Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768ffcd9cc-w9xp6 Total loading time: 0.512 Render date: 2022-12-05T20:46:02.666Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

Labor and Environment in Egypt since 1500

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 March 2014

Alan Mikhail*
Yale University


Taking the long view, this article analyzes how the expanding power of Egyptian elites, and the emergent commercial agriculture they sponsored, forever changed the rural labor practices of peasant cultivators and their relationships to environmental resources. From the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 until the second half of the eighteenth century, Egyptian farmers initiated and oversaw the construction and repair of small-scale irrigation and other infrastructural works in their local environments. They controlled how and when their labor was used. At the end of the eighteenth century, rural labor in Egypt dramatically changed. It became coerced, required the large-scale movement of peasant laborers, resulted in enormous environmental manipulation, and was often deadly. This article thus explains how forced labor, deleterious environmental exploitation, extractive economics, and population movements emerged at the end of the eighteenth century and how they have come to characterize the relationship between work and the environment in rural Egypt from that period until today.

Environment and Labor
Copyright © International Labor and Working-Class History, Inc. 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Acknowledgments: For incisive comments that immeasurably improved this article, I thank Joel Beinin, Kate Brown, Audrey R. Campbell, Jennifer Klein, Thomas Klubock, and ILWCH's anonymous reviewer.

1. For general histories of Ottoman Egypt in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, see Winter, Michael, Egyptian Society under Ottoman Rule, 1517–1798 (London, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shaw, Stanford J., The Financial and Administrative Organization and Development of Ottoman Egypt, 1517–1798 (Princeton, NJ, 1962)Google Scholar; ‘Abd al-Raḥīm ‘Abd al-Raḥman ‘Abd al-Raḥīm, al-Rīf al-Miṣrī fī al-Qarn al-Thāmin ‘Ashar (Cairo, 1986)Google Scholar; Laylā ‘Abd al-Laṭīf Aḥmad, al-Idāra fī Miṣr fī al-‘Aṣr al-‘Uthmānī (Cairo, 1978)Google Scholar; idem., al-Mujtama‘ al-Miṣrī fī al-‘Aṣr al-‘Uthmānī (Cairo, 1987)Google Scholar; idem., Tārīkh wa Mu'arrikhī Miṣr wa al-Shām ibbāna al-‘Aṣr al-‘Uthmānī (Cairo, 1980)Google Scholar; ‘Irāqī Yūsif Muḥammad, al-Wujūd al-‘Uthmānī fī Miṣr fī al-Qarnayn al-Sādis ‘Ashar wa al-Sābi‘ ‘Ashar (Dirāsa Wathā’iqiyya) (Cairo, 1996)Google Scholar; idem., al-Wujūd al-‘Uthmānī al-Mamlūkī fī Miṣr fī al-Qarn al-Thāmin ‘Ashar wa Awā’il al-Qarn al-Tāsi‘ ‘Ashar (Cairo, 1985)Google Scholar; Raymond, André, Artisans et commerçants au Caire au XVIIIe siècle, 2 vols. (Damascus, 1973)Google Scholar.

2. For general histories of early nineteenth-century Egypt, see, for example, ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Rāf‘ī, ‘Aṣr Muḥammad ‘Alī (Cairo, 1989)Google Scholar; Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali (Cambridge, 1984)Google Scholar.

3. Before the Aswan Dams, the annual cycle of agricultural cultivation in Egypt was, of course, timed to the Nile's flood. Summer rains in the Ethiopian highlands swelled the river, causing it to rise at Aswan in the south of Egypt by June and in Cairo by early July. Water continued to rise through the summer until its peak in Cairo in late August or early September. From then it began to fall steadily, reaching half of its flood height by the middle of November and its minimum by May before the cycle began anew. The onset of the flood in late summer was designated as the start of the agricultural year in Egypt. Lands watered at the beginning of this year in September or October produced the major harvest of the year consisting of wheat, barley, lentils, clover, flax, chickpeas, onions, and garlic. This was known as the winter crop. Lands were also planted and harvested from January through May using water stored in basins and canals, producing a second major yield for the agricultural year known as the summer crop and consisting mainly of wheat, barley, cotton, melons, sugarcane, and sesame. There was, of course, wide regional variation in the kinds and amounts of crops grown. Rice cultivation, for example, was concentrated in the north of Egypt, tobacco and sugarcane in the south, cotton in middle and northern Egypt, and flax in the interior of the Delta and in the Fayyum oasis. Wheat was grown most everywhere.

