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The Wadi Rayan Reservoir Scheme: History, Surveying, and Power in Colonized Egypt

Fri, March 16, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Riverside Convention Center, MR 10


By 1890, Cope Whitehouse had become convinced that the British-Egyptian government was criminally incompetent. His proposed project had been turned down, despite a severe water-shortage, and the government’s civil engineering staff were refusing to countenance its suitability for development. Whitehouse, after all, had history on his side. Using historical maps, Whitehouse had rediscovered the location of a depression in the Western Sahara Desert, the Wadi Rayan, which ancient Egyptians used as a water reservoir. Whitehouse, an American scholar, had initially found success with the Ministry of Public Works engineers; the Wadi Rayan Reservoir Scheme, as it became known, had received funding between 1885-87 to survey and assess the suitability of using the low-lying region for a reservoir and flood control.

To Whitehouse’s dismay, the subsequent survey, conducted under the auspices of Public Works, did not confirm the solidity of the plan in the eyes of the Egyptian government. Senior Public Works bureaucrats and engineers refused to finance subsequent fieldwork and flatly refused to develop the Wadi Rayan, arguing that it would not be economically viable, help flood control or act as an efficient reservoir. Whitehouse, meanwhile, argued that his historical research had been confirmed and the reservoir could be developed quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, the Egyptian government supported its personnel, and their judgements at the expense of the American and his increasingly strident claims.

My presentation sets up a stark contrast between archival research and fieldwork, while exploring the dimensions of environment and power in the colonized Egyptian state. I trace this bureaucratic conflict from its origins in the Cairene archives to the Egyptian government’s final dismissal of the plan in 1894. Throughout, I uncover tensions between archives and fieldwork, Wadi Rayan reservoir and Nile river projects, and how insiders and outsiders wield power and influence.


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