Egypt - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Egypt - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Jailan Zayan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857336719
Publisher: Kuperard
Publication date: 05/28/2013
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 171,458
Product dimensions: 4.40(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jailan Zayan is a British national of Libyan–Egyptian origin. After graduating in law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, she took up a career in journalism, working for several news organizations. She moved to Egypt in 2000, where she reported for and contributed articles to international and Middle Eastern publications about the Arab world. She is currently Deputy Bureau Chief in Cairo for Agence France-Presse.

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By Jailan Zayan

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-672-6




Egypt enjoys a special location at the northeastern corner of the African continent. Standing at the crossroads of Africa, Europe, and Asia, it has always been a focal point for trade routes between the continents. It is bordered by Libya to the west, the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Gaza Strip and Israel to the east, the Red Sea on the east coast, and Sudan to the south. The Suez Canal, which runs from the Mediterranean city of Port Said to Suez City on the Red Sea, cuts through the stretch of land that connects mainland Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula. It spans a total area of 387,000 square miles (1,001,000 sq. km).

Egypt's pumping heart is the River Nile, which supplies the country with all its water. Rising from sources in Ethiopia and Uganda, it snakes northward through Sudan to the Mediterranean coast. As it passes Cairo, it splits into two, forming the Delta. Egypt's most fertile stretch of land, this is host to a network of canals and channels around which villages have formed.

Away from the Delta and the Nile Valley, the terrain is mostly desert. In an effort to increase the cultivable area, the government has reclaimed the desert in different parts of the country and encouraged the settlement of new communities.

The country can be divided into four regions: the Delta and Nile Valley, the Western Desert, the Eastern Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula. The fan-shaped Delta covers an area of about 14,000 square miles (22,000 sq. km). The Nile Valley from Cairo to Aswan is a 621-mile (1,000-km) long, narrow stretch of cultivated land. Lake Nasser, between Aswan and Abu Simbel in the south, is the world's largest artificial lake, formed by the huge Aswan Dam, covering 2,027 square miles (5,250 sq. km).

The Eastern Desert, which occupies almost a quarter of Egypt's land surface, is a barren plateau, indented occasionally by cliffs and mountains on its eastern edge. The Western Desert, the largest in Egypt (259,000 sq. miles, 671,000 sq. km), stretches from the Nile Valley into Libya, and is rich in natural resources, including gold, coal, and oil. Its unforgiving aridity is broken by a series of green oases, the largest of which is Siwa, near the Libyan border.

The Sinai Peninsula is a triangular wedge to the east of the Suez Canal. Its southern part is mountainous and includes Gabal Catreen, or Mount Catherine, the country's highest point, towering over the desert at 8,667 feet (2,642 m) high. Heading north, the topography becomes flatter toward the Mediterranean coast.


There are two main seasons: a mild winter and a hot summer. Winter, from November to March, is cool, with occasional rainfall. Summer, from May to September, is fierce. Average temperatures range from 57°F (14°C) in winter and 86°F (30°C) in summer. Inland temperatures can reach 44°F (7°C) in winter and 109°F (43°C) in summer.

Hot dust storms, the Khamasin, occur after winter. The term comes from the Arabic word khamsin, which means "fifty," because the winds are said to occur at any time in a fifty-day period between March and June. Humidity is high near the coasts, and highest along the north coast.


Egypt is the second-most populous country in Africa, with 82 million inhabitants, most of whom are settled around the Nile, and half of whom live in urban areas. It has one of the highest population densities in the world and, with the rapid growth in population, towns and cities have had to spread, eating up valuable agricultural land.

People in rural areas are mainly involved in agriculture; villages have formed around water sources, canals, and irrigation channels. An agrarian peasant is called a fellah (plural, fellahin). Upper Egyptians, who live south of Cairo around the Nile Valley, are referred to as Si'idi. Egypt's desert dwellers are Bedouin, originally descended from Arab and Berber tribes. Nubian communities live in the south.


Egypt has a spectacularly rich cultural history, influenced by contact over millennia with many very different societies and civilizations. Yet, from ancient times to the present, Egyptian society has remained predominantly agricultural, and the Nile has remained the bountiful provider in an otherwise barren desert. These factors have helped to maintain a link between the Egyptians of antiquity with their modern descendants, and find an echo in persisting traditions and attitudes.

During its history, Egypt has often risen to greatness, dominating its neighbors culturally and politically; at other times it has been overshadowed by, if not subservient to, them. Yet, until recently, the productiveness of the land has meant that even the times of adversity have not lasted — given the right conditions, Egypt repeatedly reassumed a leading cultural and political role. This frequent exchange of roles, from dominant empire to exploited dependency, is another important feature of Egyptian history that affects the Egyptians of today, who take it as given that it is only a matter of time before Egypt resumes its leading role among the nations.

