The Arab Republic of Egypt, simply known as Egypt, is a country in North Africa which plays an important role in the Arab world and also has one of the most well-known histories of any Arabic-speaking country in the world today. The country is considered transcontinental, due to the fact that the land mass covers area in both North Africa and the Sinai Peninsula. The two are connected by a land bridge, which is home to the Suez Canal, a major man-made waterway that has been an extremely influential means of transport through the region for decades. In landmass, Egypt is the thirty-eighth largest country in the world. Egypt is the third most populated country in Africa and the most populated in the Middle East. However, about 99% of the population resides in only 5.5% of the country’s land, which consists of the Nile River. This has been true for several centuries, as the Nile is considered the life-force of the country’s agricultural sector and is the longest river in the world. However, since the creation of the Aswan High Dam, which was completed in 1970, the Nile no longer floods on a seasonal basis as it did in ancient times. The rest of the country consists mainly of desert, including both the Sahara Desert and the Libyan Desert. In ancient times, these deserts were responsible for protecting the Egyptian population from the threat of other civilizations in North Africa to the west. To the north, Egypt is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and to the west, the Red Sea.
The coastlines and the Nile are essential to the country, due to the fact that there is very little rain throughout Egypt for most of the year, creating a very hot and dry habitat. Due to the high percentages of population located along the waterways, the threat of Global warming is a very real concern for Egypt. Global warming has already contributed to rising sea levels and a number of what has been termed environmental refugees. There are also a large number of refugees in Egypt due to war in neighboring countries. The exact number of these is uncertain, but it is estimated that there are nearly 150,000 Iraqis and 70,000 Palestinians. There are also a number of Sudanese refugees present in the country, but this number is highly contested.
The earliest evidence of human presence in the area dates back to 12,000 years ago, on rock carvings. It is believed that these came from an early civilization that was based on hunting and gathering. This culture had replaced another earlier civilization that survived on mainly grain gathered in the then present pastures in the area. By about 8,000 BCE, the terrain began to change from this pasture-like agriculture into the Sahara Desert. This may have been due to either climate changes, or overgrazing of the land. The sudden change resulted in the population living in the western portion of modern-day Egypt to migrate towards the Nile River.
In the Neolithic period, around 6,000 BCE, these peoples formed into two culturally distinct civilizations that lived on along the Nile. They would eventually become known as the Upper Kingdom and the Lower Kingdom. Contrary to what the names suggest, the Upper Kingdom was located in the southern portion of the Nile River Valley, while the Lower Kingdom occupied the north. The names are derived from the flow of the Nile, which runs from the south to the north. Even though the Kingdoms were culturally different from one another, there was constant contact between the two through trade relations. It was also during this time that the first evidence of a writing system began to develop around 3,200 BCE. Located on pottery, this system was an early form of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The kingdoms would eventually be united under King Menes, who is also commonly associated with Narmer. It is also believed that he was killed by a hippopotamus.
The combining of the two kingdoms brought about what is known and the Old Kingdom period in Egyptians history. It spanned from 2700-2200. One of the most famous achievements of the Old Kingdom is the pyramids that were constructed during the period, including those at Giza. The Old Kingdom is the first of three kingdoms that mark high points in civilization in the Nile River Valley. This was also a time when Egypt traded with Lebanon for cedar and would also use the Nile as a means of transportation to the more southern civilizations in modern-day Somalia and Ethiopia for ebony and ivory. The decline of the kingdom came about when civil war began between the governors of the various Egyptian provinces. This civil unrest and political upheaval marks what is known as the First Intermediate period in Egyptian history, and it lasts for about 150 years.
The conclusion of the First Intermediate period resulted in the next major high point of Egyptian history, known as the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from 2040 BCE until 1650 BCE. The Middle Kingdom began when the Pharaoh Mentuhotep II reunited the warring governors in his 39th year of rule. One of the contributing factors to the decline of the Old Kingdom was the relatively low levels of the Nile. However, in the Middle Kingdom, the river produced higher levels, which allowed for more prosperity during the period. Much like the innovations with the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, there were also developments in the arts in the Middle Kingdom. One of these is found in the block statues, which would continue to be popular for 2,000 years after their initiation in Egyptian culture.
