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.
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 Abydos, and elsewhere during the 1st and 2nd dynasties.
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, also gods on earth.
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 Sakkara . 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 senfru, whose building projects included the first true pyramid at Dahshor (south of sakkara ). 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 titular 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 splendour of the engineering feats of the pyramids was approximated in every other field of endeavour, 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.
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 no royal administrators. The last king of the dynasty, Unas, who reigned about 2428-2407 BC, was buried at sakkara , 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 monarchs—governors of the districts—were beginning to remain in place rather than being periodically transferred to different Nomes.
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.
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 al Bahrì 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.
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 side of 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 who finally subdued them, reuniting Egypt.
With the unification of the land and the founding of the 18th Dynasty by Ahmose I, the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) began. Ahmose re-established 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.
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 Karnak, Amenhotep, unlike his predecessors, separated his tomb from his mortuary temple; he began the custom of hiding his final resting place, then he 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 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 ‘Amarana , 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 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 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.
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 (Kushite) Dynasty effectively controlled much of Egypt during the latter years of the 22nd and the 24th dynasties.
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 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.
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 VIII; 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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’ì (“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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 (present-day Istanbul). 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
llied 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. Israel Did decline 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 El-Sadat, a long-time colleague of Nasser, was chosen to succeed him.
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.
clashes 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 impress negotiation. successfully he secretly planned a for a war to free the occupied sinai from 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(10th ofRamadan), Egypt launched an air and artillery counterattack across the Suez Canal. Within hours, thousands of Egyptian soldiers had successfully crossed into the Sinai. Protected by a missile umbrella that destroyed Israeli aircrafts, they overran and captured the string of Israeli fortifications known as the Bar-Lev line. Israel was caught unprepared. It was a total victory . By the middle of the month, however, with immidate aid from the united states ,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.
After the war Sadat was ready for negotiations. In 1974 and 1975 Egypt and Israel concluded agreements—again mediated by Kissinger—providing disengagement on the Sinai front. In June 1975 Egypt reopened the Suez Canal, permitting passage to ships carrying Israeli cargoes. Israel withdrew beyond the strategic passes and from some of the oil fields in the Sinai.Meanwhile, Egypt’s economic position was growing rapidly worse; by early 1976 the country’s debt to the USSR was estimated at $4 billion. The following year, surprising all, Sadat asked the Soviet military advisers to leave the country and threw his lot in with the United States, declaring it held the key to peace in the Middle East. Even more surprising, on November 19, 1977, Sadat flew to Israel and addressed the Knesset (parliament) . The historic journey was followed by further negotiations under U.S. auspices. At a tripartite conference with U.S. president Jimmy Carter at Camp David, Maryland, in September 1978, Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin agreed on a framework for an Israeli-Egyptian settlement. A peace treaty between the two nations, based on the Camp David accords, was signed in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 1979.
The rest of the Arab world denounced Egypt for making a separate peace with Israel, and some of the more “hard-line” Arab leaders branded Sadat a traitor to the Arab cause. The Sinai was gradually restored to Egypt, but later Egyptian-Israeli talks on a settlement of the Palestinian issue made little progress. Egypt was expelled from the Arab League in 1979 because of the peace treaty, and the league’s headquarters were moved from Cairo to Tunis, Tunisia. In 1989 Egypt was readmitted to the league; the headquarters were moved back to Cairo the following year. By 1981 Sadat was meeting increasing opposition within Egypt itself, especially from Muslim fundamentalists, who opposed any accommodation with Israel. Sadat responded with a crackdown, arresting and jailing hundreds of his opponents, and placing restrictions on the press. In such an atmosphere he was assassinated by religious fanatics within his own army on October 6, 1981, during a military parade commemorating the Yom Kippur War.Sadat was succeeded by Vice President Hosni Mubarak. While adhering to the Camp David accords, Mubarak sought political liberalization within Egypt as well as improved relations with other Arab states. Israel completed its withdrawal from the Sinai on April 25, 1982.
11022011, or to understand it better, Friday 11:02:2011, a date that the people of Egypt will always remember, as it was on that day that President Hosni Sayyid Mubarak relinquished control of the country and fled to “exile” in Sharm El-Sheikh. But as he was fleeing from Cairo, the same idea came to the minds of the world’s media, after all, the problems were now over, and 18 days of peaceful protest had come to a conclusion; so there was no more news. Over the following week the reports from Egypt started to fade into history as Yemen, Libya, and many other of the countries in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) started their own protests, which were not as civilised as the Egyptian one and so a lot more newsworthy. Camera crews were relocated, journalists moved to new “war zones” and, almost as quick as they arrived, they departed, leaving behind the usual collection of “local” reporters: and hereby lies the problem with the way that the world’s media reports events: it is only good news when it is bad news; bad news sells, good news is boring!
On Friday evening the western world raised as one to congratulate Egypt on achieving its goal and very soon many of the world’s leaders, or their representatives, were making their way to Cairo. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, was the first to arrive and promised that Britain would help in Egypt’s rebirth. He was followed by many others, including the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and US Senator John Kerry
Tahrir Square during the protests
Mr. Cameron stated he would help, and within hours the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth office travel warning was lifted, yet it took until towards the end of March for the USA to partially lift their warning; were Ms. Clinton and Mr. Kerry just here for the photo opportunities and media spotlight? So much for President Obama’s speech on the Friday night when he said: “The United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt. We stand ready to provide whatever assistance is necessary and asked for to pursue a credible transition to democracy. Egyptians have inspired us”