosquitoes infected with the Plasmodium falciparum parasite that causes malaria laid eggs on these islands. As Timothy Mitchell demonstrates, this changed ecology of the Nile contributed to the outbreak of a malaria epidemic during World War II.15 Mitchell’s work is but one example of a rich body of historiography in the field of environmental history that explores the relationships among human bodies, environmental change, and questions of disease and illness.16

In rural villages that depended on the Nile for their water, the canals that facilitated perennial irrigation became centers of village life. Approaching the Nile could be treacherous, especially when the river ran high and fast during flood. At the turn of the nineteenth century, when Egyptian villages lacked running water, canals became the site of a whole host of activities. Men labored in these waterways, women fetched water and washed clothes in them, and children frolicked in their waters when the temperature soared. In a landscape devoid of cover, they were also common sites at which to urinate and defecate, especially for cultivators engaged in the act of irrigation.17

Canals produced new forms of multispecies relationality that included the human bodies that populated rural communities along the perennial Nile. One effect of their centrality in daily life was a dramatic increase in the prevalence of parasitic disease. Those who labored in agriculture suffered the worst ravages of the new illnesses that spread throughout the countryside. A robust body of literature describes the history of labor in Egypt’s colonial economy.18 The Lived Nile contributes to this historiography by critically considering the significance of labor as a physical and environmentally situated act.

The relations that bound human bodies to the ecologies of the perennial Nile were significant in the production of subjectivity. The trick to figuring bodies conceptually is reconciling their consistency—the composite nature of human bodies in any historical moment is remarkably similar—with the porousness that marks them as spatially and temporally specific entities. Within the geographies of the perennial Nile, normative experiences of the body included the symptoms of disease, which ranged from the minor—digestive difficulties and rashes—to more severe conditions that included dementia and the appearance of debilitating growths. The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues for the foregrounding of the body as a locus of perception and a site for the formation of the subject. He explains: “In other words my body is permanently stationed before things in order to perceive them and, conversely, appearances are always enveloped for me in a certain bodily attitude. In so far, therefore, as I know the relation of appearances to the kinaesthetic situation, this is not in virtue of any law or in terms of any formula, but to the extent that I have a body, and that through that body I am at grips with the world.”19 Merleau-Ponty rebuts the notion that any sense of the self can be divorced from that of the body, and in this vein, The Lived Nile thinks the production of subjectivity through ecological and phenomenological entanglements. The subjects who lived in regions with access to perennial irrigation were molded through social categories that included questions of gender, class, and religious affiliation.20 They were also shaped by encounters with disease and the presence of physical pain in their daily lives. It is a tricky business reading pain from the archive, but the certainty of its presence demands that we grapple with it as a historical force.

The symptoms of environmental disease were one form of violence that rural communities along the perennial Nile lived daily. Our historical readings must account for the manner in which human bodies function as the agents and sites of a complex array of violent acts, some explicit, others structural and slow.21 Explicit violence was rife in the Egyptian countryside. Seeking to avoid the nineteenth-century state’s arduous corvée and military conscription campaigns, large numbers of peasants maimed themselves, cutting off their fingers, extracting their own teeth, and blinding themselves.22 In the countryside, physical force was a common means of disciplining labor in fields and factories. The Ottoman-Egyptian state even used physical punishment to discipline its own officials. However, not all violence was bounded and explicit. Poverty, dispossession, and disease were part and parcel of life along the perennial Nile. The Lived Nile argues that by focusing exclusively on the explicit we risk blindness to the everyday forms of mundane violence that were present in the environments that made up Egypt’s colonial economy.


1. Fitzmaurice, “Nile Reservoir, Assuan,” 85; British Embassy, Cairo, to R. S. Scrivner, North and East African Department, Foreign Office, London, May 16, 1964, FO 371–178650, TNA.

2. In addition to the village of Shallal, lands were seized by the government in the villages of Dabud, Dahmit, Anbarakab, Kalabsha, and Abu Hur, and in thirteen hamlets belonging to the village of Marwaw in the mudiriyya of Aswan that would be submerged by the storage of waters, which are under the general designation of “El Gorouf” or “Hod-El-Guezireh.” “Expropriation du Hod-El-Guezireh, etc. (Assouan),” Natharat al-Rayy, Majlis al-Wuzara’, record group 2/4/b, DWQ. The decree itself is undated. Later correspondence lists the date as both June 17, 1902, and June 27, 1902.

3. Ibid.

4. See, for example, ‘Abbas, Al-Nizam al-Ijtima‘i fi Misr; Abbas and El-Dessouky, Large Landowning Class; Barakat, Tatawwur al-Milkiyya al-Zira‘iyya fi Misr; Cuno, Pasha’s Peasants; Owen, Cotton; al-Dasuqi, Kibar Mullak al-Aradi; Richards, Egypt’s Agricultural Development; Rivlin, Agricultural Policy.

5. For a rich discussion of Egyptian wheat production and its significance within trade networks within the Ottoman Empire, see Mikhail, Nature and Empire.

6. High dikes ran parallel to the river and protected against direct inundation, while transverse dikes allowed for the regulated, gradual inundation of basins. Basins ranged between five thousand and fifteen thousand acres in surface area. Peel, “British Administration and Irrigation,” 517.

7. Owen, Cotton, 9–10.

8. Cuno, Pasha’s Peasants, 115.

9. Willcocks and Craig, Egyptian Irrigation, vol. 1, 368–69.

10. British Foreign Office, Report on the Finances [presented March 1896], 10.

11. Richards, “Technical and Social Change,” 726–29.

12. Ibid., 728.

13. Owen, Cotton, 135.

14. See Jakes, “Boom, Bugs, Bust,” 1035–59.

15. While malaria had long existed in Egypt, a form of the parasite less lethal than Plasmodium falciparum had caused the disease. T. Mitchell, Rule of Experts, 24.

16. See, for example, Mitman, Breathing Space; Nash, Inescapable Ecologies; Sellers, “Thoreau’s Body”; Tilley, Africa and “Ecologies of Complexity”; W. Anderson, “Natural Histories”; Valencius, “Gender and the Economy.”

17. Khalil, Ankylostomiasis and Bilharziasis, 63.

18. See, for example, Beinin and Lockman, Workers on the Nile; Goldberg, Tinker, Tailor and Trade, Reputation; N. Brown, “Who Abolished Corvée Labour”; Chalcraft, “Engaging the State” and Striking Cabbies of Cairo.

19. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 353.

20. See, for example, Baron, Egypt as a Woman; Pollard, Nurturing the Nation; R. Mitchell, Society; Gershoni and Jankowski, Egypt, Islam.

21. On the question of slow violence, see Nixon, Slow Violence.

22. See T. Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, and Fahmy, All the Pasha’s Men.