Sunday, 14 November 2010

CASE 181 - The History of Egypt

A time line of ancient Egyptian history

The Nile as lifeline: from 6000 BC

From about 6000 BC various communities of hunter-gatherers make the Nile the centre of their territory, around which they roam. But the drying of the Sahara increasingly confines them to the river area. The unusual habit of this great river - flooding every year and depositing a layer of rich moist soil on the surrounding region - is ideally suited to the development of settled agriculture. The river takes upon itself two otherwise laborious tasks, irrigation and the enriching of the soil.

The first dynasty: from c.3100 BC

The unifying of Upper and Lower Egypt into a single kingdom is the event pointed to by the ancient Egyptians themselves as the beginning of their civilization. Lower Egypt is roughly the broad delta of the river, where it separates into many branches before flowing into the Mediterranean. Upper Egypt is the long main channel of the river itself, possibly as far upstream as boats can reach - to the first waterfall or cataract, at Aswan. Egyptian tradition credits the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt to a king called Menes. But that is merely a word meaning 'founder'. It is possible that the real historical figure is a ruler by the name of Narmer, who features in warlike mood on an early slate plaque.

Whatever the name, the first historical dynasty is brought into being by the king or pharaoh who in about 3100 BC establishes control over the whole navigable length of the Nile. His is the first of thirty Egyptian dynasties, spanning nearly three millennia - an example of social continuity rivalled in human history only by China. In the early centuries, and again in the closing stages of ancient Egypt, the capital is at Memphis, near modern-day Cairo. But at the peak of Egyptian power, during the period from about 2000 to 1200 BC, the city of Thebes - several hundred kilometres up the Nile - is a place of greater importance. The pyramids remain today to show the early greatness of Memphis, in the period known as the Old Kingdom. Similarly the temples of Karnak and Luxor are witness to the extravagant wealth of Thebes during the eras described as the Middle Kingdom and the New Empire.

The Old Kingdom: c.2580-c.2130 BC

The period known as the Old Kingdom runs from the 4th to the 6th of Manetho's dynasties and begins several centuries after the unification of Egypt. During the intervening period little is known of the pharaohs except their names, deriving from stone inscriptions (from as early as the 1st dynasty the Egyptian civilization enjoys the advantages of writing, soon to be followed by a sophisticated calendar). Of some pharaohs even the names are missing. The change to more solid evidence comes in the time of Zoser, the greatest pharaoh of the 3rd dynasty (the Old Kingdom is sometimes taken as beginning with his reign, before the 4th dynasty). A new stability is reflected in the splendour of Zoser's monument - Egypt's first stone pyramid, built at Saqqara in about 2620 BC. Zoser's funerary example is taken to even more elaborate lengths at Giza by his successors a century later, in the 4th dynasty (c.2575-c.2465 BC). The three great pyramids at Giza are built between about 2550 and 2470 BC for Khufu, his son Khafre (probably also responsible for the sphinx) and his grandson Menkure. This is also the period when the Egyptian practice of mummification begins, aiming to preserve the body for life in the next world. The earliest known example of any part of a mummified body is the internal organs of Khufu's mother, Hetepheres. Her body itself is lost, but her innards survive within the canopic jars which play an essential part in the ritual of mummification. The pharaohs of the 5th and 6th dynasties continue to rule from Memphis and their lives are known in increasing detail from inscriptions. One example is an enthusiastic letter of thanks sent by the last king of the 6th dynasty, Pepi II, to a governor of Aswan who has brought him a Pygmy dancer from Nubia. The governor, Harkhuf, is so proud of the document that he has its text engraved on the facade of his tomb. But the pharaohs of the 6th dynasty have lost the vigour of their predecessors. Their rule is followed by a century of anarchy, covering the 7th to 10th dynasties and known as the First Intermediate Period (c.2130-c.2000 BC).

The Middle Kingdom: c.2000-c.1630 BC

When stability returns, it is under the rule of a family deriving their power from middle Egypt. Mentuhotep II (also known by his throne name, Nebhepetre) wins control of the whole country in about 2000 BC. His base is Thebes, which now begins its central role in the story of ancient Egypt - though relatively little survives of Mentuhotep's own monuments in the region.The Middle Kingdom, spanning the 11th and 12th dynasties, is notable for the first serious effort to colonize Nubia. This region now becomes of great importance to Egypt's trade in luxuries. Nubia's mines are the chief source of Egyptian gold. Rare commodities such as ivory and ebony, the skins of leopards and the plumes of ostriches, now travel down the upper Nile to be traded for Egyptian goods.

