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Formal Name
Arab Republic of Egypt

Local Name

Local Formal Name
Jumhuriyat Misr al Arabiyah

Location: Africa

Status: UN Country

Capital City: Cairo (Al Qahirah)

Main Cities: Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, Asyt, Giza

Population: 57,285,000    Area []: 1,001,450

Currency: 1 Egyptian pound = 100 piastres

Languages: Arabic

Religions: Sunni Muslim

Egypt, officially Arab Republic of Egypt, country in northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia. It is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by Israel and the Red Sea, on the south by Sudan, and on the west by Libya. The country has a maximum length from north to south of about 1085 km (about 675 mi) and a maximum width, near the southern border, of about 1255 km (about 780 mi). It has a total area of about 1,001,450 sq km (about 386,662 sq mi). Cairo is the capital and largest city.

The land of the Nile River, Egypt is the cradle of one of the world's greatest ancient civilizations and has a recorded history that dates from about 3200 BC. The descriptive material that follows is pertinent to modern Egypt. The History section covers Egypt from ancient times, including the Dynastic Period (3200 BC-343 BC), the Hellenistic Period (332 BC-30 BC), Roman and Byzantine Rule (30 BC-AD 638), the Caliphate and the Mamelukes (642-1517), Ottoman Domination (1517-1882), and British colonialism (1882-1952) as well as modern, independent Egypt (1952- ).

Land and Resources

 Less than one-tenth of the land area of Egypt is settled or under cultivation. This territory consists of the valley and delta of the Nile, a number of desert oases, and land along the Suez Canal. More than 90 percent of the country consists of desert areas, including the Libyan Desert in the west, a part of the Sahara, and the Arabian Desert (also called the Eastern Desert), which borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, in the east. The Libyan Desert (also known as the Western Desert) includes a vast sandy expanse called the Great Sand Sea. Located here are several depressions with elevations below sea level, including the Qattarah Depression, which has an area of about 18,000 sq km (about 7000 sq mi) and reaches a depth of 133 m (436 ft) below sea level, the lowest point in Africa; also found here are the oases of Siwah, Kharijah, Bahriyah, Farafirah, and Dakhilah. Much of the Arabian Desert occupies a plateau that rises gradually east from the Nile Valley to elevations of about 600 m (about 2000 ft) in the east and is broken along the Red Sea coast by jagged peaks as high as about 2100 m (about 7000 ft) above sea level. In the extreme south, along the border with Sudan, is the Nubian Desert, an extensive region of dunes and sandy plains. The Sinai Peninsula consists of sandy desert in the north and rugged mountains in the south, with summits looming more than about 2100 m (about 7000 ft) above the Red Sea. Jabal Katrinah (2637 m/8652 ft), the highest elevation in Egypt, is in the Sinai Peninsula, as is Mount Sinai, where, according to the Old Testament, Moses received the Ten Commandments.

The Nile enters Egypt from Sudan and flows north for about 1545 km (about 960 mi) to the Mediterranean Sea. For its entire length from the southern border to Cairo, the Nile flows through a narrow valley lined by cliffs. Lake Nasser, a huge reservoir formed by the Aswan High Dam, extends south across the Sudan border. The lake is about 480 km (about 300 mi) long and is about 16 km (10 mi) across at its widest point. About two-thirds of the lake lies in Egypt. South of a point near the town of Idfu, the Nile Valley is rarely more than 3 km (2 mi) wide. From Idfu to Cairo, the valley is about 23 km (about 14 mi) in width, with most of the arable portion on the western side. In the vicinity of Cairo the valley merges with the delta, a fan-shaped plain, the perimeter of which occupies about 250 km (about 155 mi) of the Mediterranean coastline. Silt deposited by the Rosetta (Arabic Rashid), Damietta (Arabic Dumyat), and other distributaries has made the delta the most fertile region in the country. However, the Aswan High Dam has reduced the flow of the Nile, causing the salty waters of the Mediterranean to erode land along the coast near the Nile. A series of four shallow, brackish lakes extends along the seaward extremity of the delta. Another larger lake, Birkat Qarun, is situated inland in the desert north of the town of Al Fayyum. Geographically and traditionally, the Nile Valley is divided into two regions, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, the former consisting of the delta area and the latter comprising the valley south of Cairo.

Although Egypt has about 2450 km (about 1520 mi) of coastline, two-thirds of which are on the Red Sea, indentations suitable as harbors are confined to the delta. The Isthmus of Suez, which connects the Sinai Peninsula with the African mainland, is traversed from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Suez by the Suez Canal.


The climate of Egypt is characterized by a hot season from May to September and a cool season from November to March. Extreme temperatures during both seasons are moderated by the prevailing northern winds. In the coastal region average annual temperatures range from a maximum of 37 C (99 F) to a minimum of 14 C (57 F). Wide variations of temperature occur in the deserts, ranging from a maximum of 46 C (114 F) during daylight hours to a minimum of 6 C (42 F) after sunset. During the winter season desert temperatures often drop to 0 C (32 F). The most humid area is along the Mediterranean coast, where the average annual rainfall is about 200 mm (about 8 in). Precipitation decreases rapidly to the south; Cairo receives on average only about 29 mm (1.1 in) of rain a year, and in many desert locations it may rain only once in several years.

Natural Resources

Egypt has a wide variety of mineral deposits, some of which, such as gold and red granite, have been exploited since ancient times. The chief mineral resource of contemporary value is petroleum, found mainly in the Red Sea coastal region, at Al ‘Alamayn (El ‘Alamein) on the Mediterranean, and in the Sinai Peninsula. Other minerals include phosphates, manganese, iron ore, and uranium. Natural gas is also extracted.

Plants and Animals

The vegetation of Egypt is confined largely to the Nile delta, the Nile Valley, and the oases. The most widespread of the few indigenous trees is the date palm. Others include the sycamore, tamarisk, acacia, and carob. Trees that have been introduced from other lands include the cypress, elm, eucalyptus, mimosa, and myrtle, and various types of fruit trees. The alluvial soils of Egypt, especially in the delta, sustain a broad variety of plant life, including grapes, many kinds of vegetables, and such flowers as the lotus, jasmine, and rose. In the arid regions alfa grass and several species of thorn are common. Papyrus, once prevalent along the banks of the Nile, is now limited to the extreme south of the country.

Because of its arid climate Egypt has few indigenous wild animals. Gazelles are found in the deserts, and the desert fox, hyena, jackal, wild ass, boar, jerboa, and ichneumon inhabit various areas, mainly the delta and the mountains along the Red Sea. Among the reptiles of Egypt are lizards and several kinds of poisonous snakes, including the asp and the horned viper. The crocodile and hippopotamus, common in the lower Nile and Nile delta in antiquity, are now restricted to the upper Nile. Birdlife is abundant, especially in the Nile delta and Nile Valley. The country has approximately 300 species of birds, including the sunbird, golden oriole, egret, hoopoe, plover, pelican, flamingo, heron, stork, quail, and snipe. Birds of prey found in Egypt include eagles, falcons, vultures, owls, kites, and hawks. Many species of insects are found in Egypt—beetles, mosquitoes, flies, and fleas being especially numerous; scorpions are found in desert areas. About 100 species of fish can be found in the Nile and in the deltaic lakes.


 Most Egyptians are descended from the indigenous pre-Muslim population (the ancient Egyptians) and the Arabs, who conquered the area in the 7th century AD. Elements of other conquering peoples (Greeks, Romans, Turks) are also present, especially in Lower Egypt. The mixture has given the inhabitants of the Nile Valley physical characteristics that set them apart from the other Mediterranean peoples of the region. The Nubians, an indigenous people, are an important minority group in Egypt. The Nubians lived in villages along the Nile in southern Egypt and northern Sudan for thousands of years. However, the formation of Lake Nasser inundated many of these villages. The proportion of the population living in rural areas is decreasing as people move to the cities seeking employment and a higher standard of living. About 45 percent of the Egyptian population lives in urban areas. Some nomadic and seminomadic herders, mostly Bedouins, continue to live in the desert regions.