4. For a very useful examination of the function and maintenance of these elite political and economic alliances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Abbas, Raouf and El-Dessouky, Assem, The Large Landowning Class and the Peasantry in Egypt, 1837–1952, trans. Mohsen, Amer with Zikri, Mona, ed. Gran, Peter (Syracuse, NY, 2011)Google Scholar. On the continuation of this brand of politics after the 1952 revolution, see Binder, Leonard, In a Moment of Enthusiasm: Political Power and the Second Stratum in Egypt (Chicago, 1978)Google Scholar. While my analysis is essentially in line with the former study, I see the creation of elite crony politics as a result of processes occurring in the second half of the eighteenth century, not as the product of the age of Mehmet ‘Ali in the first half of the nineteenth century. For analyses of aspects of peasant opposition to these forces in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Brown, Nathan J., Peasant Politics in Modern Egypt: The Struggle against the State (New Haven, CT, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lawson, Fred H., “Rural Revolt and Provincial Society in Egypt, 1820–1824,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13 (1981): 131–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5. For discussions of this historiography, see Fahmy, Khaled, All the Pasha's Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cambridge, 1997), 137 Google Scholar; idem., Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt (Oxford, 2009), 112–27Google Scholar; Toledano, Ehud R., “Mehmet Ali Paşa or Muhammad Ali Basha? An Historiographic Appraisal in the Wake of a Recent Book,” Middle Eastern Studies 21 (1985): 141–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mikhail, Alan, “Unleashing the Beast: Animals, Energy, and the Economy of Labor in Ottoman Egypt,” American Historical Review 118 (2013), 319–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6. For discussions of some of these various late eighteenth-century imperial processes and stresses, see Aksan, Virginia H., An Ottoman Statesman in War and Peace: Ahmed Resmi Efendi, 1700–1783 (Leiden, 1995), 100205 Google Scholar; idem., Ottoman Wars, 1700–1870: An Empire Besieged (Harlow, 2007)Google Scholar; Tezcan, Baki, The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World (Cambridge, 2010)Google Scholar; Kasaba, Reşat, The Ottoman Empire and the World Economy: The Nineteenth Century (Albany, NY, 1988)Google Scholar.

7. On the classical system of Ottoman administration, see İnalcık, Halil, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age, 1300–1600, trans. Itzkowitz, Norman and Imber, Colin (New York, 1973)Google Scholar.

8. Crecelius, Daniel, The Roots of Modern Egypt: A Study of the Regimes of ‘Ali Bey al-Kabir and Muhammad Bey Abu al-Dhahab, 1760–1775 (Minneapolis, MN, 1981)Google Scholar.

9. Ibid., 79–91 and 159–68.

10. Hathaway, Jane, The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: The Rise of the Qazdağlıs (Cambridge, 1997)Google Scholar; idem., A Tale of Two Factions: Myth, Memory, and Identity in Ottoman Egypt and Yemen (Albany, NY, 2003)Google Scholar; Shaw, Stanford J., “Landholding and Land-Tax Revenues in Ottoman Egypt,” in Political and Social Change in Modern Egypt: Historical Studies from the Ottoman Conquest to the United Arab Republic, ed. Holt, Peter M. (London, 1968), 91103 Google Scholar; Holt, Peter M., Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, 1516–1922: A Political History (Ithaca, NY, 1966), 85101 Google Scholar.

11. For a fuller treatment of the intertwining phenomena discussed in this paragraph, see Mikhail, “Unleashing the Beast.”

