History of Egypt
History of Egypt, Ancient Egypt, and Egyptians
There is evidence of rock carvings along the Nile terraces and in the desert oases. In the 10th millennium BC, a culture of hunter-gatherers and fishers replaced a grain-grinding culture. Climate changes and/or overgrazing around 8000 BC began to desiccate the pastoral lands of Egypt, forming the Sahara. Early tribal peoples migrated to the Nile River where they developed a settled agricultural economy and more centralized society.
By about 6000 BC the Neolithic culture rooted in the Nile Valley. During the
Neolithic era, several predynastic cultures developed independently in Upper
and Lower Egypt. The Badarian culture and the successor Naqada series are generally
regarded as precursors to Dynastic Egyptian civilization. The earliest known
Lower Egyptian site, Merimda, predates the Badarian by about seven hundred years.
Contemporaneous Lower Egyptian communities coexisted with their southern counterparts
for more than two thousand years, remaining somewhat culturally separate, but
maintaining frequent contact through trade. The earliest known evidence of Egyptian
hieroglyphic inscriptions appeared during the predynastic period on Naqada III
pottery vessels, dated to about 3200 BC.
tAwy ('Two Lands')
A unified kingdom was founded circa 3150 BC by King Menes, leading to a series
of dynasties that ruled Egypt for the next three millennia. Egyptians later
referred to their unified country as tawy, meaning "two lands", and
later kemet (Coptic: kimi), the "black land", a reference to the fertile
black soil deposited by the Nile River. Egyptian culture flourished during this
long period and remained distinctively Egyptian in its religion, arts, language
and customs. The first two ruling dynasties of a unified Egypt set the stage
for the Old Kingdom period, c.2700-2200 BC., famous for its many pyramids, most
notably the Third Dynasty pyramid of Djoser and the Fourth Dynasty Giza Pyramids.
Pyramid of Djoser
The Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, built during the Old Kingdom, are modern national icons that are at the heart of Egypt's thriving tourism industry.
The First Intermediate Period ushered in a time of political upheaval for about
150 years. Stronger Nile floods and stabilization of government, however,
brought back renewed prosperity for the country in the Middle Kingdom c. 2040
BC, reaching a peak during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhat III. A second period
of disunity heralded the arrival of the first foreign ruling dynasty in Egypt,
that of the Semitic Hyksos. The Hyksos invaders took over much of Lower Egypt
around 1650 BC and founded a new capital at Avaris. They were driven out by
an Upper Egyptian force led by Ahmose I, who founded the Eighteenth Dynasty
and relocated the capital from Memphis to Thebes.
The Hanging Church of Cairo, first built in the third or fourth century AD, is one of the most famous Coptic Churches in Egypt.
The New Kingdom (c.1550-1070 BC) began with the Eighteenth
Dynasty, marking the rise of Egypt as an international power that expanded during
its greatest extension to an empire as far south as Tombos in Nubia, and included
parts of the Levant in the east. This period is noted for some of the most well-known
Pharaohs, including Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti,
Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. The first historically attested expression of monotheism
came during this period as Atenism. Frequent contacts with other nations brought
new ideas to the New Kingdom. The country was later invaded and conquered by
Libyans, Nubians and Assyrians, but native Egyptians eventually drove them out
and regained control of their country.
Persian, Greek and Roman occupation
The Thirtieth Dynasty was the last native ruling dynasty during the Pharaonic epoch. It fell to the Persians in 343 BC after the last native Pharaoh, King Nectanebo II, was defeated in battle. Later, Egypt fell to the Greco–Macedonians and Romans, beginning over two thousand years of foreign rule. The last ruler from the Ptolemaic line was Cleopatra VII, who committed suicide with her lover Marc Antony, after Caesar Augustus had captured them.
Before Egypt became part of the Byzantine realm, Christianity had been brought
by Saint Mark the Evangelist in the AD first century. Diocletian's reign marked
the transition from the Roman to the Byzantine era in Egypt, when a great number
of Egyptian Christians were persecuted. The New Testament had by then been translated
into Egyptian. After the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, a distinct Egyptian
Coptic Church was firmly established.
Arab and Ottoman invasion
The Byzantines were able to regain control of the country after a brief Persian invasion early in the seventh century, until in AD 639, Egypt was absorbed into the Islamic Empire by the Muslim Arabs. When they defeated the Byzantine Armies in Egypt, with the help of some revolutionary Egyptians, the Arabs brought Sunni Islam to the country. Early in this period, Egyptians began to blend their new faith with indigenous beliefs and practices that had survived through Coptic Christianity that was expanded in Egypt by the Byzantines, leading to various Sufi orders that have flourished to this day.