Population Characteristics

The population of Egypt (1995 estimate) is about 58,519,000. Almost 99 percent of the population lives within the Nile Valley and delta, which constitutes less than 4 percent of Egypt's total area. While the overall population density for the country is 58 persons per sq km (151 per sq mi), the Nile Valley and delta are among the most densely populated regions in the world, with about 1663 persons per sq km (about 4307 per sq mi). Egypt's population is growing rapidly; the annual growth rate during the mid-1990s is estimated at 2.2 percent, although projections show the rate decreasing steadily.

Political Divisions and Principal Cities

 Egypt is divided for administrative purposes into 26 governorates. The capital and largest city is Cairo, which has an estimated population (1992 estimate) of about 6,800,000. Other important cities, with 1992 estimated populations, include Alexandria, the principal port (3,380,000); Giza, an industrial center near Cairo (2,144,000); Port Said, at the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal (460,000); and Suez, the southern terminus of the canal (388,000).


Islam is the official religion, and about 90 percent of all Egyptians are Muslims, most of them members of the Sunni sect. According to official Egyptian estimates, the Coptic Orthodox church, a Christian denomination, has no more than 3 million adherents and constitutes the largest religious minority; Copts themselves claim some 7 million members. An estimated 1 million people belong to the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and various Protestant churches. The country has a very small Jewish community. For information on the religion of ancient Egypt, see Egyptian Mythology.


Arabic is the national and official language of Egypt. Berber is spoken in a few villages in the western oases. French and English are common second languages among the educated. See also Coptic Language; Egyptian Language.


Education is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. Graduates of the primary schools may attend either a general intermediate school, which prepares for a secondary education, or a technical intermediate school specializing in industrial and agricultural subjects. The secondary school system is similarly divided into general schools, with curricula designed to prepare students for a university education, and technical schools. About 48 percent of the adult population is literate.

Elementary and Secondary Schools

In the early 1990s more than 7 million children attended about 16,500 primary schools. In the same period, secondary schools had a total enrollment of about 5.9 million, including enrollment of about 1.1 million in vocational and teacher training schools.

Universities and Colleges

Egypt has 13 universities. Al Azhar University at Cairo, founded in AD 970 as a school of Islamic studies, enrolls about 90,000 students and is the oldest continually existing institution of higher learning in the world. Faculties of engineering, medicine, business administration, and agriculture were added in 1961, and women were first admitted in 1962. Ayn Shams University (1950) in Cairo has 100,000 students, and the University of Cairo (1908) has nearly 77,000 students. Other leading universities include the University of Alexandria (1942), the University of Asyut (1957), and the American University in Cairo (1919). Egypt also has many technical colleges and institutes of art and music.


 The Ministry of Culture directs cultural activities in Egypt. The country has various cultural facilities, including the Pocket Theater, the National Puppet Theater, the Opera House, and the National Symphony. Since the early 1960s there has been a growing interest in folk dancing, which is performed by two national dance groups. Egypt is the principal filmmaking country in the Arab world, with a state-operated cinema corporation and numerous private film companies. Among the many outstanding museums in Cairo is the Egyptian Museum, also known as the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which houses a vast collection of relics and artifacts from almost every period of ancient Egypt. For more information on the rich and varied heritage of Egypt, see Egyptian Art and Architecture; Egyptian Literature. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, becoming the first Arabic writer to do so. For details on other modern Egyptian writers, see Arabic Literature.


With the promulgation of a series of laws beginning in 1961, the economy of Egypt was rapidly socialized. Foreign trade, wholesale trade, banking, insurance, and most manufacturing enterprises were taken over by the government. Although agriculture, urban real estate, and some manufacturing concerns remained in private hands, stringent regulations were imposed. An economic development plan introduced in 1960 brought about a considerable expansion of industry and increase in production during the succeeding five years. The plan was replaced in 1965 by a seven-year plan that was less successful, partly because of insufficient foreign investment; a comparatively modest three-year plan was introduced in 1967. Losses suffered during the Arab-Israeli War of June 1967 (see the section "Wars of the 1960s" below) and the general economic dislocation that persisted afterward seriously retarded social and economic development. Egypt's economic ills were a major reason for the peace efforts of the late 1970s, because the country could not afford another war. Although the economy grew rapidly during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the collapse of world oil prices in the mid-1980s, followed by the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990, left Egypt in difficult financial straits.

With one of the highest ratios in the world of population to cultivable land, Egyptian government leaders have acknowledged population growth as the principal cause of the country's economic difficulties. The economy also is burdened by foreign debt, which in the early 1990s was more than twice the size of the country's annual budget. In the early 1990s Egypt began putting into place economic reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, including relaxed price controls, reduced subsidies, and a liberalization of trade and investment.

The estimated annual national budget in the mid-1990s included about $16.8 billion in revenues and $19.4 billion in expenditures.


Egypt is predominantly an agricultural country, with about 40 percent of the labor force engaged in crop farming or herding. The pattern of landownership was greatly altered by the Agricultural Reform Decree of 1952, which limited individual holdings to about 80 hectares (about 200 acres), a figure revised in 1961 to about 40 hectares (about 100 acres), and revised again to about 20 hectares (about 50 acres) in 1969. Lands requisitioned by the government were distributed to the fellahin (peasants), but an economic gap still remains between the middle-class farmers and the fellahin. Government programs have expanded arable areas through reclamation, irrigation (notably since the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970), and the use of advanced technology (fertilizers, mechanized equipment).

The yields of Egyptian farmlands are now among the highest in the world. Egypt is one of the world's leading producers of long-staple (long-fibered) cotton. Annual cotton lint production in the early 1990s was about 324,000 metric tons. Warm weather and plentiful water permit as many as three crops a year, giving Egypt abundant agricultural yields. In the early 1990s principal crops, ranked by estimated value and annual production in metric tons, included rice (3.9 million), tomatoes (4.7 million), wheat (4.6 million), maize (5.2 million), sugarcane (11.6 million), potatoes (1.8 million), and oranges (1.7 million). A wide variety of other vegetables and fruits are also grown.

The principal pastoral industry of Egypt is the breeding of beasts of burden. The livestock population in the early 1990s included about 3 million cattle, 3 million buffalo, 4.4 million sheep, 4.8 million goats, 1.6 million asses, and 44 million poultry.


Egypt has a significant fishing industry. In the early 1990s the annual catch was about 298,000 metric tons. Among the most productive areas are the shallow deltaic lakes, Birkat Qarun, and the Red Sea. The formerly productive sardine fisheries along the Mediterranean coast have been greatly depleted since the construction of the Aswan High Dam. A fishing industry is being developed in Lake Nasser.


Crude petroleum, which accounts for about one-half of export earnings, is the most important mineral product of Egypt. Production was about 26.4 million barrels annually in the early 1960s. As a result of the discovery in the 1950s and 1960s of large new fields in the Al ‘Alamayn and Gulf of Suez areas, and a major exploration effort in the 1970s, annual production of crude petroleum increased to approximately 312.2 million barrels in the early 1990s. Proven reserves stood at 6.2 billion barrels in 1992 as Egypt renewed exploration, signing 12 agreements with foreign companies to drill new wells. The country is encouraging natural gas production to supply domestic energy needs, with annual extraction in the early 1990s of 11.6 billion cu m (410 billion cu ft).

Other important products of the mining industry in the early 1990s included phosphate rock (1.5 million metric tons), iron ore (1.2 million tons metal content), and salt (1.1 million tons). Uranium ore began to be mined near Aswan in 1991.