12. On some of these changes in rural agriculture, see Cuno, Kenneth M., The Pasha's Peasants: Land, Society, and Economy in Lower Egypt, 1740–1858 (Cambridge, 1992)Google Scholar; idem., Commercial Relations between Town and Village in Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” Annales Islamologiques 24 (1988): 111–35Google Scholar; Richards, Alan R., “Primitive Accumulation in Egypt, 1798–1882,” in The Ottoman Empire and the World-Economy, ed. İslamoğlu-İnan, Huri (Cambridge, 1987), 203–43Google Scholar.

13. This study therefore seeks to make a modest contribution to a venerable tradition of labor and working-class history in Egypt by offering both an earlier and an environmental perspective. For some of the major English-language studies of labor politics in Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see Beinin, Joel and Lockman, Zachary, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882–1954 (Princeton, NJ, 1987)Google Scholar; Goldberg, Ellis, Tinker, Tailor, and Textile Worker: Class and Politics in Egypt, 1930–1952 (Berkeley, CA, 1986)Google Scholar; Posusney, Marsha Pripstein, Labor and the State in Egypt: Workers, Unions, and Economic Restructuring (New York, 1997)Google Scholar. For a broader regional perspective, see Beinin, Joel, Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lockman, Zachary, ed., Workers and Working Classes in the Middle East: Struggles, Histories, Historiographies (Albany, NY, 1994)Google Scholar; Goldberg, Ellis Jay, ed., The Social History of Labor in the Middle East (Boulder, CO, 1996)Google Scholar.

14. For an analysis of such cases, see Mikhail, Alan, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History (Cambridge, 2011), 3881 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15. On animal labor in Ottoman Egypt, see idem., Animals as Property in Early Modern Ottoman Egypt,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53 (2010): 621–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16. For a comparative perspective on this phenomenon, see Appadurai, Arjun, “Wells in Western India: Irrigation and Cooperation in an Agricultural Society,” Expedition 26 (1984): 314 Google Scholar.

17. On the involvement of these workers in irrigation projects in Ottoman Iraq, see Murphey, Rhoads, “The Ottoman Centuries in Iraq: Legacy or Aftermath? A Survey Study of Mesopotamian Hydrology and Ottoman Irrigation Projects,” Journal of Turkish Studies 11 (1987)Google Scholar: 23, 27.

18. One of these categories of worker was al-mudamasīn. For a canal repair project that employed both ditch diggers (al-hufrā’) and al-mudamasīn, see National Archives of Egypt (Dār al-Wathā'iq al-Qawmiyya; hereafter DWQ), Maḥkamat Asyūṭ 1, p. 201, case 583 (12 Za 1067/22 Aug. 1657).

19. For cases involving lifters and carriers, see DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 132, pp. 200–1, case 311 (3 N 1137/16 May 1725); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 5, p. 314, case 389 (10 Ş 1165/22 Jun. 1752); DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 145, p.126, case 101 (30 Z 1151/9 Apr. 1739).

20. The term in Arabic is aṣḥāb al-idrāk. For cases involving various such early modern experts, see Prime Ministry's Ottoman Archive (Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivi; hereafter BOA), Cevdet Nafia, 120 (Evasıt Ca 1125/5–14 Jun. 1713); BOA, Mühimme-i Mısır, 8: 469 (Evasıt L 1180/12–21 Mar. 1767); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 3, pp. 282 and 285, case 876 (18 N 1066/11 Jul. 1656); DWQ, Maḥkamat Asyūṭ 4, p. 206, case 645 (11 C 1156/2 Aug. 1743); DWQ, Maḥkamat Asyūṭ 2, p. 238, case 566 (13 M 1108/11 Aug. 1696).

21. DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 3, pp. 282 and 285, case 876 (18 N 1066/11 Jul. 1656); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 3, p. 51, case 168 (5 B 1063/1 Jun. 1653).

22. DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 2, pp. 272 and 292, no case no. (1 Ca 1062/10 Apr. 1652).

23. DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 17, p. 383, no case no. (11 M 1119/14 Apr. 1707). Animals were very often key actors in the digging and dredging of canals and in the reinforcement of canal embankments. For an example of the utilization of a group of buffalo cows in the repair of a canal's embankments in the subprovince of al-Daqahliyya, see DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 3, p. 10, case 31 (19 S 1063/19 Jan. 1653). Renting these animals was the largest expense incurred in these repairs. Camels were likewise often used to clear debris and mud that hindered the proper function of wells and other water sources. Aḥmad al-Damurdāshī Katkhudā ‘Azabān, Kitāb al-Durra al-Muṣāna fī Akhbār al-Kināna, ed. ‘Abd al-Raḥīm ‘Abd al-Raḥman ‘Abd al-Raḥīm (Cairo, 1989)Google Scholar, 131.

24. DWQ, al-Jusūr al-Sulṭāniyya 784, p. 131, no case no. (n.d.).

25. DWQ, al-Jusūr al-Sulṭāniyya 784, p. 134, no page no. (n.d.).

26. ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Jabartī, ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Jabartī's History of Egypt: ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār fī al-Tarājim wa al-Akhbār, ed. Philipp, Thomas and Perlmann, Moshe, 4 vols. (Stuttgart, 1994)Google Scholar, 1: 483.

27. For a general discussion of corvée in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, see ‘Abd al-Ḥamīd Sulaymān, “al-Sukhra fī Miṣr fī al-Qarnayn al-Sābi‘ ‘Ashar wa al-Thāmin ‘Ashar, Dirāsa fī al-Asbāb wa al-Natā’ij,” in al-Rafḍ wa al-Iḥtijāj fī al-Mujtama‘ al-Miṣrī fī al-‘Aṣr al-‘Uthmānī, ed. Nāṣir Ibrāhīm and Ra’ūf ‘Abbās (Cairo, 2004), 89126 Google Scholar.

28. On ūsya land, see ‘Abd al-Raḥīm, al-Rīf al-Miṣrī, 96–100; Cuno, Pasha's Peasants, 36–37, 67–69; Yūsuf ibn Muḥammad al-Shirbīnī, Kitāb Hazz al-Quḥūf bi-Sharḥ Qaṣīd Abī Shādūf, ed. and trans. Davies, Humphrey, 2 vols. (Leuven, 2005–2007)Google Scholar, 2: 328, n. 2.

29. Cuno, Pasha's Peasants, 36–37.

30. al-Shirbīnī, Hazz al-Quḥūf, 2: 328.

31. The phrase here is “al nās fī al-balad.” Ibid., 2: 327, 329.

32. Lisān al-‘Arab, 4 vols. (Beirut, 1970)Google Scholar, s.v. ‘awana; Lane, Edward William, An Arabic-English Lexicon, 8 vols. (Beirut, 1968)Google Scholar, s.v. ‘awana.

33. al-Shirbīnī, Hazz al-Quḥūf, 2: 330. Emphasis in original.

34. Ibid., 2: 327.

35. Ibid., 2: 329.

36. Lisān al-‘Arab, s.v. sakhara; Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, s.v. sakhara. On the differences between the use of the terms al-‘auna and al-sukhra to refer to forced labor, see al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 3: 344.

37. DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 151, pp. 366–69, case 413 (25 Ra 1160/6 Apr. 1747).

38. Shaw, Financial and Administrative Organization and Development.

39. For earlier examples of repairs to grain storage facilities (wakālas) in Rosetta, see DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 123, pp. 97–98, case 170 (28 Z 1131/11 Nov. 1719); DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 125, pp. 92–93, case 159 (20 L 1132/25 Aug. 1720); DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 134, p. 167, case 204 (30 S 1140/16 Oct. 1727); DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 142, p. 64, case 58 (14 Za 1149/16 Mar. 1737); DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 151, pp. 38–39, case 49 (28 Z 1158/20 Jan. 1746). For more on the construction and repair of these facilities, see Hanna, Nelly, Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma‘il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant (Syracuse, 1998), 125–33Google Scholar; idem., Construction Work in Ottoman Cairo (1517–1798) (Cairo, 1984)Google Scholar, 46. Generally on the function of wakālas in Ottoman Egypt, see Raymond, Artisans et commerçants, 1: 254–60. For a study of one particularly prominent Mamlūk and Ottoman wakāla, see Muḥammad Ḥusām al-Dīn Ismā‘īl ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ and Suhayr Ṣāliḥ, “A Wikāla of Sulṭān Mu'ayyid: Wikālat ’Ūda Pasha,” Annales Islamologiques 28 (1994): 7196 Google Scholar.

40. On the movement of grain from Ottoman Egypt, see Mikhail, Nature and Empire, 82–123.

41. Another example of the use of these materials for construction is the following case about repairs to a home in Rosetta: DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 124, p. 254 case 354 (26 Ra 1132/5 Feb. 1720).

42. For other examples of the use of these kinds of workers in construction projects, see al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 2: 398–99; 3: 11.

43. For earlier examples of the use of engineers in construction projects, see DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 4, p. 108, case 281 (Evail M 1075/25 Jul.–3 Aug. 1664); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 7, p. 134, case 340 (7 Za 1091/29 Nov. 1680); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Manṣūra 16, p. 257, case 527 (18 Z 1116/13 Apr. 1705); BOA, İbnülemin Umur-i Nafia, 94 (Evasıt Ra 1121/21–30 May 1709); BOA, Cevdet Nafia, 120 (Evasıt Ca 1125/5–14 Jun. 1713).

44. For another example of giving coffee and water to workers as their only provisions, see DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 142, p. 64, case 58 (14 Za 1149/16 Mar. 1737).

45. These costs were given as niṣf faḍḍa, the standard currency of Ottoman Egypt. In Stanford J. Shaw's words, “The silver coin in common use during Mamlûk and Ottoman times in Egypt was called nıṣf fiḍḍe colloquially and para officially.” Shaw, Financial and Administrative Organization and Development, 65, n. 169.

46. This was also the case in the construction of the Süleymaniye mosque complex in Istanbul from 1550 to 1557. Ömer Lütfi Barkan, Süleymaniye Cami ve İmareti İnşaatı (1550–1557), 2 vols. (Ankara, 1972–1979)Google Scholar.

47. DWQ, Maḥkamat Manfalūṭ 3, pp. 264–65, case 557 (24 Ş 1223/15 Oct. 1808). On the village of Banī Kalb, see Muḥammad Ramzī, al-Qāmūs al-Jughrāfī lil-Bilād al-Miṣriyya min ‘Ahd Qudamā’ al-Miṣriyyīn ilā Sanat 1945, 6 vols. in 2 pts. (Cairo, 1994)Google Scholar, pt. 2, vol. 4: 77.

48. During earlier projects, work was usually suspended on Fridays. See, for example, DWQ, Maḥkamat Rashīd 125, pp. 92–93, case 159 (20 L 1132/25 Aug. 1720).

49. Said, Rushdi, The Geology of Egypt (New York, 1962)Google Scholar, 8.

50. Some repair cases from Manfalūṭ specified that canal work should be carried out in winter when temperatures were cooler and demands for water not as high as in summer. See, for example, DWQ, Maḥkamat Manfalūṭ 2, p. 183, case 619 (16 Ca 1179/31 Oct. 1765).