The New Kingdom: c.1540-c.1080 BC

The New Kingdom, also sometimes known as the New Empire, lasts half a millennium and provides the bulk of the art, artefacts and architecture (apart from the pyramids) for which ancient Egypt is famous. Pharaohs of the New Kingdom create at Thebes the great temples of Karnak and Luxor and are buried, on the other side of the Nile, in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings. The kingdom spans three dynasties but it is the first two, the 18th and 19th, which provide its greatest glories in temples of Amen-Re (though there is an interim period in the 18th dynasty, under Akhenaten, when this time-honoured god of the pharaohs is forcefully rejected).

Descendants of Thutmose: c.1525-c.1379 BC

The first powerful ruler of the New Kingdom is Thutmose I. Son of the pharaoh by a concubine, he secures the succession by marrying his fully royal half-sister. Succeeding to the throne in about 1525 BC, Thutmose vigorously extends Egypt's empire. He conquers south into Nubia as far as the fourth cataract of the Nile. In the north he reaches Syria and the Euphrates.

Pharaohs called Ramses: 13th-11th century BC

Ramses is the name most commonly associated in the west with the pharaohs - partly because Ramses II commissions one of the best known images of pharaonic power (the colossal seated statues of himself at Abu Simbel), but also because in the declining years of the indigenous Egyptian dynasties eight rulers in succession are given this name.

The first Ramses lives only two years, to 1290 BC, after being given the throne as an elderly general. He is followed by his son Seti, already a seasoned campaigner when he mounts the throne. Seti does much to stabilize the empire during an eleven-year rule, overseeing the restoration of the defaced inscriptions to Amen. But the high point of the new dynasty comes in the long reign of Seti's son, Ramses II. Ramses inherits the throne young (though he already has experience of war, through accompanying his father on campaigns) and he rules for the huge span of sixty-six years (1279-1213 BC). His reign is marked by a peaceful resolution of Egypt's struggle against the Hittites in Syria, and by major building projects.

Ramses completes the great hall of columns at Karnak, planned by his grandfather and started by his father. And he creates spectacular monuments at a new site, Abu Simbel. In addition to the great temple for which Abu Simbel is famous, there is a smaller one dedicated to Ramses' wife, Nefertari. Colossal statues of the royal couple accompanied by their children decorate the facade of this family shrine.

The Cushite Dynasty: from c.730 BC

The first incursion of the kings of Cush into Egypt occurs in about 750 BC, when Kashta conquers upper Egypt (the region north of the first cataract and Abu Simbel). But it is his son Piye, also known as Piankhi, who from about 730 BC captures cities the entire length of the Nile as far north as Memphis and receives the submission of the local rulers of the delta region.

Roman Egypt: 1st century BC - 4th century AD

The wealth of Egypt makes it the most important of Rome's overseas provinces. The Nile valley produces rich harvests of grain, much of which is shipped to Italy. The craftsmen of this ancient civilization, skilled in such difficult techniques as the manufacture of glass, produce luxury items much in demand in the capital. And the population, settled and relatively prosperous, is an easy target for a Roman poll tax.

A Roman prefect governs the province, with three legions to preserve internal order and guard the frontiers - which geography makes easier to protect than in most provinces of the empire. Unlike the Ptolemies, the Roman imperial administrators have little influence on Egyptian life. The culture of the cities remains Greek. Alexandria, in particular, continues to be a centre of Greek science and enquiry. Alexandria also plays an important role in the early history of Christianity. The deserts of Egypt are the home of the first Christian monks. And from the Christian community of Egypt there emerges a distinctive group which still survives today - the Coptic church.

Christian Egypt: 4th - 7th century AD

Although the sophisticated inhabitants of Egypt are now Greek in their culture, the majority of the people are indigenous Egyptians, speaking a version of the ancient Egyptian language. They are referred to by the Greeks as aigyptioi (Egyptians). From this Greek word (via an Arabic abbreviation, qubt) comes the name Copt - most often used of Coptic Christians. The Christians of Egypt are often free-thinking on doctrinal matters (above all in the case of Arius). After the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, the Copts differ from the Greeks on a doctrinal point about the nature of Christ. The Copts are accused of believing that he has a single divine identity, even when on earth (the 'monophysite' heresy). By the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt, in 642, the majority of Egyptian Christians are Copts. It is they who become the Christian church in Egypt, surviving on sufferance within a mainly Muslim community. Coptic (the last link with ancient Egyptian) gradually dies out as a spoken language, though in the service books of Coptic churches today the liturgy is still printed in parallel columns of Coptic and Arabic.

The Arab conquests: 7th century AD

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination. When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and Muslim armies have moved up into the desert between Syria and Mesopotamia.

