Egyptians (Arabic: مِصريّون miṣriyūn; Masri: مَصريين maṣreyyīn; Coptic: ni.remenkīmi) is the name of the North African ethnic group native to Egypt, and also of the nationality of the citizens of the Arab Republic of Egypt.
Egyptian identity is closely tied to the Geography of Egypt, dominated by the lower Nile Valley, the small strip of cultivable land stretching from the First Cataract to the Mediterranean Sea and enclosed by desert both to the east and to the west. This unique geography has been the basis of the development of Egyptian society since antiquity.
The Egyptians speak Masri, the local variety of Arabic. Egyptians are predominantly adherents of Sunni Islam with a Shia minority and a significant proportion who follow native Sufi orders. A sizable minority of Egyptians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose liturgical language, Coptic, is the last stage of the indigenous Egyptian language. The national identity of Egyptians as it developed in the 19th to 20th centuries consists of overlapping or conflicting ideologies, secular Egyptian nationalism (also known as "Pharaonism"), secular Arab nationalism (including pan-Arabism), and Islamism.
An estimated 76.4 million Egyptians live around the world, but the vast majority are in Egypt where ethnic Egyptians constitute about 94% (74 million) of the total population. Ethnic minorities in Egypt are formed by Nubians, Berbers, Bedouins, Arabs, Beja and Dom.
Approximately 90% of the population of Egypt are Muslim and 10% are Christian (9% Coptic, 1% other Christian), though estimates vary. The majority live near the banks of the Nile River where the only arable land is found. Close to half of the Egyptian people today are urban; most of the rest are fellahin living in rural towns and villages. A large influx of fellahin into urban cities, and rapid urbanization of many rural areas since the turn of the last century, have shifted the balance between the number of urban and rural citizens. Egyptians also form smaller minorities in neighboring countries, North America, Europe and Australia.
Historically, it was rare for Egyptians to leave their country permanently or for an extended period of time—it was not until the 1970s that Egyptians began to emigrate in large numbers. Until recently, a study on the pattern of Egyptian emigration was quoted as saying "Egyptians have a reputation of preferring their own soil. Few leave except to study or travel; and they always return... Egyptians do not emigrate. Egyptians also tend to be provincial, meaning their attachment extends not only to Egypt but to the specific provinces, towns and villages from which they hail. Therefore, return migrants, such as temporary workers abroad, come back to their region of origin in Egypt.
Their characteristic rootedness as Egyptians, commonly explained as the result of centuries as a farming people clinging to the banks of the Nile, is reflected in sights, sounds and atmosphere that are meaningful to all Egyptians. Dominating the intangible pull of Egypt is the ever present Nile, which is more than a constant backdrop. Its varying colors and changing water levels signal the coming and going of the Nile flood that sets the rhythm of farming in a rainless country and holds the attention of all Egyptians. No Egyptian is ever far from his river and, except for the Alexandrines whose personality is split by looking outward toward the Mediterranean, the Egyptians are a hinterland people with little appetite for travel, even inside their own country. They glorify their national dishes, including the variety of concoctions surrounding the simple bean. Most of all, they have a sense of all-encompassing familiarity at home and a sense of alienation when abroad... There is something particularly excruciating about Egyptian nostalgia for Egypt: it is sometimes outlandish, but the attachment flows through all Egyptians, as the Nile through Egypt.
A sizable Egyptian diaspora did not begin to form until well into the 1980s, today numbering nearly 4 million (2006 est). Generally, those who emigrate to the United States (93%) and western European countries (55.5%) tend to do so permanently, while Egyptians migrating to Arab countries (100%) only go there with the intention of returning to Egypt. Prior to 1974, only few Egyptian professionals had left the country in search for employment. Political, demographic and economic pressures led to the first wave of emigration after 1952. Later more Egyptians left their homeland first after the 1973 boom in oil prices and again in 1979, but it was only in the second half of the 1980s that Egyptian migration became prominent.
Egyptian emigration today is motivated by even higher rates of unemployment, population growth and increasing prices. Political repression and human rights violations by Egypt's ruling régime are other contributing factors (see Egypt - Human rights). Egyptians have also been impacted by the wars between Egypt and Israel, particularly after the Six-Day War in 1967, when migration rates began to rise. In August 2006, Egyptians made headlines when 11 students from Mansoura University failed to show up at their American host institutions for a cultural exchange program in the hope of finding employment. Many Coptic Christians also leave the country due to discrimination and harassment by the Egyptian government and Islamist groups.
Egyptians in neighboring countries face additional challenges. Over the years, abuse, exploitation and/or ill-treatment of Egyptian workers and professionals in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Libya have been reported by the Egyptian Human Rights Organization and different media outlets. Arab nationals have in the past expressed fear over an "'Egyptianization' of the local dialects and culture that were believed to have resulted from the predominance of Egyptians in the field of education" (see also Egyptian Arabic - Geographics). The Egyptians for their part object to what they call the "Saudization" of their culture due to Saudi Arabian petrodollar-flush investment in the Egyptian entertainment industry. Twice Libya was on the brink of war with Egypt due to mistreatment of Egyptian workers and after the signing of the peace treaty with Israel. When the Gulf War ended, Egyptian workers in Iraq were subjected to harsh measures and expulsion by the Iraqi government and to violent attacks by Iraqis returning from the war to fill the workforce.
Egyptian identity since the Iron Age Empire evolved under the influence of a succession of foreign rulers, Nubian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Turkish and British, accommodating two new religions, Christianity and Islam, and a new language, Arabic.
The degree to which Egyptians identify with each layer of Egypt's history in articulating a sense of collective identity can vary. Questions of identity came to fore in the 20th century as Egyptians sought to free themselves from British occupation, leading to the rise of ethno-territorial, secular Egyptian nationalism (also known as "Pharaonism"), secular Arab nationalism (including pan-Arabism), and Islamism.
