Egypt - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Arab Republic of Egypt
Formation 1936 / 1982
Population 84.5 million / 220 people per sq mile (85 people per sq km)
Total area 386,660 sq. miles (1,001,450 sq. km)
Languages Arabic*, French, English, Berber
Religions Muslim (mainly Sunni) 90%, Coptic Christian and other 9%, Other Christian 1%
Ethnic mix Egyptian 99%, Nubian, Armenian, Greek, and Berber 1%
Government Transitional regime
Currency Egyptian pound = 100 piastres
Literacy rate 72%
Calorie consumption 3163 kilocalories
Archaeological evidence suggests that Egypt was inhabited as early as 700,000 years ago. Today, Egypt is the second most populated country in Africa and combines a rich modern culture with strong roots in the ancient world. All over Egypt are temples, pyramids, statuary, and other religious art of the powerful and refined civilization that was ancient Egypt. A large majority of the population follows Islam, which was introduced by Muslim Arabs in the seventh century. In more recent times, Egypt witnessed the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, which was an effort to maintain control over the Suez Canal.
In 1798 the French, led by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), invaded and conquered northern Egypt. Soon after, the British sent their army, successfully capturing Egypt and ousting the French. During World War I the British, fearing that German forces might occupy the Suez Canal, declared Egypt a protectorate. During World War II the Germans invaded Egypt. The British, led by General (later Field Marshall) Bernard L. Montgomery (1887–1976), defeated the Germans, led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (nicknamed the “Desert Fox,” 1891–1944) in a fierce battle at El Alamein. Meanwhile, Egypt’s nationalism was steadily gaining ground and this eventually led to a revolution in 1952.
On July 23, 1952, the military, headed by General Muhammad Naguib (1901–84), seized power. In 1953 Egypt was declared a republic. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–70) emerged as a rival to Naguib, and in February 1954 Naguib resigned.
Egypt expanded economically in the 1950s and 1960s with the help pf Soviet technical and economic aid. Nasser tried to make Egypt the undisputed leader of a united Arab world. His main rallying cry was the denunciation of Israel and a call to other Arab nations for a united front against a state he wished to see destroyed.
In the Suez War of 1956 Egypt fought and lost to an alliance of Israeli, French, and British troops. However, the British and the French were pressured to withdraw their troops by the United States, and the crisis forced the resignation of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1897–1977).
Another interesting result of the war was that Nasser’s standing grew enormously in the Arab world, even though he lost the war. The crisis also speeded up the process of decolonization by Britain and France.
In 1967 the famous Six Day War occurred between Israel on the one side and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan on the other. As a result of its victory in that war Israel gained control over the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip.
After Nasser’s death in September 1970, then Vice President Anwar al-Sadat (1918–81) succeeded him as president. In 1972 Sadat ordered all Soviet military personnel stationed in Egypt to leave the country and placed Soviet bases and equipment under Egyptian control. In 1973 there was another war with Israel, dubbed the Yom Kippur War. Several years of diplomatic maneuvering resulted in a peace accord, signed in 1978 in Washington, D.C., largely brokered by the United States and referred to as the Camp David Accord, named for the presidential retreat in Maryland where much of the negotiating took place. The pact was denounced by other Arab states, and on October 6, 1981, President Sadat was assassinated by Muslim extremists.
He was succeeded by Vice President Hosni Mubarak (b. 1928). President Mubarak continued good relations with Israel and remained active in the Middle East peace process. In 1989 Israel returned the last portion of the Sinai that it held to Egypt.
Relations with the rest of the Arab world have improved, and Egypt was readmitted into the Arab League in 1989.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Located in northeastern Africa, Egypt is surrounded by Libya in the west, Sudan in the south, and Israel in the northeast. The country has shorelines on the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Red Sea in the east. The region across the Suez Canal is the Sinai Peninsula. It is the only land bridge between Africa and Asia. Cairo, the capital of Egypt, is the largest city in Africa. The Sahara desert takes up a large part of Egypt. Summers are hot and dry while winters are moderate. The country is prone to droughts, frequent earthquakes, heavy dust, and sand storms.
The lifeline of Egypt, the river Nile, flows for 4,157 miles, meandering through nine countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Sudan, and Egypt. The word Nile comes from the Greek word nelios, which means “river valley.” From time immemorial, the Nile has been associated with life and fertility. Egypt is appropriately called “the gift of the Nile.” Most of the country’s population lives on the banks of the river.
Egypt’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture, media, petroleum exports, and tourism.
Approximately one-third of the population is engaged directly in farming, with many others involved with processing and delivery of agricultural items. Much food is imported, however, and Egypt remains the largest market for wheat exports from the United States.
Egypt is a transit country for women and girls trafficked from Eastern Europe and Russia into Israel for sexual exploitation. Some victims, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, may also transit Egypt en route to Europe. Some Egyptian males are smuggled into Europe and are reportedly subjected to involuntary servitude.
