LOCATION: Egypt (northeastern Africa)
POPULATION: 60 million
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim); Coptic Christian; other Christian denominations
Throughout Egypt's 6,000-year history, it was the focus of ambitions of foreign nations. Conquerors from many countries have ruled Egypt. Britain was the last colonial power to conquer Egypt. British forces withdrew in 1954. Egypt was then independent under the leadership of President Jamal Abd al-Nasir.
A major event in the ancient history of Egypt was unification. Upper (southern) Egypt and Lower (northern) Egypt were joined by the King Menes in the third millennium BC . This began the famous Pharaonic Age, in which a god-king, or pharaoh, ruled all of Egypt. The culture of the pharaohs is preserved in the pyramids and in the stories etched in stone in hieroglyphic writing all over Egypt.
A second major event was the Arab Muslim conquest around AD 641 by Amr Ibn al-As (?–663). This was one of the most influential factors in the development of modern Egypt. The conquest led to the spread of the Arabic language and Islamic religion across Egypt.
Today, Egypt is technically a democracy and is a very important nation in international affairs. Its leadership cooperates with Western nations.
Egypt has a population of about 60 million, with 99 percent of its people living along the banks of the Nile River. Population density in the Nile Valley is one of the highest in the world.
The country occupies approximately 387,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) in north-eastern Africa. Of this, only 3.5 percent (the Nile Valley and Delta) is cultivated. The rest of the land consists of the Western (Libyan) Desert, the Eastern (Arabian) Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt is bordered on the west by Libya, on the south by the Sudan, on the east by the Red Sea, on the northeast by southern Israel, and on the north by the Mediterranean Sea.
All Egyptians speak Arabic, the national language. Depending on where they live, they speak one of two major dialects. Common boys' names are Ramadan and Shaban, which are also the names of Islamic months. Other common names are Gamal, Muhammad, and Ahmad. Common girls' names are Layla, Suad, Nagla, Fatima, and Huwaida. Egyptians often use nicknames for friends and relatives. Very common nicknames are Mimi for Muhammad and Fifi for Fatima.
Most folklore in Muslim countries tells stories of important figures in Islamic religious history. One such story, commemorated every year throughout the Islamic world, is that of al-Isra wa al-Mi raj. According to legend, on the twenty-sixth day of the Islamic month of Rajab, the Prophet Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca (a city in what is now Saudi Arabia) to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nighttime visit to heaven.
Another element of folklore believed in by people in some Islamic countries, including Egypt, is that evil spirits, called jinns, live in haunted places. Jinns are demons that can take on the form of an animal or human being. Some Egyptians also believe in the "evil eye," a kind of curse, and take measures to prevent being harmed by it.
About 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims (followers of a branch of Islam), about 8 percent are Coptic Christians, and about 2 percent are other Christian denominations. There are fewer than one thousand Jews in Egypt.
Egypt commemorates secular (non-religious) holidays and Muslim religious holidays. One major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or having sex during daylight hours. They do this to help them understand the suffering of the world. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr for three days. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha. It commemorates an incident showing the willingness of the both the Prophet Abraham and his son to obey God's command in all things.
Secular holidays include New Year's Day (January 1); Mother's Day (March 31); Sinai Liberation Day (April 25); Labor Day (May 1); Evacuation Day, commemorating the departure of the British (June 18); Revolution Day (July 23); National Day (October 6); and Victory Day (December 23).
Egyptian boys are circumcised, usually at birth, but sometimes later in the child's life. The birth of a baby is an important event. The baby's first week of life is commemorated on the seventh day with a celebration called the subu.
All adults hope to conduct the Islamic hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, at some time during their life. Those who do so are given the title Hajj preceding their name, such as Hajj Mustafa (for a man) or Hajjah Fatima (for a woman). When a person dies, the burial is carried out as soon as possible, preferably on the same day.
Marriages are usually arranged. A young man enlists the help of his mother or a matchmaker to find a suitable prospective wife. When a candidate is chosen, the prospective groom's family arranges to meet with the young woman's father to make a formal proposal. If the father is open to the idea of the marriage, the groom then presents his financial situation. He tells his future father-in-law how much he can pay for a dowry, and what kind of jewelry he will give his bride-to-be. If the families agree to the terms, they read the first chapter of the Koran (the sacred text of Islam) together and set an engagement date. The engagement party is an occasion for festive celebration. The couple exchanges rings at the party, but they wear them on their right hands until the marriage. Then each switches the ring to the left hand.
