New cities in the sand: inside Egypt’s dream to conquer the desert

Four decades ago Egypt embarked on the most ambitious new cities building programme in the world. Their boom shows no sign of stopping

Seen from space, Egypt is a vast dusty land with a green Y opening into the Mediterranean Sea – a fertile valley that makes up 5% of the country yet is home to 95% of the population.

This pattern of human occupation had characterised the country for thousands of years, but in the 1970s, as ever more precious green land was eaten up by urban growth, an idea that had been taking shape in the national consciousness for decades was finally put into policy. Egypt would “conquer the desert” and redistribute its burgeoning population across the white sands of the Sahara – an Egyptian version of the 19th-century US “manifest destiny” to move west, no matter how punishing the consequences.

The conquest of the desert is no longer a slogan or dream but a necessity dictated by spiralling population growth

Scores of new cities are rising across the world from previously untouched desert and jungle, or on land “reclaimed” from the sea. While the history of cities built from scratch is long, the scale of the current epidemic is beyond anything seen before. 

The first few years here were the hardest thing I’ve ever done. No friends, nobody to rely on but ourselves

You feel free. There’s no smell. Cairo smells like pigs

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