"Pharaonism" has its roots in the 19th century and rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. It looked to Egypt's pre-Islamic past and argued that Egypt was part of a larger Mediterranean civilization. This ideology stressed the role of the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea. Pharaonism's most notable advocate was Taha Hussein. It became the dominant mode of expression of Egyptian anti-colonial activists of the pre- and inter-war periods:
What is most significant [about Egypt in this period] is the absence of an Arab component in early Egyptian nationalism. The thrust of Egyptian political, economic, and cultural development throughout the nineteenth century worked against, rather than for, an "Arab" orientation... This situation—that of divergent political trajectories for Egyptians and Arabs—if anything increased after 1900.
In 1931, following a visit to Egypt, Syrian Arab nationalist Sati' al-Husri remarked that "[Egyptians] did not possess an Arab nationalist sentiment; did not accept that Egypt was a part of the Arab lands, and would not acknowledge that the Egyptian people were part of the Arab nation. The later 1930s would become a formative period for Arab nationalism in Egypt, in large part due to efforts by Syrian/Palestinian/Lebanese intellectuals. Nevertheless, a year after the establishment of the League of Arab States in 1945, to be headquartered in Cairo, Oxford University historian H. S. Deighton was still writing:
The Egyptians are not Arabs, and both they and the Arabs are aware of this fact. They are Arabic-speaking, and they are Muslim —indeed religion plays a greater part in their lives than it does in those either of the Syrians or the Iraqi. But the Egyptian, during the first thirty years of the [twentieth] century, was not aware of any particular bond with the Arab East... Egypt sees in the Arab cause a worthy object of real and active sympathy and, at the same time, a great and proper opportunity for the exercise of leadership, as well as for the enjoyment of its fruits. But she is still Egyptian first and Arab only in consequence, and her main interests are still domestic.
It was not until the Nasser era more than a decade later that Arab nationalism, and by extension Arab socialism, became a state policy and a means with which to define Egypt's position in the Middle East and the world, usually articulated vis-à-vis Zionism in the neighboring Jewish state. For a while Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic. When the union was dissolved, Egypt continued to be known as the UAR until 1971, when Egypt adopted the current official name, the Arab Republic of Egypt. The Egyptians' attachment to Arabism, however, was particularly questioned after the 1967 Six-Day War. Thousands of Egyptians had lost their lives and the country became disillusioned with Arab politics. Nasser's successor Sadat, both through public policy and his peace initiative with Israel, revived an uncontested Egyptian orientation, unequivocally asserting that only Egypt and Egyptians were his responsibility. The terms "Arab", "Arabism" and "Arab unity", save for the new official name, became conspicuously absent. (See also Liberal age and Republic sections.)
Many Egyptians today feel that Egyptian and Arab identities are inextricably linked, and emphasize the central role that Egypt plays in the Arab world. Others continue to believe that Egypt and Egyptians are simply not Arab, emphasizing indigenous Egyptian heritage, culture and independent polity; pointing to the failures of Arab and pan-Arab nationalist policies; and publicly voicing objection to the present official name of the country.
In late 2007, el-Masri el-Yom daily newspaper conducted an interview at a bus stop in the working-class district of Imbaba to ask citizens what Arab nationalism (el-qawmeyya el-'arabeyya) represented for them. One Egyptian Muslim youth responded, "Arab nationalism means that the Egyptian Foreign Minister in Jerusalem gets humiliated by the Palestinians, that Arab leaders dance upon hearing of Sadat's death, that Egyptians get humiliated in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and of course that Arab countries get to fight Israel until the last Egyptian soldier." Another felt that,"Arab countries hate Egyptians," and that unity with Israel may even be more of a possibility than Arab nationalism, because he believes that Israelis would at least respect Egyptians.
Some contemporary prominent Egyptians who oppose Arab nationalism or the idea that Egyptians are Arabs include Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, popular writer Osama Anwar Okasha, Egyptian-born Harvard University Professor Leila Ahmed, Member of Parliament Suzie Greiss, in addition to different local groups and intellectuals. This understanding is also expressed in other contexts, such as Neil DeRosa's novel Joseph's Seed in his depiction of an Egyptian character "who declares that Egyptians are not Arabs and never will be.
Egyptian critics of Arab nationalism contend that it has worked to erode and/or relegate native Egyptian identity by superimposing only one aspect of Egypt's culture. These views and sources for collective identification in the Egyptian state are captured in the words of a linguistic anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Cairo:
Historically, Egyptians have considered themselves as distinct from 'Arabs' and even at present rarely do they make that identification in casual contexts; il-'arab [the Arabs] as used by Egyptians refers mainly to the inhabitants of the Gulf states... Egypt has been both a leader of pan-Arabism and a site of intense resentment towards that ideology. Egyptians had to be made, often forcefully, into "Arabs" [during the Nasser era] because they did not historically identify themselves as such. Egypt was self-consciously a nation not only before pan-Arabism but also before becoming a colony of the British Empire. Its territorial continuity since ancient times, its unique history as exemplified in its pharaonic past and later on its Coptic language and culture, had already made Egypt into a nation for centuries. Egyptians saw themselves, their history, culture and language as specifically Egyptian and not "Arab.
The national language of Egypt today is Arabic. The spoken vernacular is known as Egyptian Arabic, while Standard Arabic is reserved for more formal contexts. The recorded history of Egyptian Arabic as a separate dialect begins in Ottoman Egypt with a document by a 17th century author writing about the peculiarities of the speech of the Egyptian people. This suggests that the language by then was spoken by the majority of Egyptians. It is represented in a body of vernacular literature comprising novels, plays and poetry published over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Classical Arabic is also a significant cultural element in Egyptian culture, as Egyptian novelists and poets were among the first to experiment with modern styles of Arabic literature, and the forms they developed have been widely imitated.
In Byzantine Egypt, both the native Coptic language (the direct descendant of the ancient Egyptian language) and Koine Greek were in use for administrative purposes. Following the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century, Egypt came under Arab rule. Use of both Greek and Coptic as administrative languages was discontinued in favour of the Arabic language in 705, and Coptic suffered a continuous decline over the following centuries. Especially under Mamluk rule, speakers of Coptic were actively persecuted. The Coptic language was virtually extinct by the 18th century, although it remained in continuous use as the liturgical language of Coptic Christianity. Since the 19th century, there have been attempts at revival (see Liberal Egyptian Party), and it is now reported as the native language of a few hundred members of the Egyptian diaspora..