Muslim rulers nominated by the Islamic Caliphate remained in control of Egypt for the next six centuries, with Cairo as the seat of the Caliphate under the Fatimids. With the end of the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty, the Mamluks, a Turco-Circassian military caste, took control about AD 1250. By late 13th century, Egypt linked the Red Sea, India, Malaya, and East Indies. The strategic positioning "assured importance in productive economy". They continued to govern the country until the conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman Turks in 1517, after which it became a province of the Ottoman Empire. The mid-14th-Century Black Death killed about 40% of the country's population.
After the 15th century, the threat of military European Crusaders and Central
Asian Mongols set the Egpytian system into decline. The defensive militarization
challenged the civil society and economic institutions. The weakening of
the economic system combined with the effects of Black Death left Egypt vulnerable
to foreign invasion which can be seen with the Portuguese taking over their
trade. Egypt suffered six famines between 1687 and 1731. The famine
that afflicted Egypt in 1784 cost it roughly one-sixth of its population.
Battle of the Pyramids, July 21, 1798, by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau.
British admiral Codrington negotiating with Muhammad Ali Pasha in the latter's palace in Alexandria.
The brief French invasion of Egypt led by Napoleon Bonaparte began in 1798. The expulsion of the French in 1801 by Ottoman, Mamluk, and British forces was followed by four years of anarchy in which Ottomans, Mamluks, and Albanians who were nominally in the service of the Ottomans, wrestled for power. Out of this chaos, the commander of the Albanian regiment, Muhammad Ali (Kavalali Mehmed Ali Pasha) emerged as a dominant figure and in 1805 was acknowledged by the Sultan in Istanbul as his viceroy in Egypt; the title implied subordination to the Sultan but this was in fact a polite fiction: Ottoman power in Egypt was finished and Muhammad Ali, an ambitious and able leader, established a dynasty that was to rule Egypt (at first really and later as British puppets) until the revolution of 1952.
His primary focus was military: he annexed Northern Sudan (1820–1824), Syria (1833), and parts of Arabia and Anatolia; but in 1841 the European powers, fearful lest he topple the Ottoman Empire itself, checked him: he had to return most of his conquests to the Ottomans, but he kept the Sudan and his title to Egypt was made hereditary. A more lasting result of his military ambition is that it made him the moderniser of Egypt. Eager to learn the military (and therefore industrial) techniques of the great powers he sent students to the West and invited training missions to Egypt. He built industries, a system of canals for irrigation and transport, and reformed the civil service.
For better or worse, the introduction in 1820 of long-staple cotton, the Egyptian
variety of which became famous, transformed Egyptian agriculture into a cash-crop
monoculture before the end of the century. The social effects of this were enormous:
it led to the concentration of agriculture in the hands of large landowners,
and, with the additional trigger of high cotton prices caused by the United
States' civil war production drop, to a large influx of foreigners who began
in earnest the exploitation of Egypt for international commodity production.
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
Female nationalists demonstrating in Cairo, 1919.
Muhammad Ali was succeeded briefly by his son Ibrahim (in September 1848), then by a grandson Abbas I (in November 1848), then by Said (in 1854), and Isma'il (in 1863). Abbas I was cautious. Said and Ismail were ambitious developers; unfortunately they spent beyond their means. The Suez Canal, built in partnership with the French, was completed in 1869. The cost of this and other projects had two effects: it led to enormous debt to European banks, and caused popular discontent because of the onerous taxation it required. In 1875 Ismail was forced to sell Egypt's share in the canal to the British Government. Within three years this led to the imposition of British and French controllers who sat in the Egyptian cabinet, and, "with the financial power of the bondholders behind them, were the real power in the Government."
Local dissatisfaction with Ismail and with European intrusion led to the formation of the first nationalist groupings in 1879, with Ahmad Urabi a prominent figure. In 1882 he became head of a nationalist-dominated ministry committed to democratic reforms including parliamentary control of the budget. Fearing a diminishment of their control, Britain and France intervened militarily, bombarding Alexandria and crushing the Egyptian army at the battle of Tel el-Kebir. They reinstalled Ismail's son Tewfik as figurehead of a de facto British protectorate.
In 1914 the Protectorate was made official, and the title of the head of state, which had changed from pasha to khedive in 1867, was changed to sultan, to repudiate the vestigial suzerainty of the Ottoman sultan, who was backing the Central powers in World War I. Abbas II was deposed as khedive and replaced by his uncle, Hussein Kamel, as sultan.
In 1906, the Dinshaway Incident prompted many neutral Egyptians to join the
nationalist movement. After the First World War, Saad Zaghlul and the Wafd Party
led the Egyptian nationalist movement, gaining a majority at the local Legislative
Assembly. When the British exiled Zaghlul and his associates to Malta on 8 March
1919, the country arose in its first modern revolution. Constant revolting by
the Egyptian people throughout the country led Great Britain to issue a unilateral
declaration of Egypt's independence on 22 February 1922.