Muslim North Africa: from AD 642

The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in AD 640 in front of the Byzantine fortified town of Babylon (in the area which is now Old Cairo). The Arabs capture it after a siege and establish their own garrison town just to the east, calling it Al Fustat. The army then moves on to Alexandria, but here the defences are sufficient to keep them at bay for fourteen months. At the end of that time a surprising treaty is signed. The Greeks of Alexandria agree to leave peacefully; the Arabs give them a year in which to do so. In the autumn of 642, the handover duly occurs. One of the richest of Byzantine provinces has been lost to the Arabs without a fight.

The Fatimid dynasty: AD 909-1171

An Ismaili leader, Ubaydulla, conquers in 909 a stretch of north Africa, displacing the Aghlabids in Kairouan. He founds there a dynasty known as Fatimid - for he claims to be a caliph in the Shi'a line of descent from Ali and Fatima his wife, the daughter of Muhammad (see The Shi'as). Sixty years later, in 969, a Fatimid army conquers Egypt, which now becomes the centre of a kingdom stretching the length of the north African coast. A new capital city is founded, adjoining a Muslim garrison town on the Nile. It is called Al Kahira ('the victorious'), known in its western form as Cairo. In the following year, 970, the Fatimids establish in Cairo the university mosque of Al Azhar which has remained ever since a centre of Islamic learning.

An Ottoman province: AD 1517-1798

Although Egypt has the status only of an Ottoman province after its conquest by Selim I in 1517, it remains a region in which the Mamelukes continue to exercise great power. Indeed the first governor appointed by Selim is a Mameluke, and others are left in charge of regional districts. During the next two centuries they become like feudal barons, keeping their own armies (in their case consisting of slaves) and using them supposedly in the interest of their lord, the Ottoman sultan. During the 16th century, with strong sultans in Istanbul, the system works well. Cairo keeps effective control of the fertile Nile region as far as Aswan, and of the Red Sea and the pilgrimage places of Arabia. Under the feebler sultans of the 17th century, lack of firm rule from the centre allows the Mameluke beys (the term for officials in the Ottoman empire) to become increasingly unruly. By the 18th century the Ottoman governor in Cairo is permanently at loggerheads with beys controlling their own regions of the province. Into this state of anarchy there arrives, in 1798, a European who specializes in introducing administrative discipline. He declares that he has come as a friend of the Ottoman Turks, to recover their province from Mameluke tyranny. He is Napoleon.

Mohammed Ali and Ibrahim Pasha: AD 1805-1840

The governor who asserts his control with such ruthless efficiency is Mohammed Ali. His long rule changes the course of Egyptian history and permanently removes a large and prosperous region from Ottoman control. At first, ably assisted by his eldest son Ibrahim Pasha, Mohammed Ali serves the sultan well. An expedition by Ibrahim in 1816-18 restores Ottoman authority over Arabia, where the Wahhabi sect has recently held sway (in 1821 another of Mohammed Ali's sons subdues the Sudan). In 1824 Ibrahim is sent with a fleet to Greece, to help the sultan suppress the movement for Greek independence. But a disagreement between Mohammed Ali and the sultan gives Ibrahim a more subversive role. In 1832 he marches north from Egypt to invade the Ottoman province of Syria.

Egypt modernized: AD 1805-1848

The long reign of Mohammed Ali brings transformation to Egypt. He reforms the structure of the army and establishes a navy, for which he needs a deep-water harbour. The only candidate is Alexandria, which now recovers an international existence after its many centuries of somnolence. The ancient city becomes once again the first port of call for any visitor to Egypt. Trade develops, prosperity returns. By 1820 more than thirty foreign enterprises are based in the city. In the same year the Mahmudiya canal is opened, linking Alexandria with the Nile. By means of this canal goods from the coast can easily reach Cairo, and from Cairo it is not too long a haul to carry them overland to the Red Sea at Suez. In the late 1830s the British East India Company begins a regular steamship service between Suez and Bombay. Egypt becomes established as Europe's most direct link with the east. The increase in trade and prosperity is accompanied by administrative improvements in the Egyptian government. Until now the language of government has been exclusively that of the ruling minority, Turkish. From 1828 Mohammed Ali publishes a bilingual official gazette, printed in Turkish and Arabic (a government printing press is in itself an innovation during his reign). There is one area in which Mohammed Ali fails to recognize Egypt's best interests. In 1833 a group of French engineers put before him a proposal for a canal joining the Mediterranean to the Red Sea at Suez. Mohammed Ali is not interested, though the idea later greatly attracts his son Said. Mohammed Ali's immediate successor in 1848 is a grandson, Abbas I, who is murdered in 1854 and is succeeded by Said. Murder is nothing new among Egyptian rulers. What is new, as a result of the stability introduced by Mohammed Ali, is that a single family retains the throne. It is occupied by Mohammed Ali's descendants until the abdication of Farouk in 1952.