Over the years, the findings of archaeology, biological anthropology and population genetics have shed light on the origins of the Egyptians. The indigenous Nile Valley population became firmly established during the Pleistocene epoch when nomadic hunter-gatherers began living along the Nile River. Traces of these proto-Egyptians appear in the form of artifacts and rock carvings in the terraces of the Nile and the desert oases. Beginning in the predynastic period, some differences between the populations of Upper and Lower Egypt were ascertained through their skeletal remains, suggesting a gradual clinal pattern north to south.
When Lower and Upper Egypt were unified c. 3150 BC, the distinction began to blur, resulting in a more "homogeneous" population in Egypt, though the distinction remains true to some degree to this day. Some biological anthropologists such as Shomarka Keita believe the range of variability to be primarily indigenous and not necessarily the result of significant intermingling of widely divergent peoples. Keita describes the northern and southern patterns of the early predynastic period as "northern-Egyptian-Maghreb" and "tropical African variant" (overlapping with Nubia/Kush) respectively. He shows that a progressive change in Upper Egypt toward the northern Egyptian pattern takes place through the predynastic period. The southern pattern continues to predominate in Abydos, Upper Egypt by the First Dynasty, but "lower Egyptian, Maghrebian, and European patterns are observed also, thus making for great diversity.
A 2006 bioarchaeological study on the dental morphology of ancient Egyptians by Prof. Joel Irish shows dental traits characteristic of indigenous North Africans and to a lesser extent Southwest Asian and southern European populations. Among the samples included in the study is skeletal material from the Fayum mummy portraits, which clustered very closely with the Badarian series of the predynastic period. All the samples, particularly those of the Dynastic period, were significantly divergent from a neolithic West Saharan sample from Lower Nubia. Biological continuity was also found intact from the dynastic to the post-pharaonic periods. According to Irish:
[The Egyptian] samples [996 mummies] exhibit morphologically simple, mass-reduced dentitions that are similar to those in populations from greater North Africa (Irish, 1993, 1998a–c, 2000) and, to a lesser extent, western Asia and Europe (Turner, 1985a; Turner and Markowitz, 1990; Roler, 1992; Lipschultz, 1996; Irish, 1998a). Similar craniofacial measurements among samples from these regions were reported as well (Brace et al., 1993)... an inspection of MMD values reveals no evidence of increasing phenetic distance between samples from the first and second halves of this almost 3,000-year-long period. For example, phenetic distances between First-Second Dynasty Abydos and samples from Fourth Dynasty Saqqara (MMD ¼ 0.050), 11-12th Dynasty Thebes (0.000), 12th Dynasty Lisht (0.072), 19th Dynasty Qurneh (0.053), and 26th–30th Dynasty Giza (0.027) do not exhibit a directional increase through time... Thus, despite increasing foreign influence after the Second Intermediate Period, not only did Egyptian culture remain intact (Lloyd, 2000a), but the people themselves, as represented by the dental samples, appear biologically constant as well... Gebel Ramlah [Neolithic Nubian/Western Desert sample] is, in fact, significantly different from Badari based on the 22-trait MMD (Table 4). For that matter, the Neolithic Western Desert sample is significantly different from all others [but] is closest to predynastic and early dynastic samples.
University of Chicago Egyptologist Frank Yurco confirmed this finding of historical and regional continuity, saying:
Certainly there was some foreign admixture [in Egypt], but basically a homogeneous African population had lived in the Nile Valley from ancient to modern times... [the] Badarian people, who developed the earliest Predynastic Egyptian culture, already exhibited the mix of North African and Sub-Saharan physical traits that have typified Egyptians ever since (Hassan 1985; Yurco 1989; Trigger 1978; Keita 1990; Brace et al., this volume)... The peoples of Egypt, the Sudan, and much of East Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia are now generally regarded as a Nilotic (i.e. Nile River) continuity, with widely ranging physical features (complexions light to dark, various hair and craniofacial types) but with powerful common cultural traits, including cattle pastoralist traditions (Trigger 1978; Bard, Snowden, this volume). Language research suggests that this Saharan-Nilotic population became speakers of the Afro-Asiatic languages... Semitic was evidently spoken by Saharans who crossed the Red Sea into Arabia and became ancestors of the Semitic speakers there, possibly around 7000 BC... In summary we may say that Egypt was distinct North African culture rooted in the Nile Valley and on the Sahara.
Ancient Egypt sees a succession of thirty dynasties spanning three millennia, during which Egyptian culture underwent significant development in terms of religion, arts, language and customs. Egypt fell under "foreign rulers", the Hyksos, in the Middle Bronze Age, which the native nobility managed to expulse by the Late Bronze Age, initiating the New Kingdom of Egypt rising to the status of an "Empire" under Thutmose III, and it remained a super-regional power throughout the successful 19th and 20th dynasties (the Amarna period and the Ramesside Period, lasting into the Early Iron Age. The Bronze Age collapse that had afflicted the Mesopotamian empires reaches Egypt with some delay, and it is only in the 11th century BC that the Empire declines, falling into the comparative obscurity of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt. The 25th dynasty of Nubian rulers was again briefly replaced by native nobility in the 7th century BC, but in 525 BC, Egypt fell under Persian rule. Alexander the Great was greeted as a liberator as he conquered Egypt in 332 BC. The Late Period of ancient Egypt is taken to end with his death in 323 BC. The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt from 305 BC to 30 BC and introduced Hellenic culture to Egyptians.