51. The word anfār has a curious history. As seen in this case, in the early nineteenth century it was used to refer collectively to individuals brought to work as faceless units of labor on enormous construction projects. A few decades later it would be the name given to the lowest order of soldiers in the Egyptian army. Because of the similarity of this military meaning to the use of the word subaltern to refer to comparably low classes in western armies, Egyptian historians have used the word anfār in the Arabic translation of the historiographical movement known as Subaltern Studies. Thus, the valences of the word's meanings include a progression from worker to solider to subaltern. For a discussion of some of these meanings and of the choice to use dirāsāt al-anfār rather than dirāsāt al-tābi‘ as the Arabic translation of Subaltern Studies, see Khālid Fahmī, al-Jasad wa al-Ḥadātha: al-Ṭibb wa al-Qānūn fī Miṣr al-Ḥadītha, trans. Yūnis, Sharīf (Cairo, 2004)Google Scholar, 33 n. 10; Ālan Mīkhā’īl, “Tārīkh Dirāsāt al-Tābi‘ wa Naẓariyyatayn ‘an al-Sulṭa,” in Thaqāfat al-Nukhba wa Thaqāfat al-‘Āmma fī Miṣr fī al-‘Aṣr al-‘Uthmānī, ed. Nāṣir Aḥmad Ibrāhīm (Cairo, 2008), 349–60Google Scholar.

52. I borrow this phrase from the following: “The economic plan, survey map, record of ownership, forest management plan, classification of ethnicity, passbook, arrest record, and map of political boundaries acquire their force from the fact that these synoptic data are the points of departure for reality as state officials apprehend and shape it … Where there is no effective way to assert another reality, fictitious facts-on-paper can often be made eventually to prevail on the ground, because it is on behalf of such pieces of paper that police and army are deployed.” Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT, 1998)Google Scholar, 83. While the Egyptian case bears some family resemblances to the situation Scott describes, it is important to note that the precocious bureaucratizing Egyptian state's “pieces of paper” did not invent a wholly new “reality” of labor in this period, but rather usurped and recast long-held local practices.

53. al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 289.

54. Even before 1812, Mehmet ‘Ali seized some tax farms. For a description of what happened when his government took over various tax farms in 1808, see ibid., 4: 115.

55. Ibid., 4: 289. For a discussion of this important passage, see Cuno, Pasha's Peasants, 5–6, 37.

56. On Ottoman Alexandria, see İdris Bostan, “An Ottoman Base in Eastern Mediterranean: Alexandria of Egypt in the 18th Century,” in Proceedings of the International Conference on Egypt during the Ottoman Era: 26–30 November 2007, Cairo, Egypt, ed. Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (Istanbul, 2010), 63–77; Reimer, Michael J., “Ottoman Alexandria: The Paradox of Decline and the Reconfiguration of Power in Eighteenth-Century Arab Provinces,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 37 (1994): 107–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

57. On the challenges of the journey between Alexandria and Cairo, see Mikhail, Alan, “Anatolian Timber and Egyptian Grain: Things that Made the Ottoman Empire,” in Early Modern Things: Objects and Their Histories, 1500–1800, ed. Findlen, Paula (New York, 2013), 280–81Google Scholar.

58. ‘Umar Ṭūsūn, Tārīkh Khalīj al-Iskandariyya al-Qadīm wa Tur‘at al-Maḥmūdiyya (Alexandria, 1942)Google Scholar; Hairy, Isabelle and Sennoune, Oueded, “Géographie historique du canal d'Alexandrie,” Annales Islamologiques 40 (2006): 247–78Google Scholar.

59. For statements to this effect, see BOA, Hatt-ı Hümayun (hereafter HAT), 130/5404 (29 Z 1232/9 Nov. 1817); BOA, HAT, 795/36893 (29 Z 1235/7 Oct. 1820).

60. On the official naming of the canal in July 1820, see Ṭūsūn, Tārīkh Khalīj al-Iskandariyya, 127; al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 438.

61. Rivlin, Helen Anne B., The Agricultural Policy of Muḥammad ‘Alī in Egypt (Cambridge, MA, 1961), 219–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 353, n. 15. The estimate of 360,000 comes from de Bellefonds, M.A. Linant, Mémoires sur les principaux travaux d'utilité publiqué éxécutés en Egypte depuis la plus haute antiquité jusqu’à nos jours: accompagné d'un atlas renfermant neuf planches grand in-folio imprimées en couleur (Paris, 1872–1873)Google Scholar, 351. Without citation, Marsot writes that 250,000 peasants were brought to work on the canal. Marsot, Egypt in the Reign of Muhammad Ali, 151. In the summer of 1817, for example, Mehmet ‘Ali ordered that for every ten people in a village, one adult male had to be sent for work on the canal. al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 389.

