Rushdi Said: The Founding Father of Egyptian Geoscience
by Ahmed Hisham & Yarah Elkewidy
One of Egypt's pioneering geologists and ecologists, Rushdi Said is one of the most famous geoscientists ever to come from the Middle East. Renowned not just regionally but around the globe for his groundbreaking books, including The Geology of Egypt, River Nile Geology, and Hydrology and Utilization, Said's contributions went far beyond his written works; during his time as Chairman of the Board of the Egyptian Mining and Geological Research Organization, he devoted his life to developing a sustainable system of growth that balanced Egypt's burgeoning population with its highly localized, Nile-based resources.
Much of Said's focus on creating a self-sustaining Egypt came directly from the rapidly-changing times in which he lived. Born in 1920, he entered a world possessed by a unique spirit, the "revival of Egypt," following independence in the 1919 Revolution. This era saw transformation and revitalization across Egyptian culture, from music, cinema, poetry and the arts to education, politics, and history. The famous "Egyptian Renaissance" statue, Nahdet Masr, sums up the outlook of the time.
Sculpted in 1927 by Mahmoud Mokhtar, Nahdet Masr symbolizes the awakening of Egypt by blending an ancient sphinx with a modern Egyptian peasant woman shedding her veil as she looks towards the future. Three decades later, during the 1952 Revolution which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy, Rushdi Said had the opportunity to be involved in several political and geology-related roles under the new government.
For one who would so radically change the way Egyptians approached their own land, Said thought little about his own Egyptian roots until 1948, when, as he writes in his book, Science & Politics in Egypt, "an incident that took place in the British Museum in London sparked my own interest." Said writes, "As I was looking at a limestone statue in the Old Kingdom section, I noticed an English lady staring at me. Initially that made me quite uncomfortable, but she quickly came over to me and said. 'You are undoubtedly an Egyptian.' I was astonished by her remark and asked her, 'How did you know?' With her hand pointing at the statue, she replied, 'Can't you see the similarity between the two of you?' I looked again at the statue, of a nobleman from the Fourth Dynasty. I immediately saw the similarity. This incident ignited my curiosity to learn more about my roots and the relationship that I may have had with the ancient Egyptians."
Although Said and his parents were born in Cairo, he had his origins in Upper Egypt. His grandfather left the family's home village, fleeing widespread injustice to the Egyptian peasants. Being in Cairo allowed Said's father to be the first in his family to go to school and learn to read and write. Education became profoundly important to the family, and all children, both boys and girls, were sent to school. According to Said, "an incredible leap took place in my family. . .namely from a grandfather who was illiterate to a grandson who received a doctorate from Harvard University, all in the span of only two generations."
Education had yet another direct impact on Said's upbringing. During the Egyptian Renaissance, the country's first freely-elected government sent a mission of young women to study in England in 1925. Said's sixteen year-old sister, In'am, was among the girls chosen. Said wrote, "When she came back, she introduced a number of changes that left a lasting impact on my family's way of life and attitudes....In'am changed many of our habits to help make our lives more organized and civil. We had our meals at appointed times and they became an occasion for the members of the family to sit down and converse together....the children of the family (myself included) had to go to bed early and at a set time every night....She enrolled my younger brother and me in the Boy's Department of the YMCA." Said gained a lot from joining the YMCA, learning the art of living in a group, conducting dialogue, managing disagreements, and the importance of the principles of transparency and accountability which prepared him for leadership roles later in life.
Nasser's rise to power in 1954 created a political climate far more favorable to new ideas such as Said's than the rule of King Farouk before him. He gained standing during his years as a professor, influencing many students' lives by opening up their horizons and teaching them new scientific methods. He also published many valuable scientific papers in prestigious international journals before accepting a post with the Mining Organization, where he managed to reassess all the national geological companies, reshape policies and rebuild the Organization as a more efficient whole.
In cooperation with the government, Rushdi Said built a new school of research in the University of Cairo and reorganized various scientific institutions, as well as planning and supervising the opening of new mines enabling Egypt to compensate for those lost during the Israeli occupation of Sinai in 1967. Said also supervised the laying of railway lines, the building of a new harbor on the Red Sea, and the construction of housing projects.
Yet Said's contributions to the welfare and development of Egypt often did not receive the recognition and praise they deserved, and significant projects of his sometimes went unfinished due to lack of government support. One such initiative was the development of new frontiers for population settlement in the desert, which Said believed would be the only way to prevent the degradation of the Nile Valley by excess population. He argued that linking the Western Desert to the Nile Valley for wide-ranging demographic resettlement rather than for agricultural purposes would be a more sustainable goal, as the underground water used for irrigation would eventually run out. Nor did he take an armchair role in the project; Said built a house in the Western Desert, generally considered to be the middle of nowhere.
As he explained to the graduating class of the American University in Cairo in 2005, he dreamed of an Egypt where the Nile Valley was transformed into one great garden, a natural preserve free of industry and only populated by enough people to sustain the agricultural potential of the land, while the deserts of Egypt would host well-spaced and well-planned habitation centers built around extensive industrial bases fueled by locally-available energy resources.
But while his dream of a transformed Egypt would go unrealized, Said nonetheless received considerable recognition for his achievements, including the prestigious American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) Pioneer Award for his contributions to the geology of Egypt and the Middle East in 2003, and the Order of Sciences and Arts First Class award, which he received from former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser himself in 1962. Steadfast in his belief that Egypt could host a successful, self-sustained economy, Rushdi Said's lifelong application of his significant talents as a geoscientist to real-world issues of resource management made him the object of international admiration. By the time of his death in 2013, Said was recognized as one of the world's foremost geologists, and a trailblazing example of how geoscientific ingenuity can improve the lives of the populace.
Photos and captions are taken from
Science & Politics in Egypt: A Life's Journey
by Rushdi Said, published by American University of Cairo Press Cairo, copyright 2004.