Throughout the Pharaonic epoch (viz., from 2920 BC to 525 BC in conventional Egyptian chronology), divine kingship was the glue which held Egyptian society together. It was especially pronounced in the Old and Middle Kingdoms and continued until the Roman conquest. The societal structure created by this system of government remained virtually unchanged up to modern times. The role of the king, however, was considerably weakened after the 20th dynasty. The king in his role as Son of Ra was entrusted to maintain Ma'at, the principle of truth, justice and order, and to enhance the country's agricultural economy by ensuring regular Nile floods. Ascendancy to the Egyptian throne reflected the myth of Horus who assumed kingship after he buried his murdered father Osiris. The king of Egypt, as a living personification of Horus, could claim the throne after burying his predecessor, who was typically his father. When the role of the king waned, the country became more susceptible to foreign influence and invasion.
The attention paid to the dead, and the veneration with which they were held, were one of the hallmarks of ancient Egyptian society. Egyptians built tombs for their dead that were meant to last for eternity. This was most prominently expressed by the Great Pyramids. The ancient Egyptian word for tomb pr nḥḥ means 'House of Eternity.' The Egyptians also celebrated life and this is attested by tomb reliefs and inscriptions, papyri and other sources depicting Egyptians farming, conducting trade expeditions, hunting, holding festivals, attending parties and receptions with their pet dogs, cats and monkeys, dancing and singing, enjoying food and drink, and playing games. The ancient Egyptians were also known for their engaging sense of humor, much like their modern descendants.
Another important continuity during this period is the Egyptian attitude toward foreigners—those they considered not fortunate enough to be part of the community of rmṯ or "the people" (i.e., Egyptians.) This attitude was facilitated by the Egyptians' more frequent contact with other peoples during the New Kingdom, when Egypt expanded to an empire that also encompassed Nubia through Jebel Barkal and parts of the Levant. The Egyptian sense of superiority was given religious validation, as foreigners in the land of Ta-Meri (Egypt) were anathema to the maintenance of Maat—a view most clearly expressed by the admonitions of Ipuwer in reaction to the chaotic events of the Second Intermediate Period. Foreigners in Egyptian texts were described in derogatory terms; e.g., 'wretched Asiatics' (Semites), 'vile Kushites' (Nubians), and 'Ionian dogs' (Greeks). Egyptian beliefs remained unchallenged when Egypt fell to the Hyksos, Assyrians, Libyans, Persians and Greeks—their rulers assumed the role of the Egyptian Pharaoh and were often depicted praying to Egyptian gods.
The ancient Egyptians used a solar calendar that divided the year into 12 months of 30 days each, with five extra days added. The calendar revolved around the annual Nile Inundation (akh.t), the first of three seasons into which the year was divided. The other two were Winter and Summer, each lasting for four months. The modern Egyptian fellahin calculate the agricultrual seasons, with the months still bearing their ancient names, in much the same manner. The importance of the Nile in Egyptian life, ancient and modern, cannot be overemphasized. The rich alluvium carried by the Nile inundation were the basis of Egypt's formation as a society and a state. Regular inundations were a cause for celebration; low waters often meant famine and starvation. The ancient Egyptians personified the river flood as the god Hapy and dedicated a Hymn to the Nile to celebrate it. km.t, the Black Land, was as Herodotus observed, "the gift of the river."
When Alexander died, a story began to circulate that Nectanebo II was Alexander's father. This made Alexander in the eyes of the Egyptians a legitimate heir to the native pharaohs. The new Ptolemaic rulers, however, exploited Egypt for their own benefit and a great social divide was created between Egyptians and Greeks. The local priesthood, however, continued to wield power as they had during the Dynastic age. Egyptians continued to practice their religion undisturbed and largely maintained their own separate communities from their foreign conquerors. The language of administration became Greek, but the mass of the Egyptian population was Egyptian-speaking and concentrated in the countryside, while most Greeks lived in Alexandria and only few had any knowledge of Egyptian.
The Ptolemaic rulers all retained their Greek names and titles, but projected a public image of being Egyptian pharaohs. Much of this period's vernacular literature was composed in the demotic phase and script of the Egyptian language. It was focused on earlier stages of Egyptian history when Egyptians were independent and ruled by great native pharaohs such as Ramesses II. Prophetic writings circulated among Egyptians promising expulsion of the Greeks, and frequent revolting by the Egyptians took place throughout the Ptolemaic period. A revival in animal cults, the hallmark of the Predyanstic and Early Dyanstic periods, is said to have come about to fill a spiritual void as Egyptians became increasingly disillusioned and weary due to successive waves of foreign invasions.
When the Romans annexed Egypt in 30 BC, the social structure created by the Greeks was largely retained, though the power of the Egyptian priesthood diminished. The Roman emperors lived abroad and did not perform the ceremonial functions of Egyptian kingship as the Ptolemies had. The art of mummy portraiture flourished, but Egypt became further stratified with Romans at the apex of the social pyramid, Greeks and Jews occupied the middle stratum, while Egyptians, who constituted the vast majority, were at the bottom. Egyptians paid a poll tax at full rate, Greeks paid at half-rate and Roman citizens were exempt. The Roman emperor Caracalla advocated the expulsion of all ethnic Egyptians from the city of Alexandria, saying "genuine Egyptians can easily be recognized among the linen-weavers by their speech. This attitude lasted until AD 212 when Roman citizenship was finally granted to all the inhabitants of Egypt, though ethnic divisions remained largely entrenched. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, treated Egypt like their own private property, a land exploited for the benefit of a small foreign elite. The Egyptian peasants, pressed for maximum production to meet Roman quotas, suffered and fled to the desert. The cult of Isis, like those of Osiris and Serapis, had been popular in Egypt and throughout the Roman Empire at the coming of Christianity, and continued to be the main competitor with Christianity in its early years. The main temple of Isis remained a major center of worship in Egypt until the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century, when it was finally closed down. Egyptians, disaffected and weary after a series of foreign occupations, identified the story of the mother-goddess Isis protecting her child Horus with that of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus escaping the emperor Herod. Consequently, many sites believed to have been the resting places of the holy family during their sojourn in Egypt became sacred to the Egyptians. The visit of the holy family later circulated among Egyptian Christians as fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt" (Hosea 11:1). The feast of the coming of the Lord of Egypt on June 1 became an important part of Christian Egyptian tradition. According to tradition, Christianity was brought to Egypt by Saint Mark the Evangelist in the early 40s of the 1st century, under the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. The earliest converts were Jews residing in Alexandria, a city which had by then become a center of culture and learning in the entire Mediterranean oikoumene.
