From Grolier's The New Book of Knowledge

Map of Egypt

Map of Egypt. (Grolier Interactive Inc.)

Copyright © 2002 Grolier Incorporated. All Rights Reserved.

Egypt is a modern nation in an ancient land. The valley of the Nile, the river that runs like a ribbon through the length of the country, was the birthplace of one of the world's earliest civilizations. Reminders of Egypt's glorious past dot the landscape. The Great Pyramid at Giza was one of the wonders of the ancient world and is the only one that has survived. The giant statue known as the Sphinx--part human and part beast--has mystified and fascinated travelers for centuries. In ancient tombs, brilliantly colored wall paintings show the life of the Egyptian people as it was some 4,000 years ago.

Modern Egypt is the world's most populous Arab country and the second most populous nation in Africa, after Nigeria. Located at the northeastern corner of Africa, where Africa and Asia meet, it links the Muslim countries of southwest Asia with those of North Africa.

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The People

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus called Egypt "the gift of the Nile." Almost all of Egypt's people live on less than 4 percent of the land, on the fertile soil that borders the Nile River. Most of the rest of Egypt is desert, inhabited largely by nomadic Bedouin. About half the people live in the countryside. The rest live in cities, which are rapidly growing in population.

Language. Arabic is the official language of Egypt. English and French are also spoken, mainly among the more highly educated.

Religion. Egyptians are predominantly Muslims. However, nearly 7 percent of the people belong to the Coptic church, an ancient Christian church that existed in Egypt before the arrival of the Muslims.

Education. All levels of public education in Egypt are free. Five years of primary and three years of secondary school are compulsory for all children. Three additional years of secondary school are needed for college.

Al-Azhar University in Cairo, established in the 900's, is considered by many people to be the oldest university in the world. Founded as a center for teaching Arabic literature and Islamic law and theology, it now includes technical subjects along with its traditional course of study.

Rural Life. The country people, or fellahin, live in thousands of small villages, which lie along the Nile River or amid a network of irrigation canals. The fellahin farm the land much as their ancestors did. Each village has a mosque (a Muslim house of worship), a few shops, and a religious school. Homes are simple, usually consisting of a one-story house of two rooms. A mud-brick fireplace is used for cooking and to supply heat when needed.

Both men and women work in the fields. The children tend the donkey or water buffalo and herd sheep or goats if the family is prosperous enough to own them. The staple foods are bread made from corn flour and a dish made of beans, called ful. Meat is usually reserved for special holidays.

Urban Life. Egyptian city-dwellers live in apartment houses, in private homes in suburbs, or in crowded tenement districts. The growth of factories near the cities has attracted a large number of unskilled laborers from the farms, who sometimes wear the traditional dress of the fellahin. This consists of an ankle-length cotton robe, called a gallabiyea, and a skullcap or turban. Many city people, however, prefer to wear European-style clothing.

Adult members of city families return home from work for the main meal of the day, which is served at about two o'clock in the afternoon. The midday menu may include rice, vegetables, and lamb, broiled pigeons, fish, or poultry. Fruit is the most popular dessert. The meal usually ends with a tiny cup of strong, black Turkish coffee.

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The Land

Egypt is bordered by Libya on the west and by Sudan on the south. It is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea and on the east by Israel and the Red Sea.

Land Regions. Egypt consists of four geographical regions: the Nile River valley and its delta (the fan-shaped plain at its mouth); the Libyan, or Western, Desert in the west and south; the Arabian, or Eastern, Desert in the east; and the Sinai Peninsula.

Originating in the heart of Africa, the Nile flows northward through Egypt for a distance of about 930 miles (1,500 kilometers), before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. The Sinai Peninsula lies in southwest Asia and is the site of Egypt's highest mountain, Gebel Katherina (Mount Catherine), which rises to a height of 8,651 feet (2,737 meters). For more information, see the article Nile River.

The Suez Canal. Egypt's second most important waterway is the Suez Canal, which links the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez, an arm of the Red Sea. Because it shortens ship travel time between Europe and Asia, the canal is one of the world's chief commercial waterways. The canal and the Isthmus of Suez are the traditional boundary between Africa and Asia. See the article Suez Canal.

Climate. Egypt has a generally warm, dry climate. Summers are hot. In the south, daytime temperatures may reach 110°F (43°C), although nights are cool. Winters are usually mild. Rainfall is limited and is heaviest on the Mediterranean coast.