Egyptians are very friendly people, and even the poorest person will show hospitality to a stranger. The Egyptian greeting is typically As-salamu alaykum , or "Peace be with you," and the response is Wa alaykum as-salam , or "And peace be with you also." Egyptians shake hands when greeting. Two men or two women who have not seen each other for a while may kiss on the cheek. In formal situations, a man is called sayyid (Mr.), a married woman sayyida (Mrs.), and a single woman anisa (Miss).
Dating between a man and woman is a social taboo because Islamic values forbid an unmarried man and woman to be alone together. Marriage tends to be arranged by matchmakers.
The rapidly growing population of Egypt is a challenge to government officials responsible for meeting the country's housing needs. Population size, a shortage of skilled laborers, and a shortage of construction materials have resulted in a shortage of affordable housing. The most painful result of this shortage can be seen in mausoleums (small buildings for burial above ground) of cemeteries of Cairo, Egypt's capital city. More than five hundred thousand poor people have set up homes in the mausoleums. The cemeteries are so full of people that they are now called "The City of the Dead." One-fifth of all Egyptians live in the four hundred slums that surround Cairo.
Most Egyptians live in crowded apartment buildings in very densely populated communities. Some people have built semilegal housing of wood, cardboard, and metal on the flat rooftops of apartment buildings. There is little space for single-family houses, but they can be found in a few areas.
The family is the center of social organization. Every Egyptian is expected to get married and produce children in order to continue the family lineage. The father is the head of the household, and he is responsible for providing for the family's needs. The mother manages the household and is the main person to care for the home and raise the children. Many wives now work to help support the family, but they are still responsible for running the household.
Children are taught to show respect for their parents and other adults, and children are given responsibilities at a young age. Girls help their mothers with housework and take care of the younger children. Boys in poorer families are expected to learn a trade early in life, even if this interrupts schooling. Children of wealthier families have the luxury of focusing most of their attention on school.
The galabiyya, Egypt's national attire for men, is a long robe with long sleeves and trim around the neckline. It tends to be light in color, with gray, beige, and white being the most common colors. The milaya, worn by Egypt's traditional older women, is usually black and is also a long garment with long sleeves.
The Islamic sharia attire is worn by religious women, usually women who are younger than those who wear the milaya. Sharia dresses are common in the universities and in workplaces. This dress is also long, with long sleeves and buttons down the front, resembling a long jacket. Many Egyptians wear typical Western clothes, and Western clothing shops abound in the cities.
Most of the population consumes bread, rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables every day. Those who can afford to also eat red meat, poultry, and fish.
The typical Egyptian breakfast consists of ful mudammas (fava bean dip) with pita bread, hard-boiled or scrambled eggs, and a cup of hot tea with boiled milk
Common desserts include kunafa, a baked pastry made of layers of shredded wheat dough and nuts and covered with syrup. Another is baqlawa (baklava), a baked pastry made of layers of filo dough (thin, flaky dough) and nuts and covered with syrup. A third is basbusa, a baked cake made of wheat flour and soaked in syrup.
Common drinks include hot tea with mint, Turkish coffee, irk sus ( a licorice-root drink), and fresh fruit juice—including Carrot juice and sugarcane juice—all of which are squeezed fresh by street vendors.
Because they are mostly Muslim, Egyptians do not consume pork or drink alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is served in expensive restaurants and hotels, however.
In 1981, the government decreed that all children must complete the first nine years of school—six years of primary school and three years of preparatory school. Education at all levels is free, from primary school through university education. Students are required to pass an end-of-the-year examination in order to pass from one level in the school system to the next.
High-school students whose grades are good enough have the opportunity to enroll in a university. Egypt's leading universities are Cairo University, Alexandria University, Ein Shams University, Asyut University, and the American University at Cairo. The first four of these are public universities, and the last is private.