Initial moves toward industrialization in Egypt in the 19th century were frustrated by the European powers, primarily Great Britain, which preferred to have the country remain a market for their manufactured goods. During and after World War I (1914-1918), new efforts resulted in the development of a small industrial base capable of meeting some of the domestic demand. During World War II (1939-1945), this base was greatly expanded, especially in the area of textiles. After the overthrow of the monarchy in the early 1950s, the government assigned top priority to industrial expansion. In 1965, after the completion of the first five-year plan, the total value of industrial production, including electric power and mining output, had reached some $2.71 billion annually, and by the early 1990s the gross value of manufacturing and mining exceeded $13 billion per year.

Leading branches of the manufacturing sector are processed food, refined petroleum, textiles, and chemicals. Important products of Egyptian industry include cotton yarn (259,000 metric tons per year in the early 1990s), jute yarn and fabrics (45,000), wool yarn (16,000), raw sugar (975,000), sulfuric acid (92,000), nitrogenous fertilizers (676,000), paper (223,000), cement (14.1 million), motor-vehicle tires and tubes (3.3 million units), and television receivers (333,000 units). Other industrial activities included the manufacture of iron and steel (at Hulwan), the assembling of motor vehicles, and the refining of oil (at several locations). These and other industries employed 21 percent of the labor force in the early 1990s.

Smaller-scale industrial enterprises of significance to the economy include tanning, brewing, and the manufacture of pottery, perfumes, handicrafts, cottonseed oil, flour and other processed foodstuffs, and asphalt. Most industrial activity is centered around Cairo and Alexandria.


Before 1970 most of the electrical power produced in Egypt was generated by thermal plants. The 12 turbines on the Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970, dramatically increased the country's total installed capacity, which by the early 1990s stood at 14.2 million kilowatts. The annual output in the early 1990s was 47 billion kilowatt-hours.

Currency and Banking

The basic unit of currency is the Egyptian pound, consisting of 100 piastres (3.39 Egyptian pounds equal U.S.$1; 1995). The Central Bank of Egypt, set up in 1961, controls government banking, commercial banks, and the issue of notes by the National Bank. Many domestic and foreign banks operate in the country.


Egypt's trade deficit is chronic. In the early 1990s yearly exports amounted to some $3.5 billion and annual imports to about $10.5 billion.

The major exports of Egypt are petroleum and petroleum products, textile yarn and fabrics, vegetables and fruit, clothing and accessories, and aluminum products. The chief purchasers in the early 1990s were Italy, Israel, the United States, the former Soviet Union, France, Greece, Germany, and Romania. Because of rapid population growth, the country is increasingly dependent on imports and food grants, especially for wheat, flour, and meat. The principal imports of Egypt are machinery and transportation equipment; basic manufactures, particularly iron, steel, and paper; food products, primarily cereals; and chemicals. Leading suppliers included the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, and Japan.

Despite large-scale investments and tight government controls, Egypt has a serious balance-of-payments problem. The major sources of foreign currency are oil, cotton, Suez Canal revenues, tourism, and foreign aid. In the late 1970s revenues expanded as the Suez Canal was reopened, and with the conclusion of the peace accord with Israel and the gradual returning of occupied Sinai territory (containing oil fields), Egypt realized rapid increases in revenues from both oil production and tourism. During the 1970s and 1980s, grants and credits from the United States to Egypt totaled $15.7 billion, and assistance from the United States was $2.2 billion annually in the early 1990s.


Egypt has approximately 8600 km (about 5300 mi) of railroads, all of which are state owned. The principal line links Aswan and points north in the Nile Valley to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. The inland waterways of Egypt—including the Nile, navigable throughout its course in the country, the approximately 1600 km (about 1000 mi) of shipping canals, and the more than 17,700 km (more than 11,000 mi) of irrigation canals in the Nile delta—are used extensively for transportation. Camel caravans are employed to a limited extent in the desert.

Two highways connect Cairo with Alexandria. Other highways connect Cairo to Port Said, Suez, and Al Fayyum. The total length of highways and roads is about 38,000 km (about 23,600 mi), of which about 18,000 km (about 11,200 mi) are highways. International airlines provide regular services between Cairo and Alexandria and major world centers. Egypt-Air, the government-owned airline, also provides domestic and foreign services; the country has about 80 airfields. The major port is Alexandria, followed by Port Said and Suez, all of which are served by numerous shipping companies. The Suez Canal, which was closed from 1967 until mid-1975, produces substantial annual toll revenues. In the early 1990s about 16,600 vessels used the canal each year.


The Egyptian press is the most developed in the Arab world, and Cairo is the largest publishing center of the Middle East. All newspapers and periodicals are under governmental supervision and partial governmental ownership, as are all publishing houses, although the country enjoys considerable freedom of the press. The most important newspaper is the authoritative Al Ahram (daily circulation 900,000), which often reflects the views of the government. The country's 17 daily newspapers have a total daily circulation of more than 3.3 million.

Egypt's Middle East News Agency also serves other countries in the Arab world. A national broadcasting corporation presents programs in Arabic, English, French, and many other languages. More than 17.5 million radio sets were in use in the early 1990s. Television services, begun in 1960, are under government operation and are carried over three channels. Television receivers numbered about 6.2 million.


Egypt is governed by a constitution promulgated on September 11, 1971. The constitution provides for an Arab socialist state with Islam as the official religion. It also stresses social solidarity, equal opportunity, and popular control of production.


The head of state is the president of the republic, who is nominated by the People's Assembly and elected by popular referendum. The president is elected for a six-year term and has the power to formulate general state policy and supervise its execution. This official can dissolve the People's Assembly, appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers, attend cabinet meetings, and issue decrees during emergencies, but such measures must be approved by referendum within 60 days. Also, the president declares war after approval by the People's Assembly, ratifies treaties, commutes penalties, orders plebiscites, and acts as commander in chief of the armed forces.


Legislative authority in Egypt is vested in the unicameral People's Assembly; 444 of its members are elected for five-year terms, and half of them are always from the worker and farmer groups. Some of the members must also be women. In addition, 10 members of the Coptic community are appointed by the president. The People's Assembly is empowered to approve the budget, make investigations, levy taxes, and approve government programs or withdraw confidence from the cabinet or any of its members. Suffrage is universal for all Egyptian citizens over age 18.


Judicial authority in Egypt is vested in an independent judicial system, which is based on elements of Islamic, English, and French laws. The Supreme Constitutional Court is the highest judicial body. Courts of general jurisdiction are divided into four levels. The Court of Cassation renders final judgments in civil and criminal matters and is composed of a president, 41 vice presidents, and 92 justices. Below the Court of Cassation are seven courts of appeal, each with jurisdiction over one or more of Egypt's governorates. In each governorate is a primary tribunal that hears both civil and criminal cases. At the lowest level are summary tribunals, which are branches of the primary tribunals that are situated in various districts and headed by a single judge.

Local Government

Egypt is divided into 26 governorates, each headed by a governor appointed by the president. The governors are aided by councils, of which most of the members are elected.

Political Parties

From 1961 to 1977 the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) was the only legal political party in Egypt. When a multiparty system was introduced in 1977, the ASU was replaced by several new parties. The number of active political groups grew to 11 by the early 1990s, though political parties must be approved by the government. Laws prohibit the formation of political parties along class lines, which serves to restrict the emergence of some parties, particularly those on the left. In the early 1990s the leading political group was the ruling National Democratic party. Principal opposition groups were the Socialist Labor party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the New Wafd party. Opposition parties boycotted the 1990 election in an unsuccessful effort to repeal legislation allowing the declaration of states of emergency.

Health and Welfare

Despite progress in the 20th century, particularly in the health of urban populations, services still lag behind the Egyptian population's needs, especially in rural areas. By the early 1990s the country had about 101,500 physicians and about 108,400 hospital beds (one for about every 550 people). Since the 1960s, the ministry of health has made concentrated efforts to establish "rural combined" centers, each serving about 15,000 to 20,000 people. The aim of the centers is to coordinate medical, educational, social, and agricultural services through village councils. Great progress has been made in stamping out cholera, smallpox, and malaria, but such diseases as bilharzia (a parasitical disease) remain widespread. A comprehensive social insurance program was begun in 1959 and has been greatly expanded since.