St. Mark is said to have founded the Holy Apostolic See of Alexandria and to have become its first Patriarch. Within 50 years of St. Mark's arrival in Alexandria, a fragment of New Testament writings appeared in Oxyrhynchus (Bahnasa), which suggests that Christianity already began to spread south of Alexandria at an early date. By the mid-third century, a sizable number of Egyptians were persecuted by the Romans on account of having adopted the new Christian faith, beginning with the Edict of Decius. Christianity was tolerated in the Roman Empire until AD 284, when the Emperor Diocletian persecuted and put to death a great number of Christian Egyptians. This event became a watershed in the history of Egyptian Christianity, marking the beginning of a distinct Egyptian or Coptic Church. It became known as the 'Era of the Martyrs' and is commemorated in the Coptic calendar in which dating of the years began with the start of Diocletian's reign. When Egyptians were persecuted by Diocletian, many retreated to the desert to seek relief. The practice precipitated the rise of monasticism, for which the Egyptians, namely St. Antony, St. Bakhum, St. Shenouda and St. Amun, are credited as pioneers. By the end of the 4th century, it is estimated that the mass of the Egyptians had either embraced Christianity or were nominally Christian.
The Catachetical School of Alexandria was founded in the 3rd century by Pantaenus, becoming a major school of Christian learning as well as science, mathematics and the humanities. The Psalms and part of the New Testament were translated at the school from Greek to Egyptian, which had already begun to be written in Greek letters with the addition of a number of demotic characters. This stage of the Egyptian language would later come to be known as Coptic along with its alphabet. The third theologian to head the Catachetical School was a native Egyptian by the name of Origen. Origen was an outstanding theologian and one of the most influential Church Fathers. He traveled extensively to lecture in various churches around the world and has many important texts to his credit including the Hexapla, an exegesis of various translations of the Hebrew Bible.
At the threshold of the Byzantine period, the New Testament had been entirely translated into Coptic. But while Christianity continued to thrive in Egypt, the old pagan beliefs which had survived the test of time were facing mounting pressure. The Byzantine period was particularly brutal in its zeal to erase any traces of ancient Egyptian religion. Under emperor Theodosius I, Christianity had already been proclaimed the religion of the Empire and all pagan cults were forbidden. When Egypt fell under the jurisdiction of Constantinople after the split of the Roman Empire, many ancient Egyptians temples were either destroyed or converted into monasteries.
One of the defining moments in the history of the Church in Egypt is a controversy that ensued over the nature of Jesus Christ which culminated in the final split of the Coptic Church from both the Byzantine and Roman Catholic Churches. The Council of Chalcedon convened in AD 451, signaling the Byzantine Empire's determination to assert its hegemony over Egypt. When it declared that Jesus Christ was of two natures embodied in Christ's person, the Egyptian reaction was swift, rejecting the decrees of the Council as incompatible with the Miaphysite doctrine of Coptic Orthodoxy. The Copts' upholding of the Miaphysite doctrine against the pro-Chalcedonian Greek Melkites had both theological and national implications. As Coptologist Jill Kamil notes, the position taken by the Egyptians "paved [the way] for the Coptic church to establish itself as a separate entity...No longer even spiritually linked with Constantinople, theologians began to write more in Coptic and less in Greek. Coptic art developed its own national character, and the Copts stood united against the imperial power.
Before the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius was able to reclaim the country after a brief Persian invasion in AD 616, and subsequently appointed Cyrus of Alexandria, a Chalcedonian, as Patriarch. Cyrus was determined to convert the Egyptian Miaphysites by any means. He expelled Coptic monks and bishops from their monasteries and sees. Many died in the chaos, and the resentment of the Egyptians against their Byzantine conquerors reached a peak. Meanwhile, the new religion of Islam was making headway in Arabia, culminating in the Muslim conquests that took place following Muhammad's death. In AD 639, the Arab general 'Amr ibn al-'As marched into Egypt, facing off with the Byzantines in the Battle of Heliopolis that ended with the Byzantines' defeat. The relationship between the Greek Melkites and the Egyptian Copts had grown so bitter that most Egyptians did not put up heavy resistance against the Arabs.
The new Muslim rulers moved the capital to Fustat and, through the 7th century, retained the existing Byzantine administrative structure with Greek as its language. Native Egyptians filled administrative ranks and continued to worship freely so long as they paid the jizya poll tax, in addition to a land tax that all Egyptians irrespective of religion also had to pay. The authority of the Miaphysite doctrine of the Coptic Church was for the first time nationally recognized. Soon increased taxation by the Arabs became heavier, leading many Christians to adopt Islam in order to escape the jizya. According to al-Ya'qubi, repeated revolts by Egyptian Christians against the Arabs took place in the 8th and 9th centuries under the reign of the Umayyads and Abbasids. The greatest was one in which disaffected Muslim Egyptians joined their Christian compatriots around AD 830 in an unsuccessful attempt to repel the Arabs. The Egyptian Muslim historian Ibn Abd al-Hakam spoke harshly of the Abbasids—a reaction that according to Egyptologist Okasha El-Daly can be seen "within the context of the struggle between proud native Egyptians and the central Abbasid caliphate in Iraq.
The form of Islam that eventually took hold in Egypt was Sunni, though very early in this period Egyptians began to blend their new faith with indigenous beliefs and practices that had survived through Coptic Christianity. Just as Egyptians had been pioneers in early monasticism so they were in the development of the mystical form of Islam, Sufism. Various Sufi orders were founded in the 8th century and flourished until the present day. One of the earliest Egyptian Sufis was Dhul-Nun al-Misri (i.e., Dhul-Nun the Egyptian). He was born in Akhmim in AD 796 and achieved political and social leadership over the Egyptian people. Dhul-Nun was regarded as the Patron Saint of the Physicians and is credited with having introduced the concept of Gnosis into Islam, as well as of being able to decipher a number of hieroglyphic characters due to his knowledge of Coptic. He was keenly interested in ancient Egyptian sciences, and claimed to have received his knowledge of alchemy from Egyptian sources. By the end of the 9th century, Islam appears to have become predominant among Egyptians.
