Hansisgreat features a regular column on the Nations of the World. Today, we offer a very short history of one the first and greatest nations: Egypt.
Egypt was in the delivery room during the birth of civilization. Regular flooding of the Nile River provides life, while legendary king Menes brings early political unification. They adapted technology from nearby Mesopotamia (the earliest known literate cultures), but its position at the edge of the desert allowed relative safety. Expulsion of the Hyksos, their neighbors to the North, was followed by conquest of Nubia, modern Sudan.
Total Area: 386,660 sq. miles (slightly more than three times the size of New Mexico)
Monetary Unit: Egyptian Pound
President: Mohammed Hosni Mubarak (since 1981)
Prime Minister: Ahmed Nazif (since 2005)
The origins of Egyptian civilization cannot be established with certainty. Menes established the position of Pharaoh, which was part ruler and part god on earth. This arrangement endured for 30 dynasties, until Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, after which Egypt would never again be a major world power. After Alexander's death, the area was ruled by his successors, called the Ptolemaic Dyanasty. Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic ruler, committed suicide in 30 BC and the region became part of the Roman Empire.
The Nile Delta quickly became the breadbasket of the empire, and many emperors rose or fell based on their ability to ensure that grain shipments from Egypt reached their destination in Italy. In 212, Emperor Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all Egyptians.
Egypt was also an important center of early Christendom, but soon Arabs occupied the country, bringing the religion of Islam which began a new chapter in Egypt's history. Alienated from Europe by religious intolerance and heavy taxation, Egyptians offered little resistance to their Arab conquerors.
Under the Abassid Caliphate (750-868), the nation was plagued by a series of insurrections arising from conflicts between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects. Ahmad ibn Tulun was sent to rule the area on behalf of the caliphate, and did so wisely and well. He turned Egypt into an autonomous province. Under his benevolent rule, Egypt prospered and expanded to annex Palestine and Syria.
After the fall of Tulun's dynasty, the country fell into a state of anarchy which made it easy prey for the Fatmids, a Shiite group that expanded from Tunisia to control most of North Africa. The Fatmids coexisted peacefully in Sunni Egypt, and founded al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world.
Tranquility disappeared during the eleventh century, when famine and the Crusades weakened the region. Control passed to the Ayyubid Sultanate, the Mamelukes, Napoleonic France, and Great Britain. The World Wars were a period of great hardship for Egypt, which caused increasing resentment against the British and eventual independence.
In 1948 Egypt and several other Arab states went to war in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the establishment of the state of Israel.
The series of Arab-Israeli wars lasted through the 1960s, and were disastrous for Egypt. On Yom Kippur, 1973, Egypt launched and air and artillery assault across the Suez Canal into Sinai. By the end of the month, however, Israeli forces rallied and were able to encirlce Egyptian forces. The UN imposed a cease-fire.
President Anwar Sadat had been elected by opposing political factions as a compromise candidate, on the assumption that he could be manipulated. Quite to the contrary, he shocked the nation by attending the Camp David Accords. As his country's financial situation went from bad to worse, he negotiated peace in an historic conference with US president Jimmy Carter in 1979. The rest of the Arab world denounced Egypt for making a separate peace with Israel, and Sadat was ruthlessly assassinated by religious fanatics in his own army on October 6, 1981.
Through the 1990s Egypt was troubled by bombings and assassinations by Muslim extremist groups, but government crackdowns later in the decade seem to have been effective. The government has remained on friendly terms with Israel and the Us and has gradually improved relations with the rest of the Arab world. During the Persian Gulf War, Egypt sided with the US in exchange for remission of $7 billion of debt.
The Suez Canal, operating since the second millennium BC but closed during the wars with Israel, re-opened in 1975. It has 27,000 ships passing through it per year, 8% of the world's total shipping traffic. Peace, glory, and prosperity seem to be returning to this magnificent nation.
For my previous posts on Nations of the World, click here.