Men in Egypt between the ages of 18 and 30 may be drafted for up to 36 months of military service. The total strength of the defense forces in the early 1990s was about 430,000. The army, with about 310,000, consists of eight mechanized infantry divisions, four armored divisions, and various separate brigades. Naval personnel number about 20,000. Air force personnel are estimated at 30,000, and the air defense command numbers about 70,000. Military reserves total about 304,000. Egypt sent troops to Saudi Arabia in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.


The origins of ancient Egyptian civilization, which many regard as one of the fountainheads of Western culture, cannot be established with certainty. Archaeological evidence suggests that early dwellers in the Nile Valley were influenced by cultures of the Near East, but the degree of this influence is yet to be determined. Describing the development of Egyptian civilization, like attempts to identify its intellectual foundations, is largely a process of conjecture based on archaeological discoveries of enduring ruins, tombs, and monuments, many of which contain invaluable specimens of the ancient culture. Inscriptions in hieroglyphs, for instance, have provided priceless data.

The framework for the study of the Dynastic period of Egyptian history, between the 1st dynasty and the Ptolemaic period, relies on the Aegyptiaca of Manetho, a Ptolemaic priest of the 3rd century BC, who organized the country's rulers into 30 dynasties, roughly corresponding to families. General agreement exists on the division of Egyptian history, up to the conquest of Alexander the Great, into Old, Middle, and New kingdoms with intermediate periods, followed by the late and Ptolemaic periods, but chronology and genealogy are continually being refined in light of new evidence and by the use of increasingly sophisticated dating techniques.


Some 60,000 years ago the Nile River began its yearly inundation of the land along its banks, leaving behind rich alluvial soil. Areas close to the floodplain became attractive as a source of food and water. In time, climatic changes, including periods of aridity, further served to confine human habitation to the Nile Valley, although this was not always true. From the Chalcolithic period (the Copper age, beginning about 4000 BC) into the early part of the Old Kingdom, people apparently used an extended part of the land.

In the 7th millennium BC, Egypt was environmentally hospitable, and evidence of settlements from that time has been found in the low desert areas of southern, or Upper, Egypt; remains of similar occupation have been discovered at Nubian sites in modern Sudan. Enough pottery has been found in Upper Egyptian tombs from the 4th millennium BC (in the Predynastic period) to establish a relative dating sequence. The Predynastic period, which ends with the unification of Egypt under one king, is generally subdivided into three parts, each of which refers to the site at which its archaeological materials were found: Badarian, Amratian (Naqada I), and Gerzean (Naqada II and III). Northern sites (from about 5500 BC) have yielded datable archaeological material of apparent cultural continuity but no long-term sequences such as those found in the south.

Early Dynastic (or Archaic) Period

Archaeological sources indicate the emergence, by the late Gerzean period (about 3200 BC), of a dominant political force that was to become the consolidating element in the first united kingdom of ancient Egypt. The earliest known hieroglyphic writing dates from this period; soon the names of early rulers began to appear on monuments. This period began with a 0 Dynasty, which had as many as 13 rulers, ending with Narmer (about 3100 BC), followed by the 1st and 2nd dynasties (about 3100-2755 BC), with at least 17 kings. Some of the earliest massive mortuary structures (predecessors of the pyramids) were built at Saqqara, Abydos, and elsewhere during the 1st and 2nd dynasties.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom (about 2755-2255 BC) spanned five centuries of rule by the 3rd through the 6th dynasties. The capital was in the north, at Memphis, and the ruling monarchs held absolute power over a strongly unified government. Religion played an important role; in fact, the government had evolved into a theocracy, wherein the pharaohs, as the rulers were called, were both absolute monarchs and, possibly, gods on earth.

A Golden Age

The 3rd Dynasty was the first of the Memphite houses, and its second ruler, Zoser, or Djoser, who reigned about 2737-2717 BC, emphasized national unity by balancing northern and southern motifs in his mortuary buildings at Saqqara. His architect, Imhotep, used stone blocks rather than traditional mud bricks in the complex there, thus creating the first monumental structure of stone; its central element, the Step Pyramid, was Zoser's tomb. In order to deal with affairs of state and to administer construction projects, the king began to develop an effective bureaucracy. In general, the 3rd Dynasty marked the beginning of a golden age of cultural freshness and vigor.

The 4th Dynasty began with King Snefru, whose building projects included the first true pyramid at Dahshur (south of Saqqara). Snefru, the earliest warrior king for whom extensive documents remain, campaigned in Nubia and Libya and was active in the Sinai. Promoting commerce and mining, he brought prosperity to the kingdom. Snefru was succeeded by his son Khufu (or Cheops), who built the Great Pyramid at Giza. Although little else is known of his reign, that monument not only attests to his power but also indicates the administrative skills the bureaucracy had gained. Khufu's son Redjedef, who reigned about 2613-2603 BC, introduced the solar element (Ra, or Re) in the royal titulary and the religion. Khafre (or Chephren), another son of Khufu, succeeded his brother to the throne and built his mortuary complex at Giza. The remaining rulers of the dynasty included Menkaure, or Mycerinus, who reigned about 2578-2553 BC; he is known primarily for the smallest of the three large pyramids at Giza.

Under the 4th Dynasty, Egyptian civilization reached a peak in its development, and this high level was generally maintained in the 5th and 6th dynasties. The splendor of the engineering feats of the pyramids was approximated in every other field of endeavor, including architecture, sculpture, painting, navigation, the industrial arts and sciences, and astronomy; Memphite astronomers first created a solar calendar based on a year of 365 days. Old Kingdom physicians also displayed a remarkable knowledge of physiology, surgery, the circulatory system of the body, and antiseptics.

Beginning of Decline

Although the 5th Dynasty maintained prosperity with extensive foreign trade and military incursions into Asia, signs of decreasing royal authority became apparent in the swelling of the bureaucracy and the enhanced power of nonroyal administrators. The last king of the dynasty, Unas, who reigned about 2428-2407 BC, was buried at Saqqara, with a body of religious spells, called Pyramid Texts, carved on the walls of his pyramid chamber. Such texts were also used in the royal tombs of the 6th Dynasty. Several autobiographical inscriptions of officials under the 6th Dynasty indicate the decreasing status of the monarchy; records even indicate a conspiracy against King Pepi I, who reigned about 2395-2360 BC, in which the ruler's wife was involved. It is believed that during the later years of Pepi II, who reigned about 2350-2260 BC, power may have been in the hands of his vizier (chief minister). Central authority over the economy was also diminished by decrees of exemption from taxes. The nomes (districts) were rapidly becoming individually powerful, as the nomarchs—governors of the districts—were beginning to remain in place rather than being periodically transferred to different nomes.

First Intermediate Period

 The 7th Dynasty marked the beginning of the First Intermediate period. As a consequence of internal strife, the reigns of this and the succeeding 8th Dynasty are rather obscure. It is clear, however, that both ruled from Memphis and lasted a total of only 25 years. By this time the powerful nomarchs were in effective control of their districts, and factions in the south and north vied for power. Under the Heracleopolitan 9th and 10th dynasties, the nomarchs near Heracleopolis controlled their area and extended their power north to Memphis (and even into the delta) and south to Asyut (Lycopolis). The rival southern nomarchs at Thebes established the 11th Dynasty, controlling the area from Abydos to Elephantine, near Syene (present-day Aswan). The early part of this dynasty, the first of the Middle Kingdom, overlapped the last part of the 10th.

The Middle Kingdom

Without one centralized government, the bureaucracy was no longer effective, and regional concerns were openly championed. Egyptian art became more provincial, and no massive mortuary complexes were built. The religion was also democratized, as commoners claimed prerogatives previously reserved for royalty alone. They could, for instance, use spells derived from the royal Pyramid Texts on the walls of their own coffins or tombs.


