So what is Egypt's largest monument you might be wondering? Egypt's biggest, most colossal monument is, in fact, a dam! The Sadd al-Ali dam, also known as the Aswan High Dam is the masterpiece of 20th century Egyptian rulers - a contemporary attempt at leaving a mark in the history books through a grand display of stone and steel. Jasmine and I went to visit this gigantic engineering marvel, which is built of 18 times more stone than the Great Pyramids of Giza. Unfortunately the Dam itself and the large reservoir behind it are quite boring to look at - just a pile of concrete and a lot of big electrical power machines - but I'm still glad we went. As dull as it may be to visit, its history is fascinating and controversial.
We've looked at the fascinating history of Egypt through the rise and fall of dynasties and the reigns of mighty Pharaohs and foreign conquerors. Now, let's look at Egypt's history from a different perspective: let's trace the ongoing struggle between Egyptians and the Nile River--the attempts to dominate its wild spirit to allow for human expansion and gain.
The system of basin irrigation lasted over 5,000 years and "established a remarkable ecological balance at moderate levels of population density" (Waterbury). When this system was finally replaced at the beginning of the nineteenth century under Ottoman rule, the population of Egypt was only 4.23 million - fifteen times less than what it is now!
By the end of the nineteenth century, Egypt's population had risen to 10 million, and Egypt needed to cultivate even more land to support it. The Ottoman's perennial irrigation system was no longer sufficient, so, between 1898 and 1902, Egypt's new rulers, the British, constructed the Aswan Dam above the First Nile Cataract. Thus, after millions of years of flooding, the Nile would flood no more. The Aswan Dam was hailed as a savior - greatly increasing the area of cultivatable land and also providing the country with most of its hydroelectric power.
Unfortunately, all too often progress goes hand in hand with expansion. By 1960 the Egyptian population had increased to 26 million. Even the granite dam that was powerful enough to control the flow of the mighty Nile could no longer meet the country's needs. The newly independent Egypt, under Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, set out to construct an even larger dam a few miles south of the British built one. Nasser, who was against dependence on powerful Western nations, set off alarms at the magnitude of the project he was suggesting. The U.S., England, and the World Bank refused funding they had initially offered, so Nasser turned to the Soviet Union for aid.
After 11 long years, the High Dam was finally completed in 1971. The colossal High Dam increased Egypt's cultivatable land by 30%, doubled the country's power supply, and created a reservoir that can store water over a number of years so that a high or low annual flood can be regulated at all times. The reservoir, known in Egypt as Lake Nasser, is the world's largest man made lake and has raised the water table in the Sahara as far away as Algeria.
Egypt's history and relationship with the Nile River can be traced through spurts in population growth. With each increase in population, those in power have come up with a new, more expensive, more complex, and more risky endeavor to control their life-giving river. "Humanity's attempt to alter nature in the Nile Valley so as to sustain more life has led to a quiet, growing revolt by mother earth." (Kaplan). As if the lost temples and villages and displaced peoples weren't enough, the Aswan High Dam could be creating even greater threats.
Ever since perennial irrigation replaced basin irrigation, salinization, a process where excess salts accumulate in the soil, has been a problem in Egyptian agriculture. By 1980, salinization problems affected half of Egypt's arable land. Today, deteriorating soil fertility has lowered the country's agricultural production by about 10%. Artificial fertilizers now have to be used because the dam hinders the flow of silt that was critical to the Nile Valley's fertility. Another serious problem is the Dam's affects on the Nile delta. Since the Nile's annual flooding has been stopped, the river is no longer able to carry off excess sediment into the Mediterranean, and now the delta is beginning to sink under its own weight and its coastline is eroding faster than ever before. Perhaps the greatest threat the Dam poses is that should it ever break or be sabotaged, the power of the backed up water could sweep most of the country into the Mediterranean!
The Aswan High Dam is just another example of people's age-old struggle to dominate and control nature. Some of the greatest civilizations to ever walk this planet have collapsed and disappeared because of misusing and abusing the earth's delicate resources.
Let history be something we can learn from.
Today's fast growing, fast paced society is also unfortunately fast forgetting. As we head into the new millennium we are walking a tightrope... trying to balance our consuming ways and growing population with the fragile ecosystems we depend on... let's just hope Mother Earth doesn't revolt before we get our act together!
References:Kaplan, Robert D. The Ends of the Earth. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
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