Although it has been considered a low-income country in the past, economic conditions are improving because of the government’s economic reforms and liberal policies. Egypt’s gross domestic product is second only to Saudi Arabia among Arab countries.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
About 90 percent of the population of Egypt is Sunni Muslim. Al-Azhar University, the oldest Islamic institution for higher studies, has scholars from every Muslim country on Earth. The rector of Al-Azhar is regarded as the world leader of the Sunni sect.
Although the official religion of Egypt is Islam, Christianity was the dominant faith before the introduction of Islam. Today Coptic Christians are the largest religious minority, and there have often been conflicts between the dominant Muslim community and the Coptic Christians. Egypt’s population also includes small numbers of Roman Catholics, Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians, as well as Protestants.
Painting, music, art, and literature are deeply embedded in Egyptian culture. The interiors of the pyramids (large mausoleums made of blocks of stone built to honor and house the mortal remains of the elite of ancient Egypt in their journey to the next world) were intricately painted. Belly dancing is another well-known product of the Egyptian culture.
Contemporary Egyptian painting reflects the influence of Western art. Western influence has also crept into Egyptian music in the form of pop music.
Egyptian food tends to be simple and bland. Bread is eaten with all meals and the most common one resembles pita bread and is made of either white or whole wheat flour. The staple diet is fuul and taamiyya. Fuul (pronounced fool) is a white bean stew. Taamiyya is made with green beans, and is spicy and fried in oil.
In Egypt, prior to the birth of a baby, the woman’s family prepares clothes and essentials like soap and powder. All the items are put in silk bags along with gold and silver coins as gifts to be given at birth.
The Egyptians believe that the number seven is very lucky. The seventh day after the birth is called the sebou and is marked with special celebrations and rituals. The baby is washed and dressed in new clothes. A sheep or a lamb is slaughtered, and a grand feast is prepared. Salt is scattered in the house to keep the evil eye, bad spirits, and diseases away from the baby. The infant is placed in a cradle and carried around the house. The mother steps over the child seven times without touching it. Finally bags of sweets and gold and silver coins are distributed to the guests.
COMING OF AGE
The ritual of genital cutting (female genital mutilation, FGM) in women, when they come of age, originated in Egypt more than 2,000 years ago. In some parts of Egypt this rite is still practiced among Muslims, who derived the practice from earlier times.
FGM is practiced by both Muslims and Coptic Christians in Egypt, particularly in the southern part of the country. The girls who live in these societies do not have a choice and are forced to go through with the ritual. Fully 97 percent of the women in Egypt have been genitally mutilated.
A presidential decree in 1958 prohibited FGM, making it punishable by a fine and imprisonment. In July 1996 Health Minister Ismail Sallam banned all licensed health professionals from performing FGM, but in June 1997 an Egyptian court overturned the ban. In his decision Judge Abdul Aziz Hammade stated that FGM was a form of surgery that doctors have the legal right to perform without interference from ministerial bodies. The health minister and the head of Egypt’s medical syndicate have appealed the court’s decision, and the Sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in the country, has declared his support for the ban. The health minister has announced that his July 1996 ban will remain in place until the appeal process is completed.
In ancient Egypt, young boys were circumcised between the ages of 6 and 12. This process involves cutting all or part of the foreskin of the penis. Today this ritual has deep religious significance for Muslims, symbolizing a boy’s initiation into manhood.
The circumcision is often performed at home by a trained professional and is an occasion for big parties.
In Egypt, the engagement of a man and woman involves the exchanging of rings; the groom also gives other jewelry to his wife-to-be. An elaborate feast is held to celebrate the engagement. Between the time of the engagement and the wedding itself, the couple’s families prepare a new home for the couple to live in once they are married.
The night before the wedding day is called the henna night. The women go to the bride’s house and sing and dance, and the bride’s hands and feet are decorated with henna. On the wedding day the marriage is registered by a maazon, a priest who has an official license to register the marriage contract. In the evening there is a grand party where the guests eat, sing, and dance. Later the bride and groom are taken to their new house, and green wheat is showered on them to symbolize fertility.
Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. It was believed that, to enable the soul to pass into the next life, the body of the dead person must be preserved. This process of preservation was called mummification. In ancient Egypt a long, drawn-out ritual was followed to mummify the body of the dead.
This specialized embalming procedure usually took about 70 days. To begin the body was washed, and the hair was removed. The brains were also removed and thrown away. The body was then dried and wrapped in bandages. The mouth of the mummy was left open to enable the deceased to breathe and eat. Finally the body was perfumed, and the head was stuffed with sawdust. Artificial eyes were inserted. After elaborate religious rituals the mummified body was placed in a coffin made of reeds then put in a tomb made of bricks and wood with the name of the deceased inscribed on it. The interiors of the tombs were painted with elaborate inscriptions describing food, drink, and other essentials that the person might need in the next life.
Naturally these rituals could ending up costing quite a bit of money, and only the wealthiest citizens and royalty could afford the most costly procedures.
Common folk made due with much more modest ceremonies.
In modern Egypt, the more simple Muslim burial practices prevail. The body is washed, clothed in special garments, and buried.