Although the Middle Kingdom (2134-1784 BC) is generally dated to include all of the 11th Dynasty, it properly begins with the reunification of the land by Mentuhotep II, who reigned 2061-2010 BC. The early rulers of the dynasty attempted to extend their control from Thebes both northward and southward, but it was left to Mentuhotep to complete the reunification process, sometime after 2047 BC. Mentuhotep ruled for more than 50 years, and despite occasional rebellions, he maintained stability and control over the whole kingdom. He replaced some nomarchs and limited the power of the nomes, which was still considerable. Thebes was his capital, and his mortuary temple at Dayr el-Bahri incorporated both traditional and regional elements; the tomb was separate from the temple, and there was no pyramid.

The reign of the first 12th Dynasty king, Amenemhet I, was peaceful. He established a capital near Memphis and, unlike Mentuhotep, de-emphasized Theban ties in favor of national unity. Nevertheless, the important Theban god Amon was given prominence over other deities. Amenemhet demanded loyalty from the nomes, rebuilt the bureaucracy, and educated a staff of scribes and administrators. The literature was predominantly propaganda designed to reinforce the image of the king as a "good shepherd" rather than as an inaccessible god. During the last ten years of his reign, Amenemhet ruled with his son as co-regent. "The Story of Sinuhe," a literary work of the period, implies that the king was assassinated.

Amenemhet's successors continued his programs. His son, Sesostris I, who reigned 1962-1928 BC, built fortresses throughout Nubia and established trade with foreign lands. He sent governors to Palestine and Syria and campaigned against the Libyans in the west. Sesostris II, who reigned 1895-1878 BC, began land reclamation in Al Fayyum. His successor, Sesostris III, who reigned 1878-1843 BC, had a canal dug at the first cataract of the Nile, formed a standing army (which he used in his campaign against the Nubians), and built new forts on the southern frontier. He divided the administration into three powerful geographic units, each controlled by an official under the vizier, and he no longer recognized provincial nobles. Amenemhet III continued the policies of his predecessors and extended the land reform.

A vigorous renaissance of culture took place under the Theban kings. The architecture, art, and jewelry of the period reveal an extraordinary delicacy of design, and the time was considered the golden age of Egyptian literature.

Second Intermediate Period

The rulers of the 13th Dynasty—some 50 or more in about 120 years—were weaker than their predecessors, although they were still able to control Nubia and the administration of the central government. During the latter part of their rule, however, their power was challenged not only by the rival 14th Dynasty, which won control over the delta, but also by the Hyksos, who invaded from western Asia. By the 13th Dynasty there was a large Hyksos population in northern Egypt. As the central government entered a period of decline, their presence made possible an influx of people from coastal Phoenicia and Palestine and the establishment of a Hyksos dynasty. This marks the beginning of the Second Intermediate period, a time of turmoil and disunity that lasted for some 214 years. The Hyksos of the 15th Dynasty ruled from their capital at Avaris in the eastern delta, maintaining control over the middle and northern parts of the country. At the same time, the 16th Dynasty also existed in the delta and Middle Egypt, but it may have been subservient to the Hyksos. More independence was exerted in the south by a third contemporaneous power, the Theban 17th Dynasty, which ruled over the territory between Elephantine and Abydos. The Theban ruler Kamose, who reigned about 1576-1570 BC, battled the Hyksos successfully, but it was his brother, Ahmose I, who finally subdued them, reuniting Egypt.

The New Kingdom

With the unification of the land and the founding of the 18th Dynasty by Ahmose I, the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) began. Ahmose reestablished the borders, goals, and bureaucracy of the Middle Kingdom and revived its land-reclamation program. He maintained the balance of power between the nomarchs and himself with the support of the military, who were accordingly rewarded. The importance of women in the New Kingdom is illustrated by the high titles and position of the royal wives and mothers.

The 18th Dynasty Kings

Once Amenhotep I, who reigned 1551-1524 BC, had full control over his administration—he was co-regent for five years—he began to extend Egypt's boundaries in Nubia and Palestine. A major builder at Al Karnak, Amenhotep, unlike his predecessors, separated his tomb from his mortuary temple; he began the custom of hiding his final resting place. Thutmose I continued the advances of the new Imperial Age and emphasized the preeminence of the god Amon. His tomb was the first in the Valley of the Kings. Thutmose II, his son by a minor wife, succeeded him, marrying the royal princess Hatshepsut to strengthen his claim to the throne. He maintained the accomplishments of his predecessors. When he died in 1504 BC, his heir, Thutmose III, was still a child, and so Hatshepsut governed as a regent. Within a year, she had herself crowned pharaoh, and then mother and son ruled jointly. When Thutmose III achieved sole rule upon Hatshepsut's death in 1483 BC, he reconquered Syria and Palestine, which had broken away under joint rule, and then continued to expand his empire. His annals in the temple at Al Karnak chronicle many of his campaigns. Nearly 20 years after Hatshepsut's death, he ordered the obliteration of her name and images. Amenhotep II, who reigned 1453-1419 BC, and Thutmose IV tried to maintain the Asian conquests in the face of growing threats from the Mitanni and Hittite states, but they found it necessary to use negotiations as well as force.

Amenhotep III ruled peacefully for nearly four decades, 1386-1349 BC, and art and architecture flourished during his reign. He maintained the balance of power among Egypt's neighbors by diplomacy. His son and successor, Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV), was a religious reformer who fought the power of the Amon priesthood. Akhenaton abandoned Thebes for a new capital, Akhetaton (see Tall al ‘Amarinah), which was built in honor of Aton, the disk of the sun on which his monotheistic religion centered. The religious revolution was abandoned toward the end of his reign, however, and his son-in-law, Tutankhamen, returned the capital to Thebes. Tutankhamen is known today chiefly for his richly furnished tomb, which was found nearly intact in the Valley of the Kings by the British archaeologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922. The 18th Dynasty ended with Horemheb, who reigned 1321-1293 BC.

The Ramesside Period

The founder of the 19th Dynasty, Ramses I, who reigned 1293-1291 BC, had served his predecessor as vizier and commander of the army. Reigning only two years, he was succeeded by his son, Seti I, who reigned 1291-1279 BC; he led campaigns against Syria, Palestine, the Libyans, and the Hittites. Seti built a sanctuary at Abydos. Like his father, he favored the delta capital of Pi-Ramesse (now Qantir). One of his sons, Ramses II, succeeded him and reigned for nearly 67 years. He was responsible for much construction at Luxor and Al Karnak, and he built the Ramesseum (his funerary temple at Thebes), the rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, and sanctuaries at Abydos and Memphis. After campaigns against the Hittites, Ramses made a treaty with them and married a Hittite princess. His son Merneptah, who reigned 1212-1202 BC, defeated the Sea Peoples, invaders from the Aegean who swept the Middle East in the 13th century BC, and records tell of his desolating Israel. Later rulers had to contend with constant uprisings by subject peoples of the empire.

The second ruler of the 20th Dynasty, Ramses III, had his military victories depicted on the walls of his mortuary complex at Medinet Habu, near Thebes. After his death the New Kingdom declined, chiefly because of the rising power of the priesthood of Amon and the army. One high priest and military commander even had himself depicted in royal regalia.

Third Intermediate Period

The 21st through the 24th dynasties are known as the Third Intermediate period. Kings ruling from Tanis, in the north, vied with a line of high priests, to whom they appear to be related, from Thebes, in the south. The rulers of the 21st Dynasty may have been partially Libyan in ancestry, and the 22nd Dynasty began with Libyan chieftains as kings. As the Libyans' rule deteriorated, several rivals rose to challenge them. In fact the next two dynasties, the 23rd and 24th, were contemporaneous with part of the 22nd Dynasty, just as the 25th (Cushite) Dynasty effectively controlled much of Egypt during the latter years of the 22nd and the 24th dynasties.

