Politics of Nature: The Cairo Water Company in 19th-Century Egypt

This post is part of a series on Politics of Nature, edited by Emily Webster, in which contributors explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series showcases the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships.

Since the 1970s, the historiography on European and North American sanitation has emphasized the role of hygienism in the construction of urban hydraulic infrastructures.[1] Water conveyance systems were thought to prevent the growth of bacteria such as cholera, and were built to prevent the propagation of such epidemics more than anything else.[2] The fear of death in the city was seen as a driving factor of urban transformations in the nineteenth century and access to potable water was essential to make of cities a safe place to live without contracting diseases due to urban overcrowding. However, this narrative does not seem to apply to Middle Eastern cities, where hygienism did not have the same scope for decision-makers. This article will consider how and why these infrastructures were constructed in Middle Eastern cities in the nineteenth century by various actors, and will argue that efficiency and sanitation in the construction of new water systems were overshadowed by other French imperial interests and the will of Egyptian sovereigns to appropriate a broader European sanitary morality and urbanism.

The Cairo Water Company was created in 1865 by a French hydraulic engineer, Jean-Antoine Cordier, when the Egyptian sovereign, Khedive Ismail, allowed him to do so through a concession contract. The Egyptian government, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire but rather autonomous, chose to externalise the construction of these crucial infrastructures and to put it in the hands of European hydraulic engineers.

The headquarters of the Cairo Water Company on the bank of the Ismailiyya Canal in Cairo, Emile Béchard, 1874, BNF.
[Image description: A series of small brick buildings with a large smoke stack.]

Of course, water conveyance systems did exist in Cairo before the construction of “modern infrastructures,” their use resting upon a series of complex and stratified secular customs. Cairenes could quench their thirst thanks to a network of natural canals that crossed the medieval city and were marked out by several ponds that dried up as the level of the Nile decreased every year. There were also dozens of guilds of water-carriers, whose members collected water directly from the Nile and transported the precious resource in goatskins from the river back to the city, whether on foot or on animals’ backs. They delivered the water directly to the doors of the wealthiest houses of Cairo, where it was stored in jars kept in cellars, or to public drinking fountains, that were conceived as charities and were handled as waqfs.[3] The conjunction of these practices formed a system that was only partly efficient, for when the Nile level was too low, small amounts of water stagnated in ponds and thus became an incubator for bacteria and parasites.

Watercarriers in the Nile, Zangaki Brothers, circa 1880.
[Image description: Five Cairenes stand in the Nile holding sacks used for water carrying.]
A sabyl, a public drinking fountain in Cairo, Max Karkégi fond, BNF.
[Image description: A large stone building with a grate in the front, in the middle of the city, with a water spout visible behind the grate.]

The modern system of water conveyance, however, was not conceived as a hygienist response to the limits of the previous customs, and was not entirely efficient either. Its conception took place at a moment when Khedive Ismail was accumulating an enormous debt towards European banks to finance the development of his country. For Ismail, the transformation of Cairo culminated in showcasing the modernization of the country at a crucial moment: the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. The modernization of the city notably relied on the modification of its hydraulic landscape, as new techniques allowed humans to transform urban environments like never before: urban ponds and canals were progressively dried up, dams were built on the Nile to stabilize the level and the course of the river. These innovations made it possible for the Egyptian capital to grow between the city and the river, on the grounds that were previously flooded every year. From the reign of Ismail and the execution of his large urban renovation scheme inspired by a visit in Paris, nature in the city tended to be controlled. Water bodies and vegetation were contained in certain areas, such as gardens designed by French urbanists.

Ezbekiyeh Garden, Emile Béchard, 1874, BNF.
[Image description: A large green space with trees and walking paths, with buildings on the margins, and a pond in the distance.]

With the introduction of European technology to conduct water into the city, the Egyptian government chose to intensify the domestication of nature in Cairo. Water infrastructures, consisting of pipes, pumps and steam engines, appeared as direct intermediaries between politics and nature; the result of a political initiative, these technologies led to the modification of the water’s trajectory in the city, and therefore of its urban metabolism.[4]

Many researchers in sciences and technology studies have questioned the political meaning of such transformations of water adduction in cities.[5] In the case of Cairo, hygienist and sanitary preoccupations seemed to be secondary in Ismail’s mind, as the first infrastructures were restricted to the most recent areas of Cairo, built on a western model, such as Azbakiyya, where European hotels and boutiques were to be found. French historian André Raymond notes that in 1887, the Water Company supplied only 3,600 of the 55,000 houses that Cairo counted at that time.[6] Water infrastructures were a way to put Cairo forward as a “networked city,” a major capital inserted in a network of circulations and communications with European cities, even though this process excluded most parts of the city.[7]