The decline of the Middle Kingdom came about when a group of Asiatic people, called the Hyksos invaded the Nile River Valley. They gradually gained power beginning in the Twelfth dynasty, when the last queen of the Middle Kingdom, Sobekneferu, left no heirs to the throne. Their rule lasted through the Seventeenth dynasty, ending in 1550 BCE. The span of the rule of the Hyksos is referred to as the Second Intermediate Period.
The expulsion of the Hyksos brought about a third Kingdom in Egyptian history, known as both the New Kingdom and the Egyptian Empire. The rough dates for this period are from 1570 BCE- 1544 BCE. It is known as the most prosperous time in all of Egyptian history, as well as the time when it held the most power in the ancient world. During this time, Egypt gained much territory to the south, including Nubia. Also, due to the problems that arose from the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, the Egyptians attempted to create a buffer between the Levant and the rest of the country. This time also claims one of the most well-known pharaohs in Egyptian history.
Known as Amenhotep IV, he changed his name to Akhenaten in honor of the god Aten, and brought about one of the first monotheistic religions in the world. Also under this king, the arts reached a new level of realism. However, his religious fervor had caused international policies to lapse and after his rule, there was a serious threat of Hittite invasion. Later this threat would be quelled by one of his followers, by the name of Ramses II the Great. Ramses II was also famous for the immense number of illegitimate children he squired, many of whom were buried in the vast funeral complex of the Valley of the Kings.
There were several factors that contributed to the downfall of the New Kingdom. One of these was due to continued warfare to drive out the invading Sea Peoples, in military campaigns on both land and sea. This fighting exhausted the Kingdom’s treasury. There was also much political strife between the descendants of Ramses III. This resulted in the consecutive reigns of Ramesses IV, V, and VI. Much like the decline of the Old Kingdom, once again the Nile’s below-average flood levels also played a considerate part in the unrest within the country. The last official ruler of the New Kingdom is considered Ramesses XI. After the conclusion of his reign there was another Intermediate Period within Egypt. This third period is considered the last of the Intermediates, and begins in 1070 BCE and lasts until 664BCE. The period is marked by the foreign control of the Nubian Kingdom to the south of Egypt. By the initiation of Ramses XI’s rule, the central government had already begun to lose control of the people. Egypt’s neighbors to the south took notice of this and under the Nubian King Piye, executed a twenty-year campaign to gain power in Egypt. Upon his capture of Egypt, Piye reinstated the original Egyptian governors there under his own rule. Nubian rule continued for nearly seventy years after Piye initially conquered the country. The Assyrian Empire, which had been growing in strength during this time and gaining territory in locations surrounding Egypt, eventually conquered the cities of Thebes and Memphis. By 664 BCE, the Assyrians set up the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, marking the end of the Third Intermediate Period.
The initiation of Assyrian rule brought about what is known as the Late Period in Egyptian history. It is known as the last flourishing of native Egyptian culture in the country, under the client kings that the Assyrians established as rulers. This time is also known as a time of great peace in Egypt, even though there was a threat of Babylonian insurgency. Through the help of Greek mercenaries, Egypt was able to quell this threat. However the one threat that would eventually end this period of peace was the threat of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the Persian Empire. The Persian defeat of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty in 525 BCE, resulted in nearly two-hundred years of rule over the Egyptian people, until 332 BCE.
Historians divide this period of Persian occupation, within the Late Period, into three distinct stages. The first stage is known as the first stage lasted from the Persian takeover of Egypt until402 BCE. During this time, Egypt was considered a satrapy of the Persian Empire, otherwise known as a province. This first satrapy lasted throughout the Twenty-seventh Dynasty. However, the Twenty-eighth through the Thirtieth Dynasties create the second stage, due to the return of Egyptians to the throne. This was due to King Amyrtaeus, whose rule is the only one that is included in the Twenty-eighth Dynasty. Egyptian rule continued on through the Twenty-ninth and the Thirtieth Dynasties until the final phase of Persian occupation, when Egypt once again became a satrapy of the Achaemenid Empire under continued warfare in the region. Little is known about the succession of rulers during this time, but it is known that the last satrap, ruler of the satrapy, handed the country over to Alexander the Great with no bloodshed, thus ending the Persian occupation of Egypt in 332 BCE.
Alexander the Great’s occupation of Egypt was welcomed by the majority of Egyptians, due to the many years of Persian oppression. Alexander founded the port city of Alexandria, where he would later be buried. His Macedonian Dynasty, also known as the Ptolemaic Kingdom, began under his successor Ptolemy I Soter, and ruled until about 31 BCE when Egypt fell under Roman rule. Under the Ptolemies, most ancient Egyptian traditions were celebrated, such as religion, education, and art.
After three-hundred years of relatively peaceful rule, the kingdom fell to the Romans. This particular point in history is perhaps one of the most famous in Egyptian history, due to the numerous retellings of the life of Queen Cleopatra, who committed suicide after her Egyptian forces were defeated by the Emperor Octavian.
Under Roman rule, Egypt became a major producer of grain for the Roman Empire. The Roman rulers of the province, called prefects, created a relatively conflicted time in Egyptian history. In Alexandria, Jews were persecuted after fleeing from Jerusalem in 70 CE, and tax increases caused uprisings that caused infighting between Egyptians and Roman troops. This influx of violence was the primary cause of the Bucolic War.
It was not until Emperor Caracalla came into power in 211 CE, that Egyptians were granted Roman citizenship. However, this only allowed the Roman Empire to tax even further the Egyptian people. For a brief stint from 269 to 274 CE the queen of Palmyra, Zenobia, captured the country and claimed that she was a descendant of Cleopatra VII. However the territory fell back into the hands of the Romans.
During the Fourth Century, the Byzantine Empire grew out of its predecessor, the Roman Empire. Under the Emperor Constantine in 312, the Edict of Milan was signed which ended persecution of Christians within the Empire. Christianity had been present in Egypt since about 33 CE, and was highly persecuted under the Roman Empire. Egypt became part of the eastern Byzantine Empire, as part of the split of the Roman Empire.
Under the new Byzantine state, there was some instability. This was due largely in part to the violence between Christians and Jews, especially in Alexandria. A civil war, due to a division in the Church, eventually caused idealistic separation throughout the Empire and alienated Egypt. By the early 7th Century, the stability of the Empire was further jeopardized by the growing threat posed by the Persian Empire.
The Roman-Persian War had actually been initiated in the 1st Century CE, and continued hundreds of years until the Persian invasion of Egypt in the early 7th Century, culminating in the capture of Alexandria in 619 CE. However, the Byzantines retaliated and only nine years later, captured the city back and ended Persian threat in the area. Byzantine rule would continue in Egypt until the rise of Islam would give birth to the Arab Empire.
The expansion of Islam was headed under the Caliph Umar, who was the successor to Muhammad, and eventually led to the surrendering of the city of Alexandria, by the Byzantine Empire in 641 CE. Under the Arab inhabitants, Arabic became the official language of Egypt in 706 CE. It was also during this time period that the Egyptian form of Arabic began to develop. It is this form of the language that belongs as the official national language of Egypt today. Under the Islamic rule of the Arab Empire Egyptian Christians, known as Copts, were initially allowed religious freedom as long as they paid taxes to the Arab government. However, after time hostility grew between the government and the Copts, and there were revolts. There is evidence of Copts even joining with native Muslims in protests of the government.
This persecution of Christians continued under the next major Arab group to rule Egypt. Known as the Fatimid Period, it lasted from 969 CE- 1171 CE. The period began under Jawhar as- Siquilli, who as the Western Caliph captured the territory from what became known as the Eastern Caliphate. Persecution of Christians persisted during this period, due to the fact that they were generally thought to be in league with the Byzantine Empire still. Also under the new Western Caliph, the city of Cairo was founded to house his massive army that had entered Egypt with him. The Fatimid Period eventually ended in 1171 CE, after the death of the last caliph in the line.
The next major period of Arab rule in Egypt was the Ayyubid Period, which lasted from the end of the Fatimid Period in 1171 CE, until 1250 CE. There were several major developments within the country during this time. Under the Ayyubids, Cairo officially became the capitol of Egypt. Another important development during this time was the Crusades. One of the key initiators of these wars was the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem by an earlier caliphate, known as al- Hakim bi-Amr Allah, in the Fatimid Period. The seventh crusade was the last to threaten the Arab world during this period, when French forces were defeated by Sultan Turanshah. However, the Ayyubid Period would eventually come to an end only a few years after his victory when the sultan was executed by Mamluk soldiers in 1250 CE.
The rise to power of the Mamluks reached its pinnacle in 1250, but their presence in the Arab Empire had begun much earlier. Mamluks for centuries had been emancipated servants, who had served in the court and as soldiers. Under Mamluk rule, there were two distinct dynasties. The first, known as the Bahri Dynasty, lasted from 1250 to 1382. Under the leadership of the first Mamluk rulers, there was a notable increase in warfare. The first sultan to take power was named Aybak, and almost immediately Egypt was at war with Syria. Also in the Bahri dynasty, there was a severe threat of Mongol invasion of Egypt. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad, Cairo took the city’s place as the most important city in the Arab world. Under the early sultans during this period, Cairo had received many improvements and new building. This first Mamluk dynasty ended when revolts that were occurring in Syria made their way to Egypt, resulting in the overthrow of the government in 1382. The new sultan, Barkuk, began his rule by being expelled in 1389 and then reinstated in 1390.
The reinstatement of the sultan initiated the second dynasty of the Mamluk rule, known as the Burji Dynasty. The Buriji Dynasty was even more unstable than the Bahri Dynasty before it. There was much political strife throughout the period, mostly due to the repeated uncommonly short ruling of most of the sultans. This destabilized the succession of power and led to many power struggles. One reason as to why rulers may have lived such short periods of time may be attributed to the Black Death, a plague that was rampant throughout the time of the dynasty and lasted well into the early 16th Century. These contributing facts severely weakened the Burji Dynasty, and left it virtually unprotected against foreign threat. Eventually the Ottoman Empire took advantage of this lapse in strength and captured Cairo in 1517. However, even though the country was now under the control of the Ottomans, the ruling class of Mamluks was allowed to remain somewhat in power, although they carried out the will of the Empire.
Although the Ottoman rulers initially allowed the Mamluks positions of authority in Egypt, it later proved to be a problem, as their influence created power struggles in the early years of the Empire’s occupation of Egypt and did not allow the Ottomans to become truly strong politically. The takeover brought about very little change in Egypt initially. The territory was seen as a vassal state of the Empire, rather than as a province.
In the early 17th Century power struggles continued in Egypt as civil war broke out between the soldiers and the ruling family and its followers, known as the pasha. This was mainly due to an extortion tax that was forced upon civilians by soldiers, known as tulbah. The pasha eventually defeated the renegade soldiers. However, this was not the last fight for power in Egypt under the Ottoman Empire. These struggles eventually caused the Egyptian people to have little respect for the Ottoman appointed rulers in the country. Furthermore, conditions worsened as famine and pestilence struck the country in the middle of the 17th Century.
By the 18th Century, the Mamluks began to once again rise to the forefront of political power. This led to massacres of Mamluk Beys by Ottomans. This led to even more political strife between the Beys and other groups, such as the Ottoman appointed rulers throughout the majority of the century. By the end of the 1700’s, plague once again struck Egypt with a vengeance, killing a vast number of the population.
As had happened numerous times in its long past, Egypt was once again conquered during a time of weakness and instability. This time, the conqueror was Napoleon Bonaparte during the French Egyptian Campaign of 1798-1801. French forces successfully captured the city of Alexandria, and attempted to capture much more land south of the city. However, they were unsuccessful in their overall attempt at securing the entire country, due to the response of British and Turkish troops, who expelled Bonaparte’s forces in 1801. This allowed Egypt to once again become part of the Ottoman Empire.
Although Egypt rejoined the Ottomans, the new system of government that was set up after the expulsion of the French was much different than the previous one. This is largely due in part to the attempt to limit the Mamluk influence that had caused the Empire so many problems previously. However, this move led to more civil war within Egypt. This time there was an addition to the Ottoman and Mamluks, in the form of Albanian mercenaries. The end to this strife is brought about by Albanian Ali’s control of Egypt, which is gained in 1805. The leader of the new rulers is Muhammad Ali, who is additionally recognized by the Ottoman Empire.
Shortly after Ali’s instatement as sultan, Egyptian forces became involved in the Ottoman-Saudi war, which lasted from 1811-1818. There were two campaigns to this war, and two main objectives for Ali entering. The first was to recapture Mecca from the Wahabbis and secondly, to return honor to the Ottoman Empire, which had been humiliated by the fall of the city. Additionally, Ali also extended Egypt’s rule to include territory in modern-day Libya and Sudan. Generally, Ali’s rule is recognized as a time of Peace for the Egyptian home front. Muslims and Christians were able to live together with limited bloodshed and revolts, with the exception of one or two, were handled peacefully. Ali had several successors, but perhaps the most noteworthy is Ismail the Magnificent, who after several positive reforms within the country, eventually led Egypt into the threat of bankruptcy due to his exuberant lifestyle. This prompted foreign intervention into the country, notably of the French and British, who had large amounts of investment within Egypt. The Suez Canal, which was completed in 1869, was a major source of these investments. The canal was especially valued by the European countries, due to the massive promise it held for trade between Europe and Asia and the Middle East. To protect their interests, the French and British entered into what is known as dual control of Egyptian economic affairs. This intervention caused much strife among the citizens of Egypt. The main oppositions were to Turkish and British interference, but other opinions to be voice included the complete expulsion of British fleets as well as all Christians in the country. The majority of the revolts were in Alexandria and they were quickly quelled by British forces, however this only led to more fighting between the two groups.
The modern era of Egypt is considered to have begun in the late 19th to early 20th Centuries. In 1914, Britain claimed Egypt as a protectorate. However, by 1922 Egypt was granted independence from the country. This independence was further ratified through the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. Basically this agreement called for the withdrawal of all British troops from Egypt over a twenty year period. British forces were withdrawn by 1956. However, prior to this withdrawal, there were several periods of revolution within the Egyptian government.
There were three main groups who sought power in Egypt following the independence of the country. The first of these influences were the British themselves, whose main objective was to maintain control over the Suez Canal. The second major influence in the struggle for power was King Faud and his supporters. The king had been appointed by the British as leader of Egypt. The final group was known as the Wafd. The Wafd were an Egyptian nationalist group who strongly opposed British involvement in Egypt. Another key political group was also developing during this time, known as the Muslim Brotherhood.
During WWII, Egypt served as an important base for Allies in the Mediterranean. Shortly after the war, the British appointed king was overthrown by what would come to be known as the Free Officers. The Free Officers declared Egypt a republic in 1952. Under the new president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the sense of Egyptian nationalism grew strong and was manifested in overwhelming support for Nasser. However, Nasser’s term as president was not without controversy in the eyes of the western world. Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt in 1956 after Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal in order to pay for the expensive project of the Aswan High Dam. In 1958, Egypt was joined with Syria in a short-lived alliance known as the United Arab Republic, which Syria left in 1961. Nasser’s foreign policies were a major contributing factor towards the Six Day War with Israel in 1967. The west also had a negative view on Egypt’s contentious relationship with the Soviet Union.
Nasser’s presidency ended with his death in 1971. His successor was Anwar el-Sadat. Under Sadat, there was continued warfare, especially with Israel. In October 1973, Egypt launched an offensive attack on Israel to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula. Their attempt was successful, at the cost of three-thousand Egyptian lives. Sadat also expanded Egypt’s economy through reforms that allowed for more private investments. This political move angered many middle-class Egyptians and caused riots in 1977, due to the fact that it was economic reform which did not benefit the average Egyptian. A year later, the Camp David Accords were signed between Israel and Egypt, constituting a peace treaty between the two nations. The result of the treaty was support from the United States for Egypt, in the form of military spending, but it came at the cost of withdrawal of support from other Arab nations. Sadat’s presidency came to an end in 1981, when he was assassinated. He was followed in office by his vice president, Hosni Mubarak.
Currently, Egypt is undergoing vast reforms in both the domestic and the economic aspects of its politics. These reforms were initiated in the early 1990’s and continue today. The government is still very much like the one set up in 1952, when Egypt was declared a republic. However, the Egyptian form of republican government is much more authoritarian than most other republics in the world. The president also tends to retain some dictatorial privileges. In the early months of 2011, numerous uprisings throughout the country were organized by Egyptian citizens in protest of this oppressive government. It is clear that the government of Egypt is still an evolving institution. Depending upon future actions, the development of a stable system within Egypt is possible.