In the years to follow the Arab occupation of Egypt, a social hierarchy was created whereby Egyptians who converted to Islam acquired the status of mawali or "clients" to the ruling Arab elite, while those who remained Christian, the Copts, became dhimmis. In time, however, the power of the Arabs waned throughout the Islamic Empire so that in the 10th century, the Turkish Ikhshids were able to take control of Egypt and made it an independent political unit from the rest of the empire. Egyptians continued to live socially and politically separate from their foreign conquerors, but their rulers like the Ptolemies before them were able to stabilize the country and bring renewed economic prosperity. It was under the Shiite Fatimids from the 10th to the 12th centuries that Muslim Egyptian institutions began to take form along with the Egyptian dialect of Arabic, which was to eventually supplant native Egyptian or Coptic as the spoken language. Al-Azhar was founded in AD 970 in the new capital Cairo, not very far from its ancient predecessor in Memphis. It became the preeminent Muslim center of learning in Egypt and by the Ayyubid period it had acquired a Sunni orientation. The Fatimids with some exceptions were known for their religious tolerance and their observance of local Muslim, Coptic and indigenous Egyptian festivals and customs. Under the Ayyubids, the country for the most part continued to prosper until it fell to the Mamluks.
The Mamluk period (AD 1258-1517) is generally regarded as one under which Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, greatly suffered. Copts were forcibly converted to Islam in greater numbers following the Crusader assaults on Egypt. By the 15th century most Egyptians had already been converted to Islam, while Coptic Christians were reduced to a minority. The Mamluks were mainly ethnic Circassians and Turks who had been captured as slaves then recruited into the army fighting on behalf of the Islamic empire. Native Egyptians were not allowed to serve in the army until the reign of Mohamed Ali. Historian James Jankwoski writes:
Ultimately, Mamluk rule rested on force. The chronicles of the period are replete with examples of Mamluk violence against the indigenous population of Egypt...From horseback, they simply terrorized those lesser breeds who crossed their paths. The sudden and arbitrary use of force by the government and its dominant military elite; frequent resort to cruelty to make a point; ingenious methods of torture employed both for exemplary purpose and to extract wealth from others: all these measures were routine in the Mamluk era. Egypt under the Mamluks was not a very secure place to live.
From the Egyptian side, literary works from both the Mamluk and Ottoman eras indicate that literate Egyptians had not totally submerged their identity within Islam, but retained an awareness of Egypt's distinctiveness as a uniquely fertile region of the Muslim world, as a land of great historical antiquity and splendor...At least for some Egyptians, 'the land of Egypt' (al-diyar al-misriyya) was an identifiable and emotionally meaningful entity within the larger Muslim polity of which it was now a province.
Modern Egyptian history is generally believed to begin with the French expedition in Egypt led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798. The French defeated a Mamluk-Ottoman army at the Battle of the Pyramids, and soon they were able to seize control of the country. The French occupation was short-lived, ending when British troops drove out the French in 1801. Its impact on the social and cultural fabric of Egyptian society, however, was tremendous. To be sure, the Egyptians were deeply hostile to the French, whom they viewed as yet another foreign occupation to be resisted. At the same time, the French expedition introduced Egyptians to the ideals of the French Revolution which were to have a significant influence on their own self-perception and realization of modern independence. When Napoleon invited the Egyptian ulama to head a French-supervised government in Egypt, for some, it awakened a sense of nationalism and a patriotic desire for national independence from the Turks. In addition, the French introduced the printing press in Egypt and published its first newspaper. The monumental catalogue of Egypt's ecology, society and economy, Description de l'Égypte, was written by scholars and scientists who accompanied the French army on their expedition.
The withdrawal of French forces from Egypt left a power vacuum that was filled after a period of political turmoil by Mohammed Ali, an Ottoman officer of Albanian descent. He rallied support among the Egyptians until he was elected by the native Muslim ulama as governor of Egypt. Mohammed Ali is credited for having undertaken a massive campaign of public works, including irrigation projects, agricultural reforms and the cultivation of cash crops (notably cotton, rice and sugar-cane), increased industrialization, and a new educational system—the results of which are felt to this day. In order to consolidate his power in Egypt, Mohammed Ali worked to eliminate the Turko-Circassian domination of administrative and army posts. For the first time since the Roman period, native Egyptians filled the junior ranks of the country's army. The army would later conduct military expeditions in the Levant, Sudan and against the Wahabis in Arabia. Many Egyptians student missions were sent to Europe in the early 19th century to study at European universities and acquire technical skills such as printing, shipbuilding and modern military techniques. One of these students, whose name was Rifa'a et-Tahtawy, was the first in a long line of intellectuals that started the modern Egyptian Renaissance.
The period between 1860 − 1940 was characterized by an Egyptian nahda, renaissance or rebirth. It is best known for the renewed interest in Egyptian antiquity and the cultural achievements that were inspired by it. Along with this interest came an indigenous, Egypt-centered orientation, particularly among the Egyptian intelligentsia that would affect Egypt's autonomous development as a sovereign and independent nation-state. The first Egyptian renaissance intellectual was Rifa'a el-Tahtawi. In 1831, Tahtawi undertook a career in journalism, education and translation. Three of his published volumes were works of political and moral philosophy. In them he introduces his students to Enlightenment ideas such as secular authority and political rights and liberty; his ideas regarding how a modern civilized society ought to be and what constituted by extension a civilized or "good Egyptian"; and his ideas on public interest and public good.
Tahtawi was instrumental in sparking indigenous interest in Egypt's ancient heritage. He composed a number of poems in praise of Egypt and wrote two other general histories of the country. He also co-founded with his contemporary Ali Mubarak, the architect of the modern Egyptian school system, a native Egyptology school that looked for inspiration to medieval Egyptian scholars like Suyuti and Maqrizi, who studied ancient Egyptian history, language and antiquities. Tahtawi encouraged his compatriots to invite Europeans to come and teach the modern sciences in Egypt, drawing on the example of Pharaoh Psamtek I who had enlisted the Greeks' help in organizing the Egyptian army.