British infantry manning a sandbagged defensive position near El Alamein, July 1942.
The new Egyptian Government drafted and implemented a new constitution in 1923 based on a parliamentary representative system. Saad Zaghlul was popularly elected as Prime Minister of Egypt in 1924. In 1936 the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was concluded. Continued instability in the Government due to remaining British control and increasing political involvement by the king led to the ousting of the monarchy and the dissolution of the parliament in a military coup d'état known as the 1952 Revolution. The officers, known as the Free Officers Movement, forced King Farouk to abdicate in support of his son Fuad.
On 18 June 1953, the Egyptian Republic was declared, with General Muhammad
Naguib as the first President of the Republic. Naguib was forced to resign in
1954 by Gamal Abdel Nasser – the real architect of the 1952 movement –
and was later put under house arrest. Nasser assumed power as President in June
1956. British forces completed their withdrawal from the occupied Suez Canal
Zone on 13 June 1956. His nationalization of the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956
prompted the 1956 Suez Crisis.
View of Cairo, the largest city in Africa and the Middle East. The Cairo Opera House (bottom-right) is the main performing arts venue in the Egyptian capital.
Three years after the 1967 Six Day War, during which Israel had invaded and occupied Sinai, Nasser died and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat. Sadat switched Egypt's Cold War allegiance from the Soviet Union to the United States, expelling Soviet advisors in 1972. He launched the Infitah economic reform policy, while violently clamping down on religious and secular opposition alike.
In 1973, Egypt, along with Syria, launched the October War, a surprise attack against the Israeli forces occupying the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. It was an attempt to liberate part of the Sinai territory Israel had captured 6 years earlier. Sadat hoped to seize some territory through military force, and then regain the rest of the peninsula by diplomacy. The conflict sparked an international crisis between the two world superpowers: the US and the USSR, both of whom intervened. Two UN-mandated ceasefires were needed to bring military operations to a halt. While the war ended with a military Israeli victory, it presented Sadat with a political victory that later allowed him to regain the Sinai in return for peace with Israel.
Sadat made a historic visit to Israel in 1977, which led to the 1979 peace
treaty in exchange for the complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. Sadat's initiative
sparked enormous controversy in the Arab world and led to Egypt's expulsion
from the Arab League, but it was supported by most Egyptians. A fundamentalist
military soldier assassinated Sadat in Cairo in 1981. He was succeeded by the
incumbent Hosni Mubarak. In 2003, the Egyptian Movement for Change, popularly
known as Kefaya, was launched to seek a return to democracy and greater civil
Mahmoud Mokhtar's Egypt's Renaissance 1919–1928, Cairo University.
The Nile Valley was home to one of the oldest cultures in the world, spanning three thousand years of continuous history. When Egypt fell under a series of foreign occupations after 343 BC, each left an indelible mark on the country's cultural landscape. Egyptian identity evolved in the span of this long period of occupation to accommodate, in principle, two new religions, Islam and Christianity; and a new language, Arabic, and its spoken descendant, Egyptian Arabic.
The degree to which Egyptians identify with each layer of Egypt's history in articulating a sense of collective identity can vary. Questions of identity came to fore in the last century as Egypt sought to free itself from foreign occupation for the first time in two thousand years. Three chief ideologies came to head: ethno-territorial Egyptian nationalism, secular Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism, and Islamism. Egyptian nationalism predates its Arab counterpart by many decades, having roots in the nineteenth century and becoming the dominant mode of expression of Egyptian anti-colonial activists and intellectuals until the early 20th century. Arab nationalism reached a peak under Nasser but was again relegated under Sadat; meanwhile, the ideology espoused by Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood is present in small segments of the lower-middle strata of Egyptian society.
The work of early nineteenth-century scholar Rifa'a et-Tahtawi led to the Egyptian Renaissance, marking the transition from Medieval to Early Modern Egypt. His work renewed interest in Egyptian antiquity and exposed Egyptian society to Enlightenment principles. Tahtawi co-founded with education reformer Ali Mubarak a native Egyptology school that looked for inspiration to medieval Egyptian scholars, such as Suyuti and Maqrizi, who themselves studied the history, language and antiquities of Egypt.
Egypt's renaissance peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the work of people like Muhammad Abduh, Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, Muhammad Loutfi Goumah, Tawfiq el-Hakim, Louis Awad, Qasim Amin, Salama Moussa, Taha Hussein and Mahmoud Mokhtar. They forged a liberal path for Egypt expressed as a commitment to personal freedom, secularism and faith in science to bring progress.