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The Economy

Agriculture. Egypt's Nile Valley is one of the most intensively cultivated and productive farming regions in the world. Agriculture has declined in importance in recent years, but it still employs nearly 30 percent of the workforce. Cotton is the major export crop. Egypt is also an important producer of rice, wheat, corn, sugarcane, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, and other vegetables.

Historically, Egyptian farmers depended on the yearly flooding of the Nile Valley to provide water for their crops. The Aswn High Dam and its reservoir, High Dam Lake (formerly Lake Nasser), now provide a more regular source of water for irrigation. The dam is also an important source of hydroelectric power.

Industry. Egypt has a growing industrial economy. The chief manufactured products include textiles, refined petroleum, steel products, cement, glass, fertilizers, processed foods, and a variety of consumer goods.

Mining is of increasing importance. Petroleum is the main export, along with cotton and textiles, although Egypt has smaller deposits of petroleum than some other Middle Eastern nations. Natural gas, salt, phosphates, iron ore, and coal are also produced.

Egypt's many ancient monuments have made tourism a traditional industry. Tolls for use of the Suez Canal and money sent home by Egyptians working abroad are additional sources of income.

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Major Cities

Cairo is Egypt's capital and largest city and the largest city in Africa. Situated on both banks of the Nile, it is Egypt's commercial and cultural center as well as the seat of government. See the separate article on Cairo.

Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, is a busy port on the Mediterranean Sea. Founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., it was long a cultural center of the Mediterranean region. It was famed in ancient times for its Pharos, or lighthouse, and for its great library.

Giza, a suburb of Cairo, is the site of the University of Cairo. Nearby are the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) and the statue of the Sphinx. Port Said, situated at the northern (Mediterranean) end of the Suez Canal, is one of Egypt's principal ports. The ancient city of Luxor is one of the country's major tourist attractions. Its historical sites include the Temple of Luxor, the Temple of Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings.

For more information on the Pharos and the Great Pyramid, see the article Wonders of the World.

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Egypt is a republic headed by a president, who serves a term of six years. The president appoints one or more vice presidents, the prime minister, and cabinet members. The legislature is the People's Assembly, elected for five years unless dissolved sooner by the president. The People's Assembly nominates the president, who then must be confirmed by popular vote. The National Shura Council, formed in 1980, serves as an advisory body.

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Ancient Egypt. Egypt has one of the longest histories of any nation in the world. The valley of the Nile River was one of the birthplaces of civilization. Egypt's written history alone goes back almost 5,000 years, to the very dawn of civilization.

Although there is disagreement about early Egyptian dates, it is thought that Egypt came into being sometime around 3200 B.C., when a king named Menes (also called Narmer) united the cities of northern and southern Egypt under one government. Some of the most impressive structures known, including the great pyramids (tombs for the early Egyptian kings) and the Sphinx at Giza, were built before 2200 B.C. The largest of the pyramids was constructed by King Khufu, or Cheops, perhaps about 2600 B.C.

Around 1675 B.C. the Hyksos, an eastern people about whom very little is known, invaded Egypt and conquered the country, bringing with them the first horses and chariots ever seen in Egypt. By about 1500 B.C. the Egyptians had driven the invaders out.

Around 1375 B.C., Amenhotep IV (later Akhenaten) became king of Egypt. He abolished the worship of the many ancient Egyptian gods and introduced worship of only one god. But after Akhenaten's death the believers in the old gods gained power again, and Akhenaten's reforms were disregarded.

Ramses II (1292-1225 B.C.) is best known for his monuments and temples at Karnak and for the temple he carved out of the cliffs on the western bank of the Nile at Abu Simbel.

Decline of Egyptian Power. Around 1000 B.C., Egyptian power declined. Between this time and 332 B.C., Egypt was ruled in turn by the Libyans, Ethiopians, Assyrians, and Persians. In 332 B.C., Egypt was conquered by the Macedonian and Greek army of Alexander the Great. On Alexander's death one of his generals became ruler of Egypt, as Ptolemy I. The dynasty (ruling family) of the Ptolemies ended in 30 B.C., when Cleopatra, the last of the line, took her own life. Egypt then became a Roman province.

For the next 670 years Egypt has a succession of rulers appointed by Roman and Byzantine emperors. It also was ruled briefly by the Persians. Egypt became largely Christian during this period.

For more information on ancient Egypt, see the article Ancient Civilizations (Egyptian Civilization).

The Arab Conquest: Muslim Egypt. In 640, Muslims (members of the newly formed religion of Islam) swept westward from the Arabian Peninsula and conquered Egypt. Muslims founded the city of Cairo in 969 and made it their capital. Muslim caliphs and their ministers ruled Egypt for many centuries. One of the most famous of the rulers of Egypt in this era was Saladin, who fought the Christian Crusaders at the end of the 12th century. Egypt has remained a Muslim country to the present day.

Mameluk and Turkish Rule. Egypt was ruled by the Mameluks from 1250 until 1517, when it came under the domination of the Ottoman Turks. In 1798 the French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. His expedition aroused European interest in Egypt and led to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, which provided a long-sought key to the ancient Egyptian form of writing called hieroglyphics.

Mehemet Ali. Napoleon's troops were forced to withdraw from Egypt in 1801 by British and Turkish forces. In 1805, Mehemet Ali was made viceroy, or royal governor, of Egypt by the Ottoman sultan. Seizing power for himself, Mehemet Ali ruled until 1848, undertaking a remarkable program of reforms, modernization, and military conquest.

British Influence. Egypt's prosperity declined under Mehemet Ali's successors, who borrowed large sums of money from the British and French. In 1875 the British Government bought Egypt's shares in the Suez Canal, which had been built earlier by the French. To collect their debts, a British-French commission was established to oversee Egyptian finances. A nationalist revolt in 1881-82 was put down by British troops, who occupied the country. In 1914, Egypt was officially declared a British protectorate.

Britain granted Egypt independence in 1922. But British interests remained uppermost, and during World War II (1939-45) Egypt and the Suez Canal were vital links in Britain's empire.

The 1952 Revolution: Nasser. The discontent of Egyptians grew in the years after the war. They resented Britain's continued control of the Suez Canal. The government of King Farouk, who had come to the throne in 1936, was corrupt and inefficient. Younger military officers, in particular, blamed the government for the failure of the Egyptian Army in the 1948-49 war with the newly created nation of Israel. In 1952 a group of army officers began a revolt that overthrew the king, and, in 1953, established a republic. A leader of the revolt, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, became Egypt's president in 1956.

Suez Crisis. In 1956, Nasser nationalized (took control of) the Suez Canal. When Israel was denied use of the canal, its forces attacked and occupied most of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. At the same time, British and French troops landed in the canal area. After the United Nations intervened, the three nations withdrew.

Attempt at Arab Unity. In 1958, Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic. But Syria withdrew in 1961 because of political differences. Egypt changed its name to the Arab Republic of Egypt in 1971.

The 1967 War. The removal of United Nations forces in the Sinai at Egypt's request and Egypt's closing of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli ships led to war with Israel in 1967. Israel again invaded the Sinai, reaching the Suez Canal itself, and retook the Gaza Strip.

Sadat: War and Peace. In 1970, Nasser died and was succeeded as president by Anwar el-Sadat. Determined to regain the lost Sinai, Sadat, in 1973, launched an attack on Israeli positions on the east bank of the canal. Following a cease-fire, United Nations forces were again stationed in the area. Israel withdrew from the canal, which was reopened to shipping in 1975. Israel was allowed use of the canal for nonmilitary cargoes.

In 1977, Sadat visited Israel to discuss the question of peace in the region. His historic journey led to an agreement, in 1978, for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and established a framework for a broader peace in the Middle East. As part of the agreement, Israel agreed to a phased withdrawal of its forces from the Sinai peninsula. A formal peace treaty was signed in 1979.

Sadat's Death: Mubarak as President. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated by opponents of his peace policies. His successor as president, Hosni Mubarak, supported the peace treaty. The last Israeli forces withdrew from the Sinai in 1982, and the area was returned to Egypt.

Mubarak was re-elected in 1987, 1993, and 1999. As president, he restored Egypt to its position as one of the leaders of the Arab world. Egypt was formally welcomed back into the Arab League in 1989, ten years after it had been suspended for signing the peace treaty with Israel. During the Persian Gulf War (1990-91), Egypt provided one of the largest forces to the U.S.-led military coalition against Iraq. After the war, Mubarak continued to support a broader peace in the Middle East and to crack down on Muslim fundamentalists who opposed his government and the peace with Israel.

Ruth Warren
Author, First Book of the Arab World

Reviewed by Mona N. Mikhail
Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies
New York University