62. On the population of Cairo, see Panzac, Daniel, “Alexandrie: évolution d'une ville cosmopolite au XIXe siècle,” in Population et santé dans l'Empire ottoman (XVIIIe-XXe siècles) (Istanbul, 1996)Google Scholar, 147. On the population of Egypt as a whole, see idem., La Peste dans l'Empire Ottoman, 1700–1850 (Louvain, 1985)Google Scholar, 271; Raymond, André, “La population du Caire et de l'Égypte à l'époque ottomane et sous Muḥammad ‘Alî,” in Mémorial Ömer Lûtfi Barkan (Paris, 1980), 169–78Google Scholar. Justin A. McCarthy offers slightly lower population figures for both Cairo and the whole of Egypt in McCarthy, Justin A., “Nineteenth-Century Egyptian Population,” Middle Eastern Studies 12 (1976): 139 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63. For further discussion of this number of dead, see Mikhail, Nature and Empire, 281–282, 289–290.

64. al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 427. For an earlier example of water pouring over laborers during work on a building project, see ibid., 3: 349.

65. It was also one that spread beyond just the state's infrastructural projects. The following is a description of how an elite urbanite took to rebuilding properties he seized during one of several land grabs in early nineteenth-century Cairo: “By dint of harshness and sternness toward workers and suppliers, he completed his constructions in the shortest possible time. He permitted his workers no rest but kept them locked up until early morning and woke them up at the end of the night with the whip. They worked from the time of the Shāfi‘ī prayer until shortly before sunset, even during the severe heat of Ramaḍān!” Ibid., 4: 444.

66. On the construction of these auxiliary irrigation features, see BOA, HAT, 656/32064 (27 Z 1232/7 Nov. 1817); BOA, HAT, 130/5404 (29 Z 1232/9 Nov. 1817); BOA, HAT, 131/5411 (29 Z 1232/9 Nov. 1817); BOA, HAT, 342/19546 (17 C 1233/23 Apr. 1818); al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 362, 390, 423–24; Mikhail, Nature and Empire, 249–83.

67. On the founding and function of the school, see al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 359; Aḥmad ‘Izzat ‘Abd al-Karīm, Tārīkh al-Ta‘līm fī ‘Aṣr Muḥammad ‘Alī (Cairo, 1938), 359–75Google Scholar.

68. For earlier examples of Mehmet ‘Ali's government's monopolization of certain kinds of infrastructural labor, see al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 220. For examples of the importation of construction labor, see ibid., 4: 396. On the monopolization of building materials, see ibid., 4: 356, 441.

69. On the canal's costs, see Mikhail, Nature and Empire, 271–72, 280.

70. al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 438.

71. For examples of the problems associated with wind on the canal, see BOA, HAT, 593/29055 (29 Z 1235/7 Oct. 1820); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 336, case 789 (8 M 1236/16 Oct. 1820); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 336, case 791 (28 M 1236/5 Nov. 1820); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 329, case 772 (8 Za 1237/27 Jul. 1822).

72. DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 336, case 789 (8 M 1236/16 Oct. 1820); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 336, case 790 (n.d.); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 336, case 791 (28 M 1236/5 Nov. 1820); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 336, case 792 (22 S 1236/28 Nov. 1820); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 329, case 772 (8 Za 1237/27 Jul. 1822); DWQ, Maḥkamat al-Baḥayra 38, p. 335, case 788 (16 Za 1237/4 Aug. 1822).