Ancient Egyptians left behind a rich artistic heritage in the form of pyramids, pharaonic painting and sculpture, hieroglyphics, and architecture. The Cairo Museum houses a large collection of relics from ancient times. The museum displays about one hundred thousand exhibits, including some of the coffins excavated from the pyramids and treasures from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamen (King Tut; 1370–1352 BC ).
Literature is very popular in modern Egypt. Cairo's publishing companies produce a large number and variety of literary works. One of Egypt's most famous authors was a blind essayist named Taha Husayn (1889–1973), whose literary output was immense. Some of his writing has been translated into English, including Tales from Egyptian Life and An Egyptian Childhood (an autobiography).
Serve with pita bread.
A modern Egyptian novelist well-known in the Western world is Naguib Mahfouz (1911–), winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of Mahfouz's translated works include Midaq Alley and The Trilogy. Mahfouz writes about the lives of ordinary Egyptians, particularly the poor and middle classes.
Agriculture is the largest source of jobs in Egypt. Farmers plant berseem (clover) for livestock feed, as well as corn, wheat, vegetables, rice, cotton, and fruit.
In 1974, the government announced economic reforms that would promote manufacturing and other industries. Since then, people from rural areas have flocked to Cairo in search of work. Egypt's cities, however, cannot offer enough jobs for everyone who wants one. City residents end up depending on the government for jobs, and the waiting period for these jobs can be as long as ten years.
Many people who do have work hold more than one job to make ends meet. This is particularly true for government employees. It is common to find a man (seldom a woman) working at a government-run factory during the day and moonlighting in a second job at night.
Egyptians take soccer, which they call "football," very seriously. Competitions are held among the country's many teams and are broadcast on radio and television with great enthusiasm. National soccer teams also compete in regional soccer competitions with teams from other Arab and African nations.
Swimming is enjoyed along the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. Indoor swimming pools are located in sports clubs, but only middle-class and wealthy people can afford these.
There are more than seventy-five cinemas in Cairo. Some are run by the government and others are privately owned. Movies made in Egypt range from comedy to drama and often have a political message. Cairo has about seventeen theaters for live stage productions, and Alexandria has about six. Egyptian theaters host a variety of shows, including opera, orchestra, folk music, and choral performances.
Television entered the lives of Egyptians in the mid-1960s. By the 1980s TV sets had become quite common. Today, TV sets are even common among the residents of the cemeteries (mausoleums). Egyptian TV has a wide variety of programming, including comedy, music and dance shows, cartoons, and soap operas. Families are glued to their TV sets in the evening when the nightly soap operas come on.
Egyptian children play in the many open fields in their neighborhoods, but new parks have also been built. There are a limited number of amusement parks. The main one, located in Cairo, is called Sinbad. Toys are not very common and did not arrive in Egypt in significant numbers until the mid-1980s. Fathers returning from jobs in the oil fields of other countries brought back toys as gifts for their children. Many stores now have supplies of toys for children, but most people do not spend their money on such luxuries.
The stores of Khan al-Khalili in Cairo sell mainly to tourists. They feature the hand-made crafts of local artisans. Some of the most creative Egyptian handicrafts include wooden jewelry boxes covered with mother-of-pearl, silver and hand-painted serving trays, and leather ottomans (upholstered footrests) with intricate designs. In the small village of Kirdasa the stores also specialize in handmade women's dresses with embroidery, sequins, and beads.
One of the most unusual forms of folk art in Egypt is hajj painting. As a Muslim completes his or her pilgrimage to Mecca, a local artist paints the new pilgrim's front door with a mural symbolizing the hajj. Most hajj paintings are found in the villages.
One of Egypt's biggest problems is poverty. The growth of slums has caused an increase in crime, violence, and religious militancy (forceful expression of religious beliefs). Pickpockets and purse snatchers are common all over Cairo. There is white-collar crime including embezzlement, tax evasion, and bribes to officials. Another major problem is the illegal use of drugs.
Egyptian prisons are overcrowded. International human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have criticized the Egyptian government's handling of strong opponents of its policies. The major criticism is that not only violent opponents, but also nonviolent political opponents, are being denied their political and civil rights in the government's attempt to maintain control.
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Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Egypt: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1991.
Wikan, Unni. Tomorrow, God Willing: Self-Made Destinies in Cairo. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.