Ancient Egypt (6000 BCE–323 BCE)

Archaeological evidence shows that primitive farming began along the banks of the Nile at least as early as the tenth millennium BCE. In around 8000 BCE climatic changes desiccated large areas of North Africa, forcing groups of pastoralists to converge on the Nile Valley and stimulating the development of advanced agricultural communities. To this day Egyptians live along the Nile, separated from other population centers to the west and east by hundreds of miles of desert.

Around 6000 BCE the Egyptians were growing cereal crops and herding animals, constructing large buildings, and using metal tools. By the fourth millennium BCE they were trading with neighboring lands and had developed proto-hieroglyphics. By the end of this millennium there existed two separate states in the land of Egypt — northern (Lower) Egypt and southern (Upper) Egypt. Around 3100 BCE the ruler of Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt and united all of Egypt for the first time. This was the Pharaoh Narmer (or Menes). He and his successors established a ruling house that is referred to as the First Dynasty of Ancient Egypt.

Pharaonic history is traditionally divided into thirty-one dynasties. Narmer's First Dynasty initiated Ancient Egyptian history, while the Thirty-First brought it to a close in 332 BCE, the date of Alexander the Great's arrival in Egypt. Groups of dynasties have been combined by historians to define three "Kingdoms": Old (Third to Sixth Dynasties), Middle (Eleventh to Thirteenth), and New (Eighteenth to Twentieth), as well as a Late Period (Twenty-Fifth to Thirty-First). Each of the three "Kingdoms" lasted for about four to five centuries. The pharaohs who ruled during these periods and the monuments they erected are those most familiar to us today.

The dynasties outside these three "Kingdoms" mostly ruled at times of civil war and disunity or partial or total foreign domination. Particularly after the end of the New Kingdom, several dynasties were foreign, and weak Egyptian rulers yielded control of Egypt to Libyan, Nubian, Assyrian, and Persian dynasties.

Greco-Roman Egypt (332 BCE–330 CE)

Egypt became part of the huge empire of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, and thus began almost a millennium of Greek influence. On his death in 323, Alexander's empire, which extended from Greece to northern India, started to crumble. Egypt became the independent realm of the Macedonian general Ptolemy, a close companion of Alexander. He declared himself king in 305, thus founding the Ptolemaic dynasty and making Egypt an imperial center once more.

Ptolemaic Egypt (323–30 BCE)

Though Alexander spent little time in Egypt before his death, he laid the foundations for the city of Alexandria. The Ptolemies made Alexandria their new capital, and for centuries it was the greatest city of antiquity. Its famous lighthouse on the island of Pharos was one of the Seven Wonders of the World, while its magnificent library was the world's first state-funded scientific institution and attracted scholars from around the Hellenized world.

The Ptolemaic rulers adopted Egyptian customs and dress, built temples for Egyptian gods, and took on the role of the ancient pharaohs. Nevertheless, as thousands of Greeks migrated to Egypt, a dual culture was established. The rulers and the Greek immigrants, who enjoyed special privileges, together with the wealthier Egyptian classes, forged a Greco-Egyptian, Greek-speaking society. Meanwhile, the bulk of the farming population, especially in Upper Egypt, were left largely undisturbed. The pattern of a privileged foreign ruling class with an alien culture — remaining separate from the mass of the mainly peasant population with its local language and customs — is one that was to repeat itself over the course of history as various overseas powers exchanged control of Egypt.

For much of the fourth and third centuries BCE, Ptolemaic Egypt was one of the most powerful states in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet, by the second century BCE, it was weakened by internal instability as members of the dynasty fought each other for supremacy. By this time Rome was the dominant power in the Mediterranean.

The last Ptolemaic ruler, the famous Cleopatra VII, became involved in Roman politics, first as the lover of Julius Caesar, and then, after Caesar's assassination, as the ally and lover of Mark Anthony in the continuing Roman civil war. They were defeated by the forces of Octavian, who became the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Cleopatra committed suicide and her son by Caesar was killed, thus ending Ptolemaic rule.

Roman Egypt (30 BCE–330 CE)

Like the Ptolemies, Roman emperors appear in the traditional pharaonic form on the walls of Egyptian temples. However, Egypt was now an imperial province and no longer the center of an empire, though it prospered economically under Roman rule, at least until the third century CE. Rome's primary interest in Egypt was its supply of grain, but it also became an important base for Roman trade with the East.

There was no large Roman population in Egypt and Latin was never adopted by the Egyptians. The Greek-speaking elite continued to dominate cultural life, while local culture remained alive in the countryside. Egyptian religious customs continued, and Egyptian temples remained in use. Alexandria was surpassed in greatness by Rome, but kept its position as the second city of the Mediterranean world. It remained the principal center of Hellenistic learning.


