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Delimiting Sinai and Constructing Aswan: Naturalizing Egypt’s Frontiers


Institute For Middle East Studies

Perhaps more than other nation state, Egypt has been defined, since antiquity, from its geographical center—the strip of cultivatable land along the Nile River. Scholarship has followed this practice, focusing on urban and rural centers along the river. However, Egypt’s legal frontiers lie far from this arable strip in surrounding deserts. Egyptian, Ottoman, and colonial surveyors worked hard to define, out of “the very broken nature of the country,” boundaries that were “fair and just…[fulfilling] the conditions of an approximately straight line; [that] is likewise geographical and natural..and… strategical.” Claims of ownership over tribes, wells, trees, watersheds, mountain passes, historical sites, and geomorphic landforms rested on novel understandings of ecology, geology, geography, and nature. Two moments of delimitation offer comparative cases for understanding the role and recruitment of “nature” in establishing the “frontier” of Egyptian territory: the work of the Sinai Boundary Commission in 1906 and the survey teams established during the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s.


  • Nancy Y. Reynolds is associate professor of History, with affiliated appointments in Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research concentrates on the cultural and social history of twentieth-century Egypt. Her first book, A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt, was published in 2012 by Stanford University Press and received 2013 Roger Owen Book Award from the Middle East Studies Association. Her work on Egyptian department stores and textiles has appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Journal of Women’s History, European Review of History, and Arab Studies Journal. A chapter on the rockscapes of the High Dam appeared in Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa (Alan Mikhail, ed.; 2013). She is currently writing a new book, titled A New Pyramid: How the Aswan High Dam Built Postcolonial Egypt.