Alhazen was asked to build a dam on the Nile in the 11th Century by the vindictive and ruthless caliph al-Hakim. In surveying the selected site, Alhazen determined that the project was impossible. To avoid punishment for his failure in damming the Nile under al-Hakim, Alhazen pretended to have gone mad. In consequence, he entered a productive period of scholarship under his subsequent house arrest. So the story goes.
Yet, one wonders whether Alhazen, the scholar that first proved light does not come out of the eyes, had not declined the project upon a political insight. Control of the Nile’s annual flooding would have contributed a political stability to al-Hakim’s regime, strengthening his position against the rulers of Baghdad and Bahrain – neighbors for whom he reserved an antagonistic sentiment.
“He who controlled the annual agricultural surplus exercised the powers of life and death over his neighbors. That artificial creation of scarcity in the midst of increasing natural abundance was one of the first characteristics of the new economy of civilized exploitation: an economy profoundly contrary to the mores of the village,” writes Lewis Mumford.
Near the site that Alhazen surveyed along the Nile in the 11th Century sits today the Aswan High Dam completed in 1971. It was a project that consolidated power for Egypt’s government from foreign intervention after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. A lotus flower shaped monument extols the role of cordial Soviet-Egyptian collaboration in the construction of the dam, ignoring the less than cordial expulsion of the Soviets shortly after the completion of the project. The monument also ignores the contribution of American designers and engineers in the planning of the dam.
Aswan High Dam empowered Egypt. It allowed for a greater area of agricultural production in the Nile Delta and accelerated industrialization through hydro generated electricity. Rural communities received electricity and the Nile became easier to navigate. A new era of independently established abundance, the Aswan High Dam became a symbol of sovereignty.
The dam signified the purpose of the revolution. It was the very “appearance of beneficence and helpfulness, sufficient to awaken some degree of affection and trust and loyalty” that Mumford stipulates as a requirement for a centralized governing authority. With the Nile under control, the exploding Nubian population brings an implosion of human energy – all subject to those who control the landscape
As Mumford explains, in the past religion would have played a role as important as brute force in the consolidation of power. The synthesis of religion and power would be established in the temple and the citadel. No surprise then to find that the ancient Egyptian god of flooding was worshiped at Aswan, near the present location of the Aswan High Dam. The temple priests regulating the waters with their prayers.
The dam is a wall against the waters. Mumford writes, the “first use of the wall may have been a religious one: to define the sacred limits of the temenos, and to keep at bay evil spirits rather than inimical men.” At the boundary of the sacred Nile valley is a mechanical wall, the extension of the citadel wall to the frontier temple in Aswan. Exponentially more intensive in its effects, the dam claims absolute control over the river, sending back on the rule of the city – the floodwater and electricity. A wall at the far limits of the city, operated and maintained under a symbol of labor’s cooperation.