The history of early Christianity has many links with Egypt. The Holy Family is believed to have sought sanctuary in Egypt during the infancy of Jesus. The first Egyptian Christians are believed to have been converted by Mark the Evangelist, who therefore is considered the first Egyptian patriarch (or pope). Alexandria hosted the very first Christian catechetical school. Celebrated Doctors of the Church, notably Origen, St. Athanasius, and St. Cyril of Alexandria, were Egyptians. It was in Egypt that both the Arian and Nestorian heresies were born. Many even believe the Christian symbol of the Cross first came into use in Egypt and that it was partially derived from the Egyptian Ankh cross — the symbol of life.

Perhaps the most important contribution of Egypt to Christianity was monasticism. This developed in the third century, when many Egyptian Christians, threatened by persecution, fled to the desert to set up new communities far from the reach of the state. In the fourth century Egyptians such as St. Anthony and Pachomius developed monastic rules and ideas, which spread to the rest of the Christian world.

Byzantine Rule (330–642)

Although Egyptian Christianity started in Alexandria, most converts were Egyptian and not Greek, and by about 200 CE Christianity had spread throughout Egypt's towns and into rural areas. The Scriptures were translated into the Greek-influenced Egyptian language used at the time, known today as Coptic, which remains the official language of the Egyptian Coptic Church.

Christians were persecuted by the Romans until the end of the third century, but in the early fourth century Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire (as the later Roman Empire is called). The numbers of Christians increased greatly, as did hostility toward pagan forms of worship.

In 391, the Emperor Theodosius ordered all heathen temples to be destroyed, and paganism was outlawed throughout the Empire. Among the buildings demolished was the Library of Alexandria, a bastion of classical learning. Attacks on pagan temples by fanatical monks are recorded as late as the fifth century and it is likely that no pagans survived into the seventh century. Christianity thus extinguished the ancient religions, the roots of which went back to pharaonic Egypt. But Egyptian religious identity remained independent, and expressed itself through the new faith.

The Coptic Church

In the two centuries that followed the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, the leading clergy, including Egyptian bishops, conducted doctrinal debates about the "nature" of Christ. These sometimes resulted in schisms and shaped the history of the Church.

Political maneuvering between the dioceses of Alexandria and Rome contributed to the outcome of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This council repudiated the Monophysite doctrine associated with the Alexandrian Church — that in Christ there was but one nature — and removed the Alexandrian patriarch from office.

Most Egyptian clergymen rejected this, as did the bulk of the population, and reacted by appointing their own patriarch. A new Egyptian Church was born, independent of the bishops of Rome and Constantinople: the Coptic Church. For almost two centuries Copts came under pressure from the Byzantine state to renounce their "heresy." Torture and execution were sometimes used, causing great resentment of Byzantine rule among the Egyptians and focusing their national identity on the Coptic Church.

Islamic Egypt

At the beginning of the seventh century a new religion was born in western Arabia that was to change the world. By 634 the tribes of Arabia had united under the banner of this new religion, Islam. Muslim Arab armies defeated the forces of the two main powers of the region: Sassanid Persia and the Byzantine Empire.

After ten years of fighting, most of the Middle East had fallen to the Muslim troops. Within another decade the Sassanid Empire was no more, and the Byzantines were confined to their territories in the Balkans, Greece, and Asia Minor. An Islamic empire had been created that, at its territorial peak in the early eighth century, stretched from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

Province of the Caliphate (642–868)

After defeats in Syria in the mid-630s, the Byzantines were on the defensive. By 642, Egypt was fully occupied by the Muslims. Egypt now became a province of the Caliphate, as the Muslim empire was known. The mostly Coptic Egyptian population did not lament the departure of the Byzantines. Local communities were well treated by the Muslims: Islamic law stated that "People of the Book," that is, Jews and Christians, who lived under Muslim rule were protected and not to be harmed. The Muslims rarely pressured local populations to convert, and in Egypt conversion to Islam was a slow process. It is estimated it took about seven centuries for the Muslim population of Egypt to exceed the 50 percent mark.

As Alexandria was subject to Byzantine raids and was even briefly reoccupied in the 640s, the Muslims built a new capital inland, just east of the apex of the Delta. The new town, called al-Fustat, was also more accessible to reinforcements from Syria in case of need.

Egypt spent two centuries as a Muslim province supplying the reigning caliphs with revenue from agricultural taxation. Arab tribes settled along the Nile Valley. While these were too few in number to affect the country's ethnic or religious composition, they were important in disseminating the Arabic language.


Excerpted from Egypt by Jailan Zayan. Copyright © 2013 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
About the Author,
Map of Egypt,
Key Facts,
Chapter 6: TIME OUT,
Further Reading,

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