Among Mohammed Ali's successors, the most influential was Isma'il Pasha who became khedive in 1863. Ismail's reign witnessed the growth of the army, major education reforms, the founding of the Egyptian Museum and the Royal Opera House, the rise of an independent political press, a flourishing of the arts, and the inauguration of the Suez Canal. In 1866, the Assembly of Delegates was founded to serve as an advisory body for the government. Its members were elected from across Egypt, including villages, which meant that native Egyptians came to exert increasing political and economic influence over their country. Several generations of Egyptians exposed to the ideas of constitutionalism made up the emerging intellectual and political milieu that slowly filled the ranks of the government, the army and institutions which had long been dominated by an aristocracy of Turks, Greeks, Circassians and Armenians.
Ismail's massive modernization campaign, however, left Egypt indebted to European powers, leading to increased European meddling in local affairs. This led to the formation of secret groups made up of Egyptian notables, ministers, journalists and army officers organized across the country to oppose the increasing European influence. When the British deposed of Ismail and installed his son Tawfik, the now Egyptian-dominated army reacted violently, staging a revolt led by Minister of War Ahmed Urabi, self-styled el-Masri ('the Egyptian'), against the Khedive, the Turko-Circassian elite, and the European stronghold. The revolt was a military failure and British forces occupied Egypt in 1882. Technically, Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire with the Mohammed Ali family ruling the country, though now with British supervision and according to British directives. The Egyptian army was disbanded and a smaller army commanded by British officers was installed in its place.
Egyptian self-government, education, and the continued plight of Egypt's peasant majority deteriorated most significantly under British occupation. Slowly, an organized national movement for independence began to form. In its beginnings, it took the form of an Azhar-led religious reform movement that was more concerned with the social conditions of Egyptian society. It gathered momentum between 1882 and 1906, ultimately leading to a resentment against European occupation. Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, the son of a Delta farmer who was briefly exiled for his participation in the Urabi revolt and a future Azhar Mufti, was its most notable advocate. Abduh called for a reform of Egyptian Muslim society and formulated the modernist interpretations of Islam that took hold among younger generations of Egyptians. Among these were Mustafa Kamil and Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, the architects of modern Egyptian nationalism. Mustafa Kamil had been a student activist in the 1890s involved in the creation of a secret nationalist society that called for British evacuation from Egypt. He was famous for coining the popular expression, "If I had not been an Egyptian, I would have wished to become one."
Egyptian nationalist sentiment reached a high point after the 1906 Dinshaway Incident, when following an altercation between a group of British soldiers and Egyptian farmers, four of the farmers were hanged while others were condemned to public flogging. Dinshaway, a watershed in the history of Egyptian anti-colonial resistance, galvanized Egyptian opposition against the British, culminating in the founding of the first two political parties in Egypt: the secular, liberal Umma (the Nation, 1907) headed by Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, and the more radical, pro-Islamic Watani Party (National Party, 1908) headed by Mustafa Kamil. Lutfi was born to a family of farmers in the Delta province of Daqahliya in 1872. He was educated at al-Azhar where he attended lectures by Mohammed Abduh. Abduh came to have a profound influence on Lutfi's reformist thinking in later years. In 1907, he founded the Umma Party newspaper, el-Garida, whose statement of purpose read: "El-Garida is a purely Egyptian party which aims to defend Egyptian interests of all kinds.
Both the People and National parties came to dominate Egyptian politics until World War I, but the new leaders of the national movement for independence following four arduous years of war (in which Great Britain declared Egypt a British protectorate) were closer to the secular, liberal principles of Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed and the People's Party. Prominent among these was Saad Zaghlul who led the new movement through the Wafd Party. Saad Zaghlul held several ministerial positions before he was elected to the Legislative Assembly and organized a mass movement demanding an end to the British Protectorate. He garnered such massive popularity among the Egyptian people that he came to be known as 'Father of the Egyptians'. When on March 8, 1919 the British arrested Zaghlul and his associates and exiled them to Malta, the Egyptian people staged their first modern revolution. Demonstrations and strikes across Egypt became such a daily occurrence that normal life was brought to a halt.
The Wafd Party drafted a new Constitution in 1923 based on a parliamentary representative system. Saad Zaghlul became the first popularly-elected Prime Minister of Egypt in 1924. Egyptian independence at this stage was provisional, as British forces continued to be physically present on Egyptian soil. In 1936, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was concluded. New forces that came to prominence were the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Young Egypt Party. In 1920, Banque Misr (Bank of Egypt) was founded by Talaat Pasha Harb as "an Egyptian bank for Egyptians only", which restricted shareholding to native Egyptians and helped finance various new Egyptian-owned businesses.
Under the parliamentary monarchy, Egypt reached the peak of its modern intellectual Renaissance that was started by Rifa'a el-Tahtawy nearly a century earlier. Among those who set the intellectual tone of a newly independent Egypt, in addition to Muhammad Abduh and Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, were Qasim Amin, Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Taha Hussein, Abbas el-'Akkad, Tawfiq el-Hakeem, and Salama Moussa. They delineated a liberal outlook for their country expressed as a commitment to individual freedom, secularism, an evolutionary view of the world and faith in science to bring progress to human society. This period was looked upon with fondness by future generations of Egyptians as a Golden Age of Egyptian liberalism, openness, and an Egypt-centered attitude that put the country's interests center stage.
