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The Near-Destruction of Giza

Jean-Daniel Stanley

Enter the Frenchman

To execute his civil improvements, Muhammad 'Ali depended on Egyptian as well as foreign specialists, particularly French and English engineers. He eventually sought the counsel of French-born Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds, who at the age of 18 first visited Egypt in 1817. Linant had no formal training, but he was placed in charge of public works in Upper Egypt in 1831. Only a few years later, in 1837, he became chief engineer of all such projects in the country. The key to his success was reliable and speedy execution of diverse assignments. During the course of many years of service in Egypt, Linant gained the trust of Muhammad 'Ali and eventually became a member of the viceroy's privileged advisory council. He was appointed Minister of Public Works in 1869, retired shortly after, received the grand title of pasha in 1873 and died in Cairo in 1883. The engineer described the projects and personalities of his professional tenure in a hefty memoir published during 1872-1873. In this summary volume, he described how the viceroy commissioned many kinds of construction projects, including Nile waterways, irrigation canals, port and coastal structures, bridges and roads, railroads, wells and changes to Cairo's city plan. Not the least of Linant's great accomplishments during nearly 40 years of service was his role in building the Suez Canal.

Figure 2. Muhammad 'Ali Pasha...Click to Enlarge Image

If ever there was a time and place for one engineer to help modernize a nation, it was mid-19th-century Egypt. Linant's position of key responsibility enabled him to compile a particularly valuable account of the major engineering tasks with which he was involved, including the construction of barrages (dams) that regulated the flow of the Nile River for irrigation. Had the friendship between Linant and Muhammad 'Ali not been so close and long-lived, historians might be skeptical of the engineer's account of the viceroy's wish to have the pyramids dismantled. Although Linant does not provide the exact date of the pyramid saga in his Mémoires, he notes that Muhammad 'Ali had already decided to build barrages on the Lower Nile. This time probably corresponds to late 1833, when laborers began working at a barrage site in the delta north of Cairo. The viceroy expressed his desire to speed barrage construction by dismantling the pyramids to provide a large supply of pre-cut blocks. Linant tells us that the autocrat and his advisors considered the three largest structures for demolition, and they discussed various schemes for stone-by-stone removal or destruction by explosives. To highlight the seriousness of the plan and the narrowness of its defeat, Linant described Muhammed 'Ali and his normal way of proceeding with a plan. The headstrong ruler used a "full speed ahead" approach that demanded the complete dedication of his councilors and engineers. Linant wrote: "En Égypte on veut que les choses une fois decidées se fassent comme par enchantement; tout doit être sacrifié à cela." In other words, once in motion, all means should be undertaken and no obstacle should interfere with, or delay, a project.

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