I lived, studied and worked in Egypt for a few years in the 1990s. For the first year I was based in Tanta, almost mid-way between Cairo and Alexandria in the fertile Nile Delta region. I quickly discovered Tanta was the epicentre of a network of main, secondary and branch lines extending through northern Egypt and travelled extensively. It was apparent there were no books or films of the system so I eventually (2001-2) put all my notes and experience together to write Steel in the Sand.
Over the years Steel in the Sand has had many forms. This classic book is currently available as a book and ebook, both comprehensively remastered in late 2017 (though retaining the original 2002 text).
Egypt’s large, historic and diverse railway system forms a crucial but little-known aspect of the country’s modern history. Running through Nile marshland and arid deserts and dating from 1852, Egypt’s railways have been fundamental in wars and empires, and now form the bedrock of a major country whose population is growing at 1 million souls every year.
Steel in the Sand charts the development of the system against the backdrop of Egyptian political and economic history in these chapters:
The interest and usefulness of this book is enhanced by its historic 1889 and 1926 rolling stock appendices.
I’m pleased to report that Oxford University’s Middle East Centre has a well-thumbed copy of your Steel in the Sand, which I will be reading closely.
The subject would have made a great MA or even PhD thesis if I’d wanted to pursue that after my BA graduation. That’s one of those wistful ‘might-have-beens’. However over subsequent years I worked out there were no books in Arabic or English about the subject, and this niggled away at me. The result was that in 2001 I starting writing Steel in the Sand – The History of Egypt & its Railways. A year later it was published. In those days there was no social media and even making websites was complicated and the results unsatisfying. So Steel in the Sand was pushed the hard way, via paper and Royal Mail.
The book – whilst undeniably a niche interest – sold well and made a profit. I sold directly and through bookshops such as Motor Books off London’s Charing Cross Road. It had a good review in the International Railway Gazette, and a few other publications. I was also fortunate to receive very encouraging letters from Professor Richard Holmes and Professor Niall Ferguson.
So the book was a carefully researched history that put the development of Egypt’s railways into the wider political and historical context of Egypt through the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s short and readable but packed with information. Running from about 1852 to 2002 brought the subtitle ‘150 years of Egyptian Railways’.
For various reasons I’m very proud of this book. It opened numerous doors (including this) and who knows where they would have led if I had been able to follow up the connections and opportunities. But life intervened and I was instead distracted by cancer and then a few years in Iraq.
The original 2002 publication was black and white soft back published by Finial Publishing. In 2010 I created two new versions:
In 2017 I updated the book’s formats yet again, to create an improved ebook and a physical book much cheaper than the Blurb version