As this duality of modernization and connection suggests, Ismail’s plan to modernize Cairo was bifold. By hiring European experts to transform the city, Cairo became a place of financial investment for European engineers and businessmen. The exploitation of nature therefore became a way to integrate the city to a business network. In the 1870s, the Company rapidly became a profitable investment.[8] According to historian Samir Saul, half of the financial investments in the Cairo Water Company were French.[9] The Company appeared to be a way for French economic actors to acquire a certain presence in the city. These actors were, as historian David Todd suggests, at the heart of an “informal imperialism,” founded on money-making and the transformation of nature.[10]

The character of informal imperialism the Cairo Water Company took a more formal turn after the beginning the British occupation of Egypt in 1882. If French engineers remained at the head of the Company until the arrival at the turn of the century of a British colonial engineer, Sir William Willcocks, French influence rapidly faded away after this. From this point, the Cairo Water Company became an area of expression of colonial rivalry between the French and the British in Egypt. The departure of the last French director, Mr Gallois, in 1897 under unclear circumstances, caused a controversy that can be traced back to the French Senate in Paris. The French director was said to have been ousted of the executive board by the English members of the Ministry of Public Works, who bribed board members of the Company to replace Gallois by an English director. In a letter to his friend Francique Reymond, a French Senator, Gallois regrets Escoffier’s “lack of patriotism” and tries to make a public case of his eviction by asking Reymond to write, along with other politicial figures in Paris, to the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. Senators and deputies declared themselves concerned with the decrease of French economic influence in Egypt, as the British progressively took on every French business in the country.[11] However, in the midst of these colonial rivalries and especially after the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, we have to note a progressive egyptianization of the Company’s executive board. In the 1930s, the board counted a majority of Egyptian businessmen and engineers and the Company therefore became a driving force of the construction of an Egyptian national economy.

Through this company, politics affected nature for economic reasons. Infrastructure was a site where the modernization project of Ismail and the financial interests of European coincided. In the story of Cairo water infrastructures, at the crossroads between environmental and business history, one finds imperial history. The structure of the Cairo Water Company, a monopolistic business assuming a public service, shows that in the nineteenth century, water conveyance systems were laboratories for the definition of an Egyptian modernity, struggling with French and British imperialistic views, but trying to appropriate, transform, and adapt European models.[12]

[1] Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

[2] Christopher Hamlin, Cholera: The Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[3] In Islamic law, a waqf is a mortmain property, an inalienable charitable endowment.

[4] Sabine Barles, “Urban Metabolism and River Systems: An Historical Perspective – Paris and the Seine, 1790-1970,” 11 Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (2007): 1757-1769.

[5] For example, Alice Ingold, Négocier la ville. Projet urbain, société et fascisme à Milan (Rome, Paris: École française de Rome, Éditions de l’École de Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2003); Nikhil Anand, The Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Timothy Moss, Remaking Berlin: A History of the City Through Infrastructure, 1920-2020 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2020).

[6] André Raymond, Le Caire (Paris: Fayard, 1993).

[7] Joel Tarr and Gabriel Dupuy, Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).

[8] Balance sheets of assets and liabilities of the Cairo Water Company, 1870-1886, Crédit lyonnais Archives.

[9] Samir Saul, La France et l’Égypte de 1882 à 1914: Intérêts économiques et implications politiques (Vincennes: Institut de la gestion publique et du développement économique, 2013).

[10] David Todd, A Velvet Empire: French Informal Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).

[11] Letter dated April 29, 1897. Consular and commercial correspondence between Cairo and Paris, 156 CP COM, 57, French Diplomatic Archives, La Courneuve.

[12] Mercedes Volait and Joe Nasr, Urbanism. Imported or Exported? Native Aspirations and Foreign Plans (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sones, 2003).

*Cover image: A historical photo of the Ismailiya canal. The chimney of the Cairo Water Company’s headquarters is visible in the background.

[*Cover image description: A picture in soft brown tint of a canal with a boat in the front right corner. On the left side of the canal, some trees in the background; on the right side, a number of palm trees in the backfround and a tall chimney towering above a facility complex.]

Edited by Emily Webster, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.