73. BOA, HAT, 131/5411 (29 Z 1232/9 Nov. 1817).

74. BOA, HAT, 130/5404 (29 Z 1232/9 Nov. 1817).

75. BOA, HAT, 131/5411 (29 Z 1232/9 Nov. 1817).

76. Marlowe, John, World Ditch: The Making of the Suez Canal (New York, 1964)Google Scholar; Karabell, Zachary, Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal (New York, 2003)Google Scholar; Farnie, Douglas A., East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854–1956 (Oxford, 1969)Google Scholar; Grigsby, Darcy Grimaldo, Colossal: Engineering the Suez Canal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, and Panama Canal: Transcontinental Ambition in France and the United States during the Long Nineteenth Century (Pittsburgh, 2012)Google Scholar.

77. Mitchell, Timothy, “Can the Mosquito Speak?” in Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, CA, 2002), 1953 Google Scholar; Jennifer Leslee Derr, “Cultivating the State: Cash Crop Agriculture, Irrigation, and the Geography of Authority in Colonial Southern Egypt, 1868–1931,” (Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 2009), 118–72.

78. Shibl, Yusuf A., The Aswan High Dam (Beirut, 1971)Google Scholar; Little, Tom, High Dam at Aswan: The Subjugation of the Nile (New York, 1965)Google Scholar; Fahim, Hussein M., Dams, People and Development: The Aswan High Dam Case (New York, 1981)Google Scholar; Reynolds, Nancy Y., “Building the Past: Rockscapes and the Aswan High Dam in Egypt,” in Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Mikhail, Alan (New York, 2013), 181205 Google Scholar; White, Gilbert F, “The Environmental Effects of the High Dam at Aswan,” Environment 30 (1988): 511 Google Scholar, 34–40; Elizabeth Bishop, “Talking Shop: Egyptian Engineers and Soviet Specialists at the Aswan High Dam,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1997); Ahmad Shokr, “Watering a Revolution: The Aswan High Dam and the Politics of Expertise in Mid-Century Egypt,” (M.A. thesis, New York University, May 2008).

79. Sowers, Jeannie, “Remapping the Nation, Critiquing the State: Environmental Narratives and Desert Land Reclamation in Egypt,” in Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Davis, Diana K. and Burke, Edmund III (Athens, OH, 2011), 158–91Google Scholar; Timothy Mitchell, “Dreamland,” in Rule of Experts, 272–303.

80. Farnie, East and West; Marlowe, World Ditch; Karabell, Parting the Desert. The British formally colonized Egypt in 1882, beginning a period in which numerous British engineers, hydrologists, geologists, and others with interests in the Nile came to Egypt to study various aspects of the river. Exploring its sources, irrigating more land in Egypt and the Sudan, building various dams and other irrigation works, and regulating water distribution were all a part of British efforts to manage the entire Nile system—an integral aspect of imperial attempts to control Egypt and protect the Suez Canal and British trade routes to India. For a study of irrigation by a British imperial official in this period, see Willcocks, William, Egyptian Irrigation (London, 1889)Google Scholar. On British imperial designs for the Nile, see Tvedt, Terje, The River Nile in the Age of the British: Political Ecology and the Quest for Economic Power (London, 2004)Google Scholar; Collins, Robert O., The Nile (New Haven, CT, 2002), 141–56Google Scholar.

81. McNeill, John R., Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York, 2000), 166–73Google Scholar; Reynolds, “Building the Past”; Shibl, Aswan High Dam, 73–123; Fahim, Dams, People and Development; Waterbury, John, Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley (Syracuse, NY, 1979), 154–73Google Scholar, 210–41.

82. Sowers, “Remapping the Nation, Critiquing the State.”

83. On the concentration of power and cronyism that characterized this period, see al-Jabartī, ‘Ajā’ib al-Āthār, 4: 441.

84. On the nineteenth and early twentieth-century aspects of this history, see Abbas and El-Dessouky, Large Landowning Class and the Peasantry in Egypt.

85. For an illuminating discussion of the last two decades of environmental politics in Egypt, see Sowers, Jeannie L., Environmental Politics in Egypt: Activists, Experts, and the State (London, 2013)Google Scholar.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Labor and Environment in Egypt since 1500
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Labor and Environment in Egypt since 1500
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Labor and Environment in Egypt since 1500
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *