Pyramids of Giza at sunset, Cairo, Egypt

A History of Egypt: The Condensed Version

Recounting a concise history of Egypt is a bit like trying to give a short version of the history of the world.  Many of the major powers and former empires have had a part to play in the formation of the current country.  Yet despite having been ruled by a foreign power for over 2000 years, there is an undeniably unique Egyptian spirit – one which has been especially on display over the past three years.  I’ll write more about the current political situation in a later post; for now, enjoy a hopelessly overgeneralized story of the past 5000 years of humanity in the Nile basin.

First, a disclaimer.  It’s one that I’ll have to make in most of my blog posts over the next few months.  While I think it’s important to give an account of the cultural and historical context of the places through which I’m traveling, it’s difficult to research these posts to any great extent.  Given the lack of internet or access to other sources of information, you should be critical of any of the facts recited below: they are mostly coming from memory, Lonely Planet, and the dubious claims of the ever-present Egyptian guides who will tell me pretty much anything I want for a small fee.

b0d4f632b730b71713a6513d97afd1d5b11072a2Our story begins in 3100 BC, the date when legend credits the pharaoh Narmer with uniting the peoples of Upper Egypt (near modern-day Aswan, symbolized by the lotus) and Lower Egypt (near modern-day Cairo, symbolized by the papyrus).  Narmer was a pharaoh in the first of 31 dynasties that would rule Egypt for almost 3000 years.  Historians have divided this time into a number of shorter periods, the most famous of which include the Old Kingdom (2700 BC – 2150 BC), the Middle Kingdom (2050 BC – 1650 BC), and the New Kingdom (1550 BC – 1100 BC).  If you’re curious, the in-between times of unrest are referred to, creatively, as the Intermediate Periods.

Our cycle has followed the progress of history through this era.  We began in Cairo, just 20 km north of the ruin of ancient Memphis, which was the capital and principal city during the Old Kingdom.  The pharaohs during this time built tombs on the west side of the Nile (where the sun would begin its journey into the Underworld), a process that reached its zenith during the 3rd and 4th dynasties and the building of the Great Pyramids at Giza.  These three pyramids, the final resting places of the pharaohs Khufu (Cheops), Khafre, and Menkaure, were most likely built by a conscripted labor force of farmers, who worked on the pyramid construction during times that the Nile was flooded and their crops were covered.  Depending on how you look at it, you could see this process as either job creation or slave labor, which I suppose makes the pyramids an ancient and more aesthetically pleasing version of Wal-Mart.

During the Middle Kingdom and especially the New Kingdom, the center of Egyptian power moved from Memphis to Thebes, the site of modern-day Luxor.  The rulers during this time hid their burial sites in the hills to the west of Thebes, resulting in a large number of tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.  The tombs are beautifully adorned with hieroglyphics depicting the sun god Ra’s nightly journey through the Underworld, the realm of Osiris.  By this time, the Egyptians had perfected the mummification process, whose success was dramatically enhanced when the embalmers began removing internal organs to prevent putrefaction.

Besides the tombs, and possibly as decoys, some rulers also built funerary temples closer to the river, such as the famous Deir al-Bahri, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut which was tragically the site of a terrorist attack in 1997.  These temples are distinct from the awe-inspiring temples on the East bank of Luxor (the temples of Luxor and Karnak), which were built to honor and house gods such as Amun-Ra, the king of the gods.

The Big Man of Egyptian politics during this time was the 19th-dynasty ruler Ramses II, whose impressive 66-year reign lasted from 1279 BC to 1213 BC.  If you see a statue of a pharaoh outside an Egyptian temple, it’s probably Ramses II.  If you see four statues, say perhaps outside of the temple of Abu Simbel, they’re probably all Ramses II.

My favorite period of history during this time occurred 100 years earlier, during the reign of Amenhotep IV (1352 BC -1336 BC).  Amenhotep, possibly as a political maneuver, decided that his people should no longer worship the state god Amun, but would instead worship the sun god Aten.  He changed his name to Akhenaten and moved the capital to a site halfway between Memphis and Thebes, a city which is now known as Tell el-Amarna.  I love the Amarna period not only for the heresy of it all, but because Akhenaten ushered in a period of great artistic freedom.  The engravings from this time are easily distinguished from classic pharaonic poses, with elongated faces, thick lips, and distended torsos.  Akhenaten was famously married to Nefertiti, whose bust is on display in Berlin.

Akhenaten was also famously the father (from another wife) to Tutankhaten, who changed his name after his father’s death to Tutankhamun and returned the center of Egyptian power to Thebes.  Tutankhamun only ruled a short time and would no doubt have been forgotten to history had his tomb (which was hidden under the much larger tomb of Ramses VI) not been discovered so remarkably intact by Howard Carter in 1922.  Given the wealth of treasure and artistic masterpieces in the tomb of a lesser pharaoh, it’s overwhelming to consider the vast troves that must have been robbed from the tombs of such megalomaniacs as Ramses II.

Fast forward a few hundred years of general decline and intermittent rule by the Libyans, Assyrians, and Persians.  In 331 BC, Egypt entered a long period of foreign rule (i.e., until 1952) when Alexander invaded and established the new city of Alexandria on the coast.  Upon his death eight years later, control of Egypt devolved to one of his generals, Ptolemy, who was the first in a long line of rulers that culminated in the famous reign of Cleopatra.

Interestingly, the Ptolemies attempted to cement their authority by appropriating and integrating with older Egyptian religious and cultural traditions.  One of the best preserved temples I viewed was the Temple of Horus in Edfu, which was built over the reign of several Ptolemies in a style that was already archaic at the time of construction.  The temple was dedicated to the Egyptian falcon god Horus, who was associated with the power and clear sight of the pharaoh – a ruler with which the Ptolemies attempted to identify.

Back to sassy Cleopatra.  In an attempt to conquer Alexandria, Julius Caesar set fire to a fleet of ships anchored in the harbor in 48 BC; the fire spread to the city, tragically burning down the Greatcleo Library.  To me, this loss is incalculable.  The books stored in the library included the additional works of scholars who calculated the circumference of the earth, discovered that the earth revolved around the sun, and compiled the definitive version of Homer’s poems.  It’s difficult to imagine the extent of the knowledge that was lost.

What Julius Caesar couldn’t accomplish, Augustus Caesar did.  Despite her power alliance with Marc Antony, Cleopatra ultimately capitulated to Roman forces at Actium in 30 BC.  The conquest ushered in a period of Roman rule that lasted several hundred years.  Stick with me, because we’ve only got 2000 years to go.

One of the most important changes during the era of Roman rule was the gradual introduction of Christianity and the death of the old Egyptian gods.  Christianity had a slow start in the empire, including persecution that may have claimed the lives of some 144,000 Copts during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.  Things changed rapidly when Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, had a vision of the cross in the sky just before a victorious battle.  Constantine converted to Christianity and made the religion official throughout the empire in 324.  By 391, Emperor Theodosius made the worship of old Egyptian gods a treasonable offense.

The Coptic tradition states that St Mark arrived in Alexandria in 45 AD, and Christianity was certainly established in Egypt by the end of the first century.  Having been strictly polytheist previously, it is interesting that the Egyptian Christians became so stridently monotheist that their beliefs resulted in a split from the church, a split that still exists.  At Nicea in 325, the Alexandrine Christians won the day by proclaiming in what became known as the Nicene creed that Father and Son were one (as distinct from the idea that, because he was born, there must have been a time when Jesus was not divine).  The Egyptians were sidelined, however, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when they split from the church because they refused to accept the idea that Jesus had one person but two natures (divine and human), seeing this duality as a form of polytheism.  The Coptic church is still a separate branch of Christianity; its adherents are ruled by a patriarch (currently Pope Shenouda III) and the religion has a long history of monasticism.  In fact, the first Christian monk was St Anthony, whose monastery remains a place of retreat in the Eastern desert near the Red Sea.  In modern day Egypt, about 10% of the population is Christian, a tension to which I will return in a future post.

I’ll skip forward another 200 years, during which time Egypt was still a part of the Byzantine empire and power continued to ebb from Alexandria.  The next major invasion occurred in 640, only eight years after the death of Mohammed, when an Arab army under the command of Amr ibn al-As swept through Egypt and established the city of Fustat to the south of modern-day Cairo. A succession of Arab dynasties controlled Egypt for the next several centuries, including (for those who know their Middle Eastern history) the Abbassids, the Tulunids, and the Fatimids, who established the city of Al-Qahira (the victorious), a name that was mispronounced by later Europeans as Cairo.  The Fatimids centered their city around the Al-Azhar mosque, which became and remains one of the most important mosques in Islam.

Interestingly, the Fatimids were a Shiite dynasty, but they were eventually overthrown by Salah ad-Din (Saladin) in 1171, who founded the Sunni Ayyubid dynasty.  Since that time, the majority of Egypt’s population has been Sunni and Al-Azhar University has become the most prestigious place to study Sunni orthodoxy.

Saladin was a prolific builder and constructed the Citadel, one of my favorite places in Cairo and the seat of power for over 700 years.  The Ayyubids ruled until 1250, when they were overthrown by their own slaves, the Mamluks, who were of Turkish and Caucasian origin and had been brought to Egypt to cement the power of the ruler.  In an excellent example of how logical the Arabic language is, the word “malik” means king (one who rules), whereas the word “mamluk” means slave (one who is ruled).  Both come from the same root consonant group: MLK.

The Mamluk era was juicy.  Intrigue was thick, leaders were ruthless, and most rulers were unable to hold their power for long.  Yet despite the brutality of some of the sultans (one, Sultan Qaitbey, allegedly tore out the eyes of his court chemist with his own hands after the hapless chemist was unable to turn lead to gold), the Mamluks endowed Cairo with some of its most beautiful architecture.  During this time, Cairo became the intellectual and cultural center of the Islamic world – which, if you consider the conditions in Europe at the time (Black Death!  Fun!), basically meant that Cairo was the center of everything outside East Asia.

Everything changed in 1516 when the Mamluks lost a decisive battle in Aleppo to the Turks.  Although the Mamluks were allowed to remain in place, they lost their power and Cairo (and Egypt) quickly became little more than a backwater corner of the Ottoman Empire.  Power would likely have ebbed from the Mamluks even without their defeat: the monopoly over trading routes they had once controlled and exploited with the Venetians was weakened after the Portuguese discovered that they could sail around the tip of Africa and avoid all the hassle.

I’ll skip another 300 years because the fact that you’re still reading at all is shocking.  Things get exciting again right around 1800, when England and France are duking it out for supremacy.  Napoleon defeats a Mamluk army of 1000 soldiers in about 45 minutes in 1798 at the Battle of the Pyramids (the Mamluks had scimitars; Napoleon had muskets).  Then Britain blows up a bunch of French warships at the Battle of the Nile.  Imperial wrangling aside, the Egyptians decide that they’d really rather not have either the French or the British hanging about and manage to get them both to depart, leaving behind a new tax system and the first catalogue of ancient Egyptian monuments, which later inspires masses of tourists and, correspondingly, masses of Egyptian touts to congregate around the Pyramids and Luxor.

Enter Mohammed Ali into the power vacuum left by the French and British.  Not the boxer, but an Albanian-born lieutenant in the Ottoman Empire.  In 1811, he consolidated his power by inviting all the remaining Mamluk leaders to dinner at the Citadel (all 470 of them) only to barricade the exit after dessert and slaughter all of them (except for one, who legend has it was able to jump over the gate on his horse).

Mohammed Ali dramatically changed Egypt’s history, not just by having a massive mosque built in the corner of the Citadel, but by modernizing the Egyptian military, building a new canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, introducing cotton as a cash crop, and instituting public education.  His heirs completed Africa’s first railway and created a postal and telegraph system.  Then they got greedy.

In 1869, the Suez Canal opened to great fanfare (but not, as I once thought, to the debut of Verdi’s opera Aida, which was written for the event but not completed in time).  Unfortunately, Egypt’s then leader, Khedive Ismail, had gone so far into debt with the construction costs that the government went bankrupt six years later and Ismail was forced to sell his share in the canal to the British.  A group of officers from the Egyptian military were massively displeased by Ismail’s handling of affairs, but their revolt against him simply provided the pretext for the British to come in and take control.


The Brits created a Protectorate because they were’t really concerned with gaining another colony; instead, they merely wanted to ensure control over the Canal.  Stay tuned for British involvement in the Sudan during this period.  Although Britain was clearly pulling the strings, Egypt remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I, at which point Britain permitted the formation of the Wafd, a nationalist political party.  In 1922, Britain granted Egypt “independence”, but everyone knew that there are scare quotes because Britain reserves the right to protect its interests in Sudan and the Suez Canal (aka, Britain could still do whatever it wanted to).  Britain eventually agreed to withdraw entirely within 20 years when it signs the Anglo-Egyptian treaty in 1936.

Before that could happen, the Brits had to weather World War II.  German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (the Desert Fox) caused a big fright when he pushes across North Africa and corners the Allies at El Alamein, the last defensible position before Cairo.  Everyone was so scared, in fact, that British staffers burned all their important papers to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.  But just when everything seemed lost, General B.L. Montgomery launched an all-out counteroffensive and, after thirteen days of intense fighting, was able to repel the German forces.  This battle later inspired Winston Churchill to say:  “Before Alamein, we never had a victory; after Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

Back in the rest of Egypt, many of the Egyptians were unimpressed, especially the ones who weren’t really rooting for either side anyway.  These Egyptians were ready for the victorious British to leave, but the Brits were taking their sweet time.  There are riots, demonstrations, strikes, and eventually a showdown over a police station in the Canal Zone.  Mobs torch foreign-owned businesses and on 26 January 1952 (Black Saturday) Cairo is set on fire.  I’m realizing now that I probably could have structured this whole history around the theme:  Important Things Set on Fire from Time to Time.

King Farouk, the nominal monarch at the time (and descendent of Mohammed Ali), thought he could weather the storm with British backing.  What he didn’t count on was a revolt from within the ranks of the military – namely, a faction of officers calling themselves the Free Officers.  This group was led by General Gamal Abdel Nasser.  When Nasser caught wind that the gig was up, the Free Officers immediately launched a successful coup.  On 26 July 1952, King Farouk departed Alexandria on a yacht, leaving Egypt in the hands of the Egyptians for the first time since the pharaohs.  Nasser was overwhelmingly elected as President four years later.

Immediately upon his election, Nasser set about a program of nationalization that set alarm bells ringing in foreign countries – especially when he decided to nationalize the Suez Canal.  France, Britain, and Israel sent a force to stop him, but had to back down in the face of pressure from the US and the UN.  The bravado made Nasser a hero in many parts of the Middle East, which he enhanced by espousing a Pan-Arab nationalism.

Events with Israel would test Nasser’s popularity.  In the Six Day War in 1967, Israel launched a surprise attack that ended in an Egyptian defeat and the loss of control of the Sinai Peninsula.  Nasser offered to step down, but in a show of support the Egyptian people refused to accept his resignation and he remained in office until he died of a heart attack in 1970.

His successor, Anwar Sadat, was also a former member of the Free Officers. During Sadat’s first year in office, he opened the Aswan High Dam, a massive engineering project that flooded much of the homeland of the Nubian people of Upper Egypt.  By creating the largest artificial lake in the world, the project also threatened to destroy many historic sites.  The most important of these monuments, such as the temple at Abu Simbel, were painstakingly transported block by block to higher ground.

Barak-Begin-Sadat-Weizmann1978In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Egypt attacked Israeli defenses along the canal.  The war included initial successes by Egyptian forces and later advances by the Israelis.  The ability of both sides to spin the war as a success paved the way for the Camp David talks in 1978, in which Israel agreed to return Sinai to Egypt in return for recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

The peace agreement cost Sadat his life. He was assassinated in 1981 during a military parade held to commemorate the 1973 war. After his death, Hosni Mubarak came to power and led the government for the next 30 years. During this time, Egypt weathered a spate of terrorist attacks in 1997 (in Cairo and Luxor) and the first decade of the new century (in Sinai) and the Muslim Brotherhood steadily gained strength as an opposition party.

Mubarak’s rule ended in 2011, when he stepped down in response to massive protests that took place at Midan Tahrir in Cairo beginning on January 25.

There is a lot to say about the current political situation, as well as the state of LGBT rights in the country. BUT IT’S BEST TO KEEP QUIET ABOUT ALL THAT UNTIL I’M OUT OF THE COUNTRY. So stay tuned for a future blog post that will detail these recent developments!

Posted in Travel Blog.


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