The Suez Canal: AD 1859-1869

A glance at the map suggests the possibility of a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. On the direct route south to Suez half the work is already done by nature, in the form of Lake Timsah and the two Bitter Lakes.

British occupation: AD 1882-1914

The dominant figure during the years of the British occupation of Egypt is Evelyn Baring, a member of a long-established British family of bankers. He first serves in Egypt from 1877 to 1880 as the British member of the commission responsible for coping with the Egyptian debt. After the defeat of Arabi Pasha in 1882, Baring returns as consul general - in effect in charge of the British administration. Over the next quarter-century Baring (or Lord Cromer, as he is from 1892) places the Egyptian finances on a sound footing and oversees all internal affairs - including the withdrawal from Sudan after Gordon's death in 1885 and the return under Kitchener in 1898. Cromer's authoritarian attitudes and his tendency to work only with Egypt's traditional ruling class (he learns Turkish but not Arabic) put him at odds with the continuing demands of the Egyptian nationalists. By 1907 the British government, in an attempt to liberalize the administration, replaces him with an Arabic-speaking consul general, Eldon Gorst. But it is events on a wider stage than local nationalism which bring about the next change in Egypt's political status. The khedive's sovereign, the Ottoman sultan, is from November 1914 at war with Britain. In December Britain declares that 'the suzerainty of Turkey is terminated', and that Egypt is now to be 'a British protectorate'.

Wars and revolution: AD 1939-1952

In the run-up to World War II the Italian aggression on either side of Egypt and the Sudan, in Libya and Ethiopia, gives a new sense of unity to British and Egyptian interests. Egypt remains neutral throughout the war, but the British forces - previously so unwelcome - now have the important task of driving back the Italians from both borders.

This responsibility becomes very much greater from 1941, when Rommel and his Afrika Corps join the Italians in a determined drive east towards Egypt. By June 1942 they are within forty miles of Alexandria and seem likely to reach Cairo and the Suez canal, until they are at last held at El Alamein. When the field of combat moves north out of Africa in 1943, Egyptian attention begins to focus more locally on Arab affairs. Arab hackles are raised by the summary treatment dealt out to Lebanese nationalists by the French in 1943, while Zionist demands on Palestine are also seen as cause for alarm. One result is the conference of Arab nations held in Cairo in March 1945. Under the presidency of Nahas Pasha, this results in the formation of the Arab League. Three years later the League has a full-scale war on its hands, as its members attempt to nip the state of Israel in the bud in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. These postwar years are also a time of increasing anti-British turmoil within Egypt. The relaxation of wartime restrictions in 1945 is followed by a rush of heightened resentment at the continuing presence of British troops on Egyptian soil.

Present day

During the 1990s Muslim terrorism becomes an increasing problem for Egypt, severely harming the nation's crucial income from tourism. A prolonged campaign of violence begins in March 1992, leading to some 200 deaths in the following eighteen months. During the decade there are several attempts on Mubarak's life. The most damaging incident in terms of Egypt's economy is the killing in 1997 of some sixty tourists on a visit to the famous funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. From the start the government reacts vigorously, introducing martial law and eventually imprisoning some 20,000 militants. The largest and oldest fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is by now a mainstream movement (though still officially banned) with followers at all levels of society. The premises of Muslim Brotherhood lawyers and other professionals are frequently raided and their occupants arrested, on suspicion of being linked to groups engaged in terrorism. There are several such groups. One is al-Jihad, responsible for the 1981 assassination of Sadat. The largest and most active is the Islamic Group (Al-Jama'a al-Islamiya), which perpetrated the massacre at the Hatshepsut temple. There are other causes of tension within contemporary Egypt. The Coptic Christians, amounting to some 10% of the population, feel ill-served by the government (as well as frequently suffering Muslim terrorist attacks). And the prevailing end-of-century demand for democracy gets short shrift. From the early 1990s, as in many other African nations, the ban on political parties is relaxed. But Mubarak's National Democratic Party (a development of Nasser's original Free Officers) contrives to keep a firm grip on power. In 1993 Mubarak is the only presidental candidate, winning a third six-year term. In elections in 1995, widely regarded as fraudulent, his party secures 93% of the seats.

Revolution - February 2011

gypt is currently undergoing a revolution as the people overthrow their tyrannical dictator. The revolution is especially popular among teenagers and young adults. The Egyptian military and police are attempting to suppress the Egyptian people's freedom. They have also blocked Facebook and Twitter. The revolution started on Facebook after Egyptian people organized a peaceful protest, and their peaceful protest attacked the unarmed civilians. There are hundreds of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators across the country resisting. They want to oust their dictator's regime and install a free and democratic government. Many of the demonstrators want the United States to assist the rebellion. Many demonstrators have been executed by the police and military forces, including a 14 year old freedom fighter.

You can watch a live feed of the revolution here:

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