The earliest recorded attempt to build a dam near Aswan was in the 11th century, when the Arab polymath and engineer Ibn al-Haytham (known as Alhazen in the West) was summoned to Egypt by the Fatimid Caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, to regulate the flooding of the Nile, a task requiring an early attempt at an Aswan Dam. His field work convinced him of the impracticality of this scheme.
Aswan Low Dam, 1898–1902
The British began construction of the first dam across the Nile in 1898. Construction lasted until 1902, and the dam was opened on 10 December 1902. The project was designed by Sir William Willcocks and involved several eminent engineers, including Sir Benjamin Baker and Sir John Aird, whose firm, John Aird & Co., was the main contractor.
Aswan High Dam prelude, 1954–1959
In 1952, the Greek-Egyptian engineer Adrian Daninos began to develop the plan of the new Aswan Dam. Although the Low Dam was almost overtopped in 1946, the government of King Farouk showed no interest in Daninos's plans. Instead the Nile Valley Plan by the British hydrologist Harold Edwin Hurst to store water in Sudan and Ethiopia, where evaporation is much lower, was favored. The Egyptian position changed completely with the overthrow of the monarchy, led by the Free Officers Movement including Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Free Officers were convinced that the Nile Waters had to be stored in Egypt for political reasons, and within two months, the plan of Daninos was accepted. Initially, both the United States and the USSR were interested in helping the development of the dam, but this movement happened in the midst of the Cold War, as well as of growing intra-Arab rivalries.
In 1955, Nasser was trying to portray himself as the leader of Arab nationalism, in opposition to the traditional monarchies, especially the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq following its signing of the 1955 Baghdad Pact. At that time the U.S. feared that communism would spread to the Middle East, and it saw Nasser as a natural leader of an anticommunist procapitalist Arab League. America and Britain offered to help finance construction of the High Dam, with a loan of $270 million, in return for Nasser's leadership in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. While opposed to communism, capitalism, and imperialism, Nasser presented himself as a tactical neutralist, and sought to work with both the U.S. and the USSR for Egyptian and Arab benefit. After a particularly criticized raid by Israel against Egyptian forces in Gaza in 1955, Nasser realized that he could not legitimately portray himself as the leader of pan-Arab nationalism if he could not defend his country militarily against Israel. In addition to his development plans, he looked to quickly modernize his military, and he turned first to the U.S.
The American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and the American President Dwight Eisenhower told Nasser that the U.S. would supply him with weapons only if they were used for defensive purposes and accompanied by American military personnel for supervision and training. Nasser did not accept these conditions, but then he looked to the USSR for support. Although Dulles believed that Nasser was only bluffing and that the USSR would not aid Nasser, he was wrong— the USSR promised Nasser a quantity of arms in exchange for a deferred payment of Egyptian grain and cotton. On 27 September 1955, Nasser announced an arms deal, with Czechoslovakia acting as a middleman for the Soviet support. Instead of attacking Nasser for turning to the Soviets, Dulles sought to improve relations with him. This explains the later offer of December 1955, in which the U.S. and Britain pledged $56 and $14 million respectively towards the construction of the dam.
Though the Czech arms deal actually increased the American willingness to invest at Aswan, Great Britain cited the deal as a reason for reversing its promise of funds. What angered Dulles much more was Nasser's diplomatic recognition of China, which was in direct conflict with Dulles's policy of containment. There are several other reasons why the U.S. decided to withdraw its offer of funding. Dulles believed that the USSR would not fulfill its commitment to help the Egyptians. He was also irritated by Nasser's neutrality and attempts to play both sides of the Cold War. At the time, other western allies in the Middle East, including Turkey and Iraq, were irritated and jealous that Egypt, a persistently neutral country, was being offered so much aid.
In June 1956, the Soviets offered Nasser $1.12 billion at 2% interest for the construction of the dam. On 19 July the U.S. State Department announced that American financial assistance for the High Dam was "not feasible in present circumstances."
On 26 July 1956, with wide Egyptian acclaim, Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal as well as fair compensation for the former owners. Nasser planned on the revenues generated by the canal helping to fund construction of the High Dam. When the Suez War broke out, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel seized the canal and the Sinai, but pressure from the U.S. and the USSR at the United Nations and elsewhere forced them to withdraw.
In 1958, the USSR went ahead in providing support for the High Dam project.
A view from the vantage point in the middle of High Dam towards the monument of Arab-Soviet Friendship (Lotus Flower) by architects Piotr Pavlov, Juri Omeltchenko and sculptor Nikolay Vechkanov
In the 1950s, archaeologists began raising concerns that several major historical sites, including the famous temple of Abu Simbel were about to be under water. A rescue operation began in 1960 under UNESCO (for details see below under Effects).
Construction and filling, 1960–1976
The Soviets also provided technicians and heavy machinery. The enormous rock and clay dam was designed by the Soviet Hydroproject Institute along with some Egyptian engineers. 25,000 Egyptian engineers and workers contributed to the construction of the dams.
On the Egyptian side, the project was led by Osman Ahmed Osman's Arab Contractors. The relatively young Osman underbid his only competitor by one-half.
- 1960: Start of construction on 9 January
- 1964: First dam construction stage completed, reservoir started filling
- 1970: The High Dam, as-Sad al-'Aali, completed on 21 July
- 1976: Reservoir reached capacity.