Late Period

The 25th through the 31st dynasties ruled Egypt during the time that has come to be known as the Late Period. The Cushites ruled from about 767 BC until they were ousted by the Assyrians in 671 BC. Native rule was reestablished early in the 26th Dynasty by Psamtik I. A resurgence of cultural achievement, reminiscent of earlier epochs, reached its height in the 26th Dynasty. When the last Egyptian king was defeated by Cambyses II in 525 BC, the country entered a period of Persian domination under the 27th Dynasty. Egypt reasserted its independence under the 28th and 29th dynasties, but the 30th Dynasty was the last one of native rulers. The 31st Dynasty, which is not listed in Manetho's chronology, represented the second Persian domination.

The Hellenistic and Roman Periods

The occupation of Egypt by the forces of Alexander the Great in 332 BC brought an end to Persian rule. Alexander appointed Cleomenes of Naucratis, a Greek resident in Egypt, and his Macedonian general, known later as Ptolemy I, to govern the country. Although two Egyptian governors were named as well, power was clearly in the hands of Ptolemy, who in a few years took absolute control of the country.

The Ptolemaic Dynasty

Rivalries with other generals, who carved out sections of Alexander's empire after his death in 323 BC, occupied much of Ptolemy's time, but in 305 BC he assumed the royal title and founded the dynasty that bears his name (see Ptolemaic Dynasty). Ptolemaic Egypt was one of the great powers of the Hellenistic world, and at various times it extended its rule over parts of Syria, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Libya, Phoenicia, and other lands.

Partly because native Egyptian rulers had a reduced role in affairs of state during the Ptolemaic regime, they periodically demonstrated their dissatisfaction by open revolts, all of which were, however, quickly suppressed. In the reign of Ptolemy VI, Egypt became a protectorate under Antiochus IV of Syria, who successfully invaded the country in 169 BC. The Romans, however, forced Antiochus to give up the country, which was then divided between Ptolemy VI and his younger brother, Ptolemy VII; the latter took full control upon the death of his brother in 145 BC.

The succeeding Ptolemies preserved the wealth and status of Egypt while continually losing territory to the Romans. Cleopatra VII was the last great ruler of the Ptolemaic line. In an attempt to maintain Egyptian power she aligned herself with Julius Caesar and, later, Mark Antony, but these moves only postponed the end. After her forces were defeated by Roman legions under Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 BC.

Roman and Byzantine Rule

For nearly seven centuries after the death of Cleopatra, the Romans controlled Egypt (except for a short time in the 3rd century AD, when it came under the power of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra). They treated Egypt as a valuable source of wealth and profit and were dependent on its supply of grain to feed their multitudes. Roman Egypt was governed by a prefect, whose duties as commander of the army and official judge were similar to those of the pharaohs of the past. The office, therefore, was one with which the native population was familiar. Because of the immense power of the prefects, however, their functions were eventually divided under Emperor Justinian, who in the 6th century AD put the army under a separate commander, directly responsible to him.

Egypt in the Roman period was relatively peaceful; its southern boundary at Aswan was only rarely attacked by the Ethiopians. Egypt's population had become Hellenized under the Ptolemies, and it included large minorities of Greeks and Jews, as well as other peoples from Asia Minor. The mixture of the cultures did not lead to a homogeneous society, and civil strife was frequent. In 212, however, Emperor Caracalla granted the entire population citizenship in the Roman Empire.

Alexandria, the port city on the Mediterranean founded by Alexander the Great, remained the capital as it had been under the Ptolemies. One of the great metropolises of the Roman Empire, it was the center of a thriving commerce between India and Arabia and the Mediterranean countries. It was the home of the great Alexandrian library and museum and had a population of some 300,000 (excluding slaves).

Egypt became an economic mainstay of the Roman Empire not only because of its annual harvest of grain but also for its glass, metal, and other manufactured products. In addition, the trade brought in spices, perfumes, precious stones, and rare metals from the Red Sea ports. Once part of the empire, Egypt was subject to a variety of taxes as well.

In order to control the people and placate the powerful priesthood, the Roman emperors protected the ancient religion, completed or embellished temples begun under the Ptolemies, and had their own names inscribed on them as pharaohs; the cartouches of several can be found at Isna, Kawn Umbu, Dandara, and Philae. The Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis spread throughout the ancient world. Egypt was also an important center of early Christendom and the first one of Christian monasticism. Its Coptic or Monophysite church separated from mainstream Christianity in the 5th century.

During the 7th century the power of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was challenged by the Sassanids of Persia, who invaded Egypt in 616. They were expelled again in 628, but soon after, in 642, the country fell to the Arabs, who brought with them a new religion, Islam, and began a new chapter of Egyptian history.

Egypt Under the Caliphate

Alienated by the religious intolerance and heavy taxation of the Byzantine government, the Coptic Egyptians offered little resistance to their Arab conquerors. A treaty was subsequently signed, by which the Egyptians agreed to pay a poll tax (jizyah) in return for an Arab promise to respect the religious practices, lives, and property of the Copts. Besides the poll tax, the male population, estimated at between 6 and 8 million, paid the kharaj, a tax levied on agricultural land.

Local Government

No changes in the administration were made by the Arabs, who adopted the Byzantine decentralized system of provincial governors reporting to a chief governor, resident in the capital, Alexandria. They did, however, later move the capital to a new, more central location, called Al Fustat ("the tent"), a few miles south of present-day Cairo.

For the next two centuries Egypt was ruled by governors appointed by the caliph, the leader of the Muslim community. In this system, mild and generous rule alternated with severity and religious oppression, depending on the character of the governor appointed, his relationship with the population, and his financial needs. Immigration of Arab tribes and the replacement of the Coptic language by Arabic in all public documents began a slow process of Arabization that was eventually to turn Coptic-speaking Christian Egypt into a largely Muslim and wholly Arabic-speaking country. Coptic became a liturgical language.

Internal Strife

Under the Abbasid caliphs (750-868), governors were appointed for brief periods, and Egypt was plagued by a series of insurrections arising from conflicts between the different sects of Muslims who had settled there: the Sunni, or orthodox majority, and the minority Shia sect. On several occasions the Copts also rose to protest excessive taxation. Such uprisings were met with repression and persecution by the government. Internal conditions became so bad in the late 8th century that a group of new immigrants from Andalusia allied themselves with an Arab tribe and seized Alexandria, holding it until an army arrived from Baghdad and exiled them to Crete. Insurrections continued to break out among the Arabs, who even defeated a governor and burned his baggage. Rebellions by the Copts continued until Caliph Abdullah al-Mamun led a Turkish army to put down the revolts in 832. This was a period of ruthless and unscrupulous governors, who abused the population and extorted money from them. The only bulwark against such oppression lay in the chief qadi, the country's leading Muslim magistrate, who maintained the sacred law—the Sharia—in the face of abuse of power, and helped ease the rapacity of the governors.

Despite a predominantly rural population, commercial centers flourished, and Al Fustat grew to become a trading metropolis.

Succeeding Autonomous Dynasties

From 856 onward Egypt was given as an iqta, a form of fief, to the Turkish military oligarchy that dominated the caliphate in Baghdad. In 868 Ahmad ibn Tulun, a 33-year-old Turk, was sent to the country as governor. A man of ability and education, Tulun ruled wisely and well, but he also turned Egypt into an autonomous province, linked with the Abbasids only by the yearly payment of a small tribute. Tulun built a new city, Al Qita ("the Wards"), north of Al Fustat. Under his benevolent rule Egypt prospered and expanded to annex Syria. Tulun's dynasty (the Tulunids) ruled for 37 years over an empire that included Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

The Fatimid Caliphate

After the last rule by the Tulunids, the country fell into a state of anarchy. Its weak and defenseless condition made it an easy prey for the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty that in 909, rejecting the authority of the Abbasids, had proclaimed their own caliphate in Tunisia and by the mid-10th century controlled most of North Africa. In 969 they invaded and conquered Egypt and subsequently founded a new city, Cairo, north of Al Fustat, making it their capital. See Caliphate.