When Egyptian novelist and Noble Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006, many Egyptians felt that perhaps the last of the Greats of Egypt's golden age had passed away. In his dialogues with close associate and journalist Mohamed Salmawy, published as Mon Égypte, Mahfouz had this to say:
Egypt is not just a piece of land. Egypt is the inventor of civilisation... The strange thing is that this country of great history and unsurpassed civilisation is nothing but a thin strip along the banks of the Nile... This thin strip of land created moral values, launched the concept of monotheism, developed arts, invented science and gave the world a stunning administration. These factors enabled the Egyptians to survive while other cultures and nations withered and died... Throughout history Egyptians have felt that their mission is to tend to life. They were proud to turn the land green, to make it blossom with life. The other thing is that Egyptians invented morality long before the major religions appeared on earth. Morality is not just a system for control but a protection against chaos and death... Egypt gave Islam a new voice. It didn't change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn't have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist. Egyptians are very pious, but they know how to mix piety with joy, just as their ancestors did centuries ago. Egyptians celebrate religious occasions with flair. For them, religious festivals and the month of Ramadan are occasions to celebrate life.
Increased involvement by King Farouk in parliamentary affairs, government corruption, and the widening gap between the country's rich and poor led to the eventual toppling of the monarchy and the dissolution of the parliament through a coup d'état by a group of army officers in 1952. The Egyptian Republic was declared on June 18, 1953 with General Muhammad Naguib as the first President of the Republic. After Naguib was forced to resign in 1954 and later put under house arrest by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the real architect of the 1952 movement, mass protests by Egyptians erupted against the forced resignation of what became a popular symbol of the new régime. Nasser assumed power as President and began a nationalization process that initially had profound effects on the socioeconomic strata of Egyptian society. According to one historian, "Egypt had, for the first time since 343 BC, been ruled not by a Macedonian Greek, nor a Roman, nor an Arab, nor a Turk, but by an Egyptian.
Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal leading to the 1956 Suez Crisis. Egypt became increasingly involved in regional affairs until three years after the 1967 Six Day War, in which Egypt lost the Sinai to Israel, Nasser died and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat. Sadat revived an Egypt Above All orientation, switched Egypt's Cold War allegiance from the Soviet Union to the United States, expelling Soviet advisors in 1972, and launched the Infitah economic reform policy. Like his predecessor, he also clamped down on religious and leftist opposition alike. Egyptians fought one last time in the 1973 October War in an attempt to liberate Egyptian territories captured by Israel six years earlier. The October War presented Sadat with a political victory that later allowed him to regain the Sinai. In 1977, Sadat made a historic visit to Israel leading to the signing of the 1978 peace treaty, which was supported by the vast majority of Egyptians, in exchange for the complete Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. Sadat was finally assassinated in Cairo by a fundamentalist soldier in 1981, and was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak.
President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has been the President of the Republic since October 14 1981, currently serving his fifth term in office. Although power is ostensibly organized under a multi-party semi-presidential system, in practice it rests almost solely with the President. In late February 2005, for the first time since the 1952 coup d'état, the Egyptian people had an apparent chance to elect a leader from a list of various candidates, most prominently Ayman Nour. Most Egyptians today are skeptical about the process of democratization and fear that power may ultimately be transferred to the President's first son, Gamal Mubarak. In 2003, the Egyptian Movement for Change or simply Kefaya was founded as a grassroots mobilization of Egyptians seeking a return to democracy, a transparent government and greater equality and freedom.
The long road to Egyptian independence took more than 20 centuries to achieve, and for many Egyptians it is still a work in progress. Egyptians have endured as a people for more than 5,000 years thanks in large part to Egypt's unique geography. They take pride in their pharaonic heritage and in their descent from one of mankind's earliest civilizations.
Egypt for the first time [since the Pharaonic era] is truly Egyptian. There are no sizeable foreign communities resident in the country any more...the impact of the October 1973 War (also known as the Ramadan or Yom Kippur War) found Egyptians reverting to an earlier sense of national identity, that of Egyptianism. Egypt became their foremost consideration and top priority in contrast to the earlier one, preferred by the Nasser régime, of Egypt's role and primacy in the Arab world. This kind of national 'restoration' was led by the Old Man of Egyptian Nationalism, Tawfiq el-Hakim, who in the 1920s and 1930s was associated with the Pharaonist movement....[The Egyptians] have a kind of local social resistance—a tenacity which derives from their geographical-historical experience as a nation—both to pressure from their own State and government and to change...This perhaps is also the secret of the survival of Egyptians for so many thousands of years in a country which has seen so many God-Kings, Emperors, Prefects, Governors, Caliphs, Satraps, Sultans and other rulers. It became acceptable for Egyptians under Sadat and Mubarak to claim an Egyptian identity first and foremost. Their Arabism constitutes for them a cultural dimension of their identity, not a necessary attribute of or prop for their national political being.
Egyptian culture boasts five millennia of recorded history. Ancient Egypt was among the earliest and greatest civilizations during which the Egyptians maintained a strikingly complex and stable culture that influenced later cultures of Europe, the Near East and Africa. After the Pharaonic era, the Egyptians themselves came under the influence of Hellenism, Christianity and Islamic culture. Today, many aspects of ancient Egyptian culture exist in interaction with newer elements, including the influence of modern Western culture, itself influenced by Ancient Egypt.
Egypt has the highest number of Nobel Prize Laureates in Africa and of any country in the Muslim world.
With the adoption of Christianity and eventually Islam, Egyptians began to take on names associated with these religions. Many Egyptian surnames also became Hellenized and Arabized, meaning they were altered to sound Greek or Arabic. This was done by the addition of the Greek suffix -ios to Egyptian names; for example, Bakhum/Pakhum > Pachomios; or by adding the Arabic definite article el (Classical Arabic al) to names such as Baymoui > el-Bayoumi. Names starting with the Egyptian affix bu ("place") were sometimes Arabized to abu ("father of"); for example, Busiri بوصيري ("of the place of Osiris") occasionally became Abusir and al-Busiri. Some people might also have surnames like el-Shamy الشامي ("the Levantine") indicating a possible Levantine origin, or Turkish Dewidar دويدار, an Ottoman-Mamluk remnant. Conversely, some Levantines might carry the surname el-Masri ("the Egyptian") suggesting a possible Egyptian extraction. The Egyptian peasantry, the fellahin, are more likely to retain indigenous names given their relative isolation throughout the Egyptian people's history.