Sunday, January 26, 2014


As an elementary student growing up, Ancient Egypt was always a frequent social studies lesson in school.  Writing our name as best we can in hieroglyphics, making representations of the pyramids, and studying about King Tut were done over and over again. And it was years later when I learned about the Library of Alexandria – it was the largest library of the ancient world and was destroyed after a series of fires. Built under Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II, it contained the Temple of the Muses (or Museion, after which the word museum comes from).  It wasn’t until 2003 when the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina was erected on the site of the original. 

Egypt lies on the Mediterranean Sea in northeastern Africa.  It also includes the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula.  The Sahara Desert covers the vast majority of the country.  Looking south, the Nile River runs from the Mediterranean Sea all the way through Sudan and its capital of Khartoum where it splits into the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The White Nile continues to meander its way through South Sudan’s capital of Juba and dumps into Lake Albert on the Uganda-Democratic Republic of the Congo border.  The Blue Nile winds its way eastward and ends in the Ethiopian countryside at Lake Tana. The river is considered the longest river in the world, and the entire river system (including tributaries) touches 11 countries. The Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt created Lake Nassar in the 1960s. And even though I always think of the river flowing southward, it actually flows north and dumps out into the Mediterranean Sea (rivers flow from high areas to low areas). In Egypt, there are very few towns and cities that are not near the Nile or the Mediterranean. 

The Ancient Egyptians called the land Kemet, meaning “black land” and referring to the fertile land of the Nile River.  Some linguists think the name came from “home of the ka (soul) of Ptah” from a variation of the ancient name for the city of Memphis, the capital of the Egyptian empire. Other linguists think it came from Latin and Greek translations, possibly meaning “below the Aegean.”  Of course early Egyptian society is considered one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. And it also played its roles in Biblical stories. The ancient Pharaohs were some of the most famous kings (and queens) in history: Menes, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, and Ramesses II.  The Egyptian religion is the first to utilize monotheism (only having one main god).  Later the Greeks came in under the rule of Ptolemy who established himself as Pharaoh and this reign ended with the death of Cleopatra VII. The Romans took their opportunity to invade the country, and of course, the Persians and the Ottomans both took their turns at trying to take over, as well as the French under the rule of Napoleon.  Finally, an Albanian military commander named Muhammad Ali Pasha under the control of the Ottoman Empire expelled the French and ruled the country.  In 1914 just before WWI, Egypt was placed under a protectorate of Britain, but gained its own independence in 1922.  The early years were somewhat unstable and British presence remained for nearly three more decades. During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt was involved in several military conflicts, including ones involving Suez Canal and Yemen.  Even up to today, changes of power and the fact that people are standing up for inequalities, corruption, police brutality, unemployment, inflation, rising food prices and other issues have led to many revolts in recent years, most notably in 2011.

The capital city is Cairo, a city in almost every sense is the epitome of a modern city.   Home to many universities, opera houses, numerous museums, shopping from low-end to high-end, international film festivals, world-class sporting venues, and like it’s sister city New York, a 24-hour city. It’s the largest metropolitan area in Africa and the Arab world, and the 16th largest urban area in the world (although some statistics put it tenth). 

Egypt mainly depends on agriculture, media and communications, petroleum, natural gas, and tourism for its economic stability.  It also relies on aid from the United States. Other sources come from the money sent back from people working abroad and from the revenues from the Suez Canal, thought to be the most important waterway in the Middle East, connecting the Mediterranean (and Europe) to the Red Sea (and Africa and the Middle East).  Egypt also relies on tourism to its famous historical and religious sites. 

Suez Canal

About 90% of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, and Islam is considered the state religion.  And because of this, the country follows Sharia Law, or law that is based on the Islamic religion.  There’s also a small number of Shi’a Muslims as well. There are even a number of people who practice Salafi Islam: a strict, puritanical, über-conservative sect of Muslims. Cairo is known as the “city of 1000 minarets,” the towering spires protruding from mosques and almost always topped with a crown of some sort.  There is minority of Christians in Egypt as well, most of whom belong to the Coptic Church, and others Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and other various denominations.  Apparently, Egypt only recognizes Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as acceptable religions to put on your ID card, so if you’re anything else, like Bahá’í or atheist, it’s a major problem and has involved persecution in the past.

The official language is Modern Standard Arabic.  However, there are several varieties of Arabic that are spoken in Egypt, namely Egyptian Arabic, Sa’idi Arabic, Eastern Egyptian Bedawi Arabic, and Sudanese Arabic.  I imagine and hope that these are closely related and generally mutually understandable, but I know extremely little about the Arabic language except I think it’s a language that would be easier to learn if I had a teacher, as opposed to learning on my own.  Other Middle Eastern, Nubian, Berber, Afro-Asiatic, and Coptic languages are also spoken in other areas. Popular foreign languages learned in school are English, German, French, and Italian. 

Ancient Egyptians did a lot of firsts and had a lot of cool facts in their history. They first created paper from papyrus.  One of the oldest papers on mathematics was written by an Egyptian scholar. Their writing system, hieroglyphics, consists of 700 different characters and none of them are vowels, which is why we will never know exactly how it was pronounced.  (With the help of the Rosetta Stone, we were able to make a huge headway in translating what the hieroglyphics were.)  They also loved bread and regularly drank beer (a plus, for me).  The ancient Egyptians were the first ones to develop the 365-day calendar divided into twelve months based on their need to be able to predict when the Nile flooded, and they also invented clocks.  Some scholars believed the ancient Egyptians were the first to use sutures to close a wound.  They were also the first people to keep cattle.  And not to mention all of the procedures and traditions around mummification, burial, and pyramid building.  The workers who built the pyramids were well fed, had their own villages, and well compensated. The Greeks, who would often throw unwanted baby girls outside to die, found it unbelievable that the Egyptians considered all children (males AND females) blessings. I find it incredible that if a culture has all of this to offer, how could anyone call them unskilled and antiquated? I’m really excited to delve into the modern culture and its arts and see what else it has to offer.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

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