Al Fustat, however, remained the commercial hub of the country under the Fatimids. It was an impressive, multistoried urban center with an excellent underground sewage system. An Iranian traveler, Nasir-i-Khosrau, who visited Egypt in 1046, marveled at the rich markets and the security of the land. Egypt was then enjoying a period of tranquillity and prosperity.

The Fatimids, although Shiites in their beliefs, for the most part coexisted peacefully with the predominantly Sunni population. They founded the oldest university in the world, Al Azhar, and Cairo became a great intellectual center.

The Ayyubid Sultanate

Tranquillity disappeared with later Fatimid rulers, who could not control their unruly regiments of Berber and Sudanese soldiers. A low Nile caused serious famine in 1065. New danger appeared with the First Crusade from western Europe, which established Christian control over Syria and Palestine in the late 1090s. The Fatimid caliphs, by now pawns in the hands of their generals, appealed to Nur ad-Din of Halab (Aleppo), and he sent an army to help them against the Crusaders in 1168. Saladin, one of Nur ad-Din's generals, was installed as vizier. In 1171 he abolished the Fatimid caliphate, founding the Ayyubid dynasty and restoring Sunni rule to Egypt. Saladin reconquered most of Syria and Palestine from the Crusaders and became the most powerful Middle Eastern ruler of this time. His nephew, Sultan al-Kamil, who reigned 1218-1238, successfully defended Egypt against a Christian attack in 1218-1221, but after his death Ayyubid power declined. The Ninth Crusade, led by Louis IX of France, was repelled in 1249, with the aid of the Mamelukes, slave troops in Ayyubid service. The following year the Mamelukes overthrew the Ayyubids and established their own ruling house.

The Mamelukes

The first Mameluke dynasty, the Bahri, held power as sultans of Egypt until 1382. Hereditary succession was frequently disregarded and the throne usurped by the more powerful emirs (military commanders). Many among them were remarkable rulers, such as Baybars I, who halted the Mongol advance into Syria and Egypt in 1260. Two other Mongol invasions were repelled by the Mamelukes, who also expelled the Crusaders from the region and captured ‘Akko, their last stronghold in Palestine, in 1291. In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Mameluke realm extended north to the borders of Asia Minor.

The age of the Mamelukes was one of extraordinary brilliance in the arts. It was also an age of commercial expansion; Egypt's spice traders, the Karimi, were merchant princes who vied with the emirs in patronizing the arts.

After the death of the last great Bahri sultan, al-Nasir, in 1341, Egypt lapsed into decline. His descendants were mere figureheads who allowed real power to remain in the hands of the emirs. In 1348 the plague known as the Black Death swept over the land, radically reducing the population.

The second dynasty of Mameluke sultans, the Burjis, was of Circassian origin and ruled from 1382 to 1517. Most of the Burji rulers exercised little real authority; their dynasty was marked by continual power struggles among the Mameluke elite. In the midst of rebellion and civil strife, the Mamelukes continued to hold Egypt and Syria by virtue of their ability to repel invasions. By the early 16th century, however, they were threatened by the growing power of the Ottoman Empire, and in 1517 the Ottoman Sultan Selim I invaded Egypt and ruled it.

Ottoman Ascendancy

Although the real hold of the Ottoman Turks over Egypt was to last only until the 17th century, the country remained nominally part of the Ottoman Empire until 1915. Rather than exterminate the Mamelukes, the Ottomans used them in their administration. They established a governor and settled six ocaks (regiments) in Egypt as a garrison. In time the roman ocaks intermarried with the native people, playing an important role in the country's economic and political life. Rural areas were treated as crown lands, parceled into plots called iqta, the produce of which went to the Ottoman elite.

Mameluke Resurgence

As time went on, an inflationary trend that historians have noted in 16th-century Europe had repercussions in Egypt as well. Rising prices led to rivalry among the ocaks over the country's wealth. This weakened their control, and the Mamelukes stepped into the breach. By the mid-17th century the Mameluke emirs, or beys, had established their supremacy. Land taxes were farmed out among them, and the urban guilds, which were closely allied with the roman ocaks, were heavily taxed as a means of diminishing Ottoman influence and of increasing revenue. The Ottomans acquiesced in the system so long as the tribute was regularly paid.

The period from the 16th to the mid-18th century was an age of commercial prosperity when Egypt, at the crossroads of several commercial routes, was the center of a flourishing intermediary trade in coffee, textiles, and spices.

The Ottoman governor quickly became a puppet, first in the hands of the regiments, which held the military power, and then in the hands of the Mamelukes, who came to control the ocaks. The leading Mameluke bey, called the Shaikh al-Balad ("chief of the city"), thus became recognized as the real ruler of the land. The beys imposed higher taxes to finance their military expeditions in Syria and Arabia. Although defeated in Syria by the Ottomans, who once more sought to reinforce their authority, the Mamelukes dominated Egypt until 1798. The last 30 years of the 18th century were marked by plagues and famine that reduced the population to a bare 4 million.

The Time of Muhammad Ali

The French occupation of Egypt in 1798, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, was a brief interlude, for the French never acquired full dominion or control. The grain-producing regions of Upper Egypt remained in Mameluke hands. Napoleon's invasion was too short-lived to have any lasting impact, but it marked the beginning of a renewed European interest in Egypt. In 1801 an Anglo-Ottoman force expelled the French. For the next few years, struggles between Mamelukes and Ottomans for mastery ruined the country until Muhammad Ali, an Ottoman general of Albanian origin, seized power with the cooperation of the local population. In 1805 the Ottoman sultan declared him the governor of Egypt.

Muhammad Ali, a man of genius, slowly and methodically destroyed or bought off all his opponents until he became the only source of power in the country. To gain control of all the trade routes into Egypt, he embarked on wars of expansion. He first conquered Al Hijaz (the Hejaz, now in Saudi Arabia) in 1819 and Sudan from 1820 to 1822; by 1824 he was ready to help the Ottoman sultan put down an insurrection in Greece. The European powers, however, intervened to halt Egyptian advances in Greece, and Muhammad Ali was forced to withdraw his army.

At home, Muhammad Ali encouraged the production of cotton to supply the textile mills of Europe, and he used the profits to finance industrial projects. He established a monopoly over all commodities and imposed trade barriers to nurture industry. He sent Egyptians abroad for technical education and hired experts from Europe to train his army and build his manufacturing industries (which, however, were never as successful as he hoped they would be).

In 1831 Muhammad Ali invaded Syria, thereby coming into conflict with his Turkish overlord. The Egyptians defeated the Ottoman armies, and by 1833 they were threatening the Turkish capital, Constantinople. Once again, Russia, Britain, and France intervened, this time to protect the sultan. Muhammad Ali's forces withdrew, but he was left in control of Syria and Crete.

Egyptian expansion and control over trade routes conflicted with Britain's growing interest in the Middle East as a market for its burgeoning industrial production. The threat to the integrity of the Ottoman Empire also disturbed Britain and roused fears of Russian encroachment in the Mediterranean. For these reasons the British opposed Egypt, and when Muhammad Ali again rebelled against the sultan in 1839, they stepped in for the third time to make him back down. He was offered hereditary possession of Egypt, but had to give up his other conquests and remain an Ottoman vassal.

Bankruptcy and Foreign Control

After the death of Muhammad Ali in 1849, Egypt came increasingly under European influence. His son, Said Pasha, made some attempt to modernize the government, but left a huge debt when he died. His successor, Ismail Pasha, increased the national debt by borrowing lavishly from European bankers to develop the country and pay for the Suez Canal, which was opened in 1869. These spendthrift rulers drove the country into bankruptcy and ultimately into the control of their British and French creditors. In 1876 an Anglo-French commission took charge of Egypt's finances, and in 1879 the sultan deposed Ismail in favor of his son Tawfik Pasha. Army officers, disgusted by the government's weakness, then led a rebellion to end foreign control. Tawfik appealed to the British for help, and they occupied Egypt in 1882.

Egypt Under the British

British interest in Egypt stemmed from the Suez Canal as the short route to India. Promises to evacuate the country once order had been restored were broken, and the British army remained in occupation until 1954. Although Tawfik remained on the throne as a figurehead prince, the British consul general was the real ruler of the country. The first and most important consul general was Sir Evelyn Baring (known after 1892 as Lord Cromer).

A nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kamil, a European-educated lawyer, was backed by Tawfik's successor, Abbas II, during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Kamil agitated for self-government and an end to the British occupation but was ignored by British authorities.

In this period Egyptian agriculture was so completely dominated by cotton grown to feed the textile mills of Lancashire, England, that grain had to be imported to feed the rural population. Irrigation projects were carried out to increase the arable land, and in due course the entire debt to Britain was paid.

British promises to evacuate diminished as Egypt and the Suez Canal became an integral part of British Mediterranean defense policy. The illegal occupation was, in fact, internationally sanctioned in 1904, when France recognized British rights in Egypt in return for British acknowledgment of French rights in Morocco.

Protectorate Declared

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought nationalist activities in Egypt to an end. When Turkey entered the war on the side of Germany, Britain declared Egypt a protectorate and deposed Abbas II in favor of his uncle, Hussein Kamil, who was given the title of sultan. Legal ties between Egypt and Turkey were finally severed, and Britain promised Egypt some changes in government once the war was over.

The war years resulted in great hardship for Egyptian peasants, the fellahin, who were conscripted to dig ditches and whose livestock was confiscated by the army. Inflation was rampant. These factors were responsible for increasing resentment against the British and set the stage for the violent upheaval that was to come after World War I ended in 1918.

The Puppet Monarchy

Allied promises that former Ottoman territories would be allowed self-determination raised hopes in Egypt of independence once the war was over. A new nationalist movement, the Wafd ("delegation"), was formed in 1918 to plan for the country's future. Hopes were dashed when Britain refused to consider Egyptian needs, and Saad Zaghlul, the leader of the Wafd, was exiled. The country erupted in violent revolt, and Britain was forced to reconsider its decision. Zaghlul was released, but his efforts to get a hearing at the Paris Peace Conference were thwarted by the British. Violence continued until 1922, when Britain unilaterally declared Egypt an independent monarchy under Hussein's successor, who became king as Fuad I. The British, however, reserved the right to intervene in Egyptian affairs if their interests were threatened, thereby robbing Egypt of any real independence and allowing British control to continue unabated.

The new constitution of 1924 set up a bicameral legislature but, under pressure from the British and Fuad, gave the latter the right to nominate the premier and to suspend Parliament. The result was a tripartite struggle for mastery over Egypt involving the king, the British ambassador, and the Wafd, which was the only grass-roots party. One government after another fell after trying unsuccessfully to extract concessions from the British. In 1936, under pressures caused by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, an Anglo-Egyptian treaty was finally signed, but it continued the physical occupation of Egypt by the British army and the involvement of the British army in internal affairs.

The Coup of 1952

World War II (1939-1945) suspended further political bargaining. The war years brought inflation, interparty strife, and disillusion with the Wafd. Fundamentalist religious organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and Communist groups developed.

In 1948 Egypt and several other Arab states went to war in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the establishment of the state of Israel. Blaming the government for its loss, the army turned against King Faruk, Fuad's son, who showed no aptitude for government and a blatant disregard for public well-being and morality. In 1952 a group of army officers carried out a successful coup d'etat that ousted the king and in 1953 declared Egypt a republic.

The Republican Era

The first president of the republic, General Muhammad Naguib, was a figurehead. The real leader was Gamal Abdel Nasser of the Revolutionary Command Council, the officers who had plotted the revolution. In April 1954 Nasser became prime minister. In November of that year, Naguib was removed from power, and Nasser assumed complete executive authority. In July 1956 Nasser was officially elected president.

The Nasser Years

At first Nasser followed a pro-Western policy and successfully negotiated the evacuation of British forces from Egypt in 1954. Soon he turned to a policy of neutrality and solidarity with other African and Asian nations and became an advocate of Arab unity.

The Suez Crisis

In efforts to acquire armaments, which the Western world would not supply to Egypt, Nasser turned to the Eastern bloc. In retaliation, the World Bank turned down Egypt's request for a loan to finance the Aswan High Dam project. Nasser therefore nationalized the Suez Canal and sought to use its revenues to finance the dam. Angered by that move, Britain and France, the main stockholders in the canal, joined with Israel in attacking Egypt in 1956. Pressure from the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) forced the three countries to evacuate Egyptian territory, and United Nations (UN) forces were placed as a buffer between Egypt and Israel.

Pursuing his dream of Arab unity, Nasser in 1958 effected a union between Egypt and Syria under the name of the United Arab Republic. Although it lasted only three years before the Syrians rebelled and reaffirmed their independence, Egypt retained the official name of the republic for many years afterward.

Arab Socialism

Within Egypt the Nasser regime suppressed political opposition and established a one-party system as a means of reforming political life. A series of decrees limited land ownership and undermined the authority of the landowning elite. In 1961 foreign capital invested in Egypt was nationalized, as were public utilities and local industries, all of which became part of the public sector. This new order, which Nasser called Arab Socialism, aimed at greater social equality and economic growth. In 1962 a national charter was drawn up, and the official National Union party was renamed the Arab Socialist Union. Women, who had been emancipated earlier, were elected to the union, as were workers. The first woman cabinet minister was appointed.

Wars of the 1960s

In 1962 Egypt became embroiled in a civil war in Yemen, backing a republican movement against monarchist forces. This venture cost lives and money and left the country weakened. In 1967 Nasser, continuing the Arab struggle against Israel, closed the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping and requested that the UN forces be withdrawn from the border. The Israelis, believing that Nasser was preparing for war, struck first, attacking and destroying Egyptian airfields and positions in the Sinai. Israeli forces advanced until they reached the right bank of the Suez Canal. This Six-Day War left Israel in possession of the whole Sinai Peninsula. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which emphasized the "inadmissibility of acquiring territory by war" and called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. Israel read the resolution as withdrawal from "some territories" and continued to occupy the Sinai. When negotiations seemed to be leading nowhere, Nasser turned to the USSR, which rearmed Egypt in return for a naval base.

Nasser died suddenly in 1970. Problems of succession to the post of president were settled when Vice President Anwar al-Sadat, a long-time colleague of Nasser, was chosen to succeed him.

The Sadat Regime

Sadat was elected by opposing political factions as a compromise candidate, on the assumption that he could be manipulated. The new president, however, outwitted his would-be puppeteers and, with the support of the army, put them under arrest. He freed political prisoners who had been incarcerated by Nasser for opposing his policies, and called for a regime of economic and political liberalization, especially for the press, which Nasser had strictly controlled.

The Yom Kippur War

Skirmishes between Egypt and Israel had continued after 1969, and this "war of attrition" had resulted in high Egyptian casualties and burdensome military expenditures. Sadat tried to find a way out of that impasse by negotiation. Unsuccessful, he secretly planned another round against Israel. He first repaired his fences with the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, which financed arms purchases from the Soviet Union. Then, on October 6, 1973, on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur and during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Egypt launched an air and artillery assault across the Suez Canal. Within hours, thousands of Egyptian soldiers had successfully crossed into the Sinai. Protected by a missile umbrella that destroyed Israeli aircraft, they overran and captured the string of Israeli fortifications known as the Bar-Lev line. Israel was caught unprepared. By the middle of the month, however, it had regained the initiative and was able to encircle Egyptian units on the outskirts of Suez. The United Nations then imposed a cease-fire, and an armistice line patrolled by UN forces was eventually established between the Egyptian and the Israeli armies.