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Egypt: the 2,000 year wait to return to indigenous rule (332 BCE to 1953)

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Egypt from 306 BC to Today

egypt timeline 808 BC - 1953

Part I

The impact of the Greeks

egypt Library of Alexandria

Scholars in the ancient library of Alexandria

Egypt was conquered by the Greeks in 332 BC, bringing an end to the Late Period of Ancient Egyptian civilization. The Greeks founded their own dynasty, the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which reigned for nearly 300 years until 30 BC.

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he imported the Greek language into this ancient civilization, which would rule it for over a thousand years. Until a long time after the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 640-642, Greek was used for official documents rather than Egyptian, which was used for holy texts and private documents written in Hieratic or Demotic script.

While Ptolemy I and later rulers were Greek, they adopted Ancient Egypt’s religion and many customs. Simultaneously, they incorporated many elements of Greek culture into Egyptian life. Egypt prospered for several years under the leadership of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Many temples were constructed in the New Kingdom style. Egypt spread to dominate Libya, Palestine, Cyprus, and most of the eastern Mediterranean Sea at its height around 240 BC. During this time, Alexandria rose to prominence as one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean. It was a major trading hub for Asia, Africa, and Europe. It was also a hub of Greek culture and education. With hundreds of thousands of documents, the Library of Alexandria was the world’s greatest library.

The impact of the Romans

In 30 BC, the Romans invaded Egypt. Egypt’s greatest prosperity occurred under the shadow of Roman stability. The Romans made significant improvements to the regulatory structure in order to achieve high levels of productivity and maximize income. The prefect of Egypt was responsible for military defence by command of legions and cohorts, organizing finances and taxes, and the administration of justice.

Overall, even at the village level, the degree of monetarization and economic sophistication was high. On a broad scale, goods were moved and traded using coins, and a currency was used in towns and larger settlements. A high degree of manufacturing and commercial production grew along with the extracting value from the dominant agricultural base. The volume of both domestic and external trade peaked in the first and second centuries CE.

Egypt Under Roman Rule

Ancient Roman Coins

The clearer inclination toward grouping and social domination of the population was one of the more visible consequences of Roman law. Despite several years of intermarriage between Greeks and Egyptians, lists drawn up in 4/5 CE formed the right of some families to classify themselves as Greek by descent and to seek rights associated with membership in an urban aristocracy.

The impact of the Byzantines

There is no single moment that can be defined as the turning point between the Roman and Byzantine periods. However, the difference is depicted as the division between a lighter era of social stability and development and a darker epoch, allegedly marked by an oppressive state resulting in an overall decline and collapse. The most significant developments happened in the final decade of the third century and the first three decades of the fourth century. With the end of Christian persecution came the return of the church’s lands. In 313, a new method of calculating and collecting taxes was instituted, with 15-year tax periods known as “indictions.

The Christian church quickly came to control secular as well as religious institutions, as well as to take a strong interest and position in any political issue. As a result, the patriarch of Alexandria, the head of the Egyptian church, became the most powerful figure within Egypt, and the person who in Eastern Church Councils could offer a powerful voice to the Egyptian clergy.

During the Byzantine period, Egypt’s troubled past can largely be explained by the constant competing of the Patriarchs of Alexandria (about 570 successive and coexisting patriarchs) to maintain their patriarchy and Constantinople’s standing.

The spread of Christianity had an equal impact on the social and cultural fabric of Byzantine Egypt as it did on the political power system. It brought to light the Coptic Church’s native Egyptian culture, which finds expression in the growth of the Coptic language.

egypt Coptic language

Ancient Coptic Script

The impact of the Rashidun Caliphate

The Rashidun Caliphate was the first Islamic caliphate, consisting of the first four caliphs—the “Rightly Guided” caliphs. It was founded in the aftermath of Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632. The caliphate ruled an empire that stretched from the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant in the north to the Caucasus in the east, North Africa from Egypt to present-day Tunisia in the west, and the Iranian plains to Central Asia in the east.

Egypt under the Rashidun Caliphate: international spread of Islam - Think Africa

Map of the territories of the Rashidun Caliphate

The military force, or jund, supported by the Arab settlers was the key pillar of early Muslim rule and control in the region. These were the men who had originally accompanied Amr ibn al-As (leader of the Rashidun troops) and taken part in the conquest.

Amr selected a new place for his men to move, close to the Byzantine fortress of Babylon, in Cairo, Egypt. Fustat was the name given to the new settlement. Fustat soon became the focal point of Islamic Egypt, as well as the administration’s capital and home. The remains of this fort, as well as the site of the Fustat mosque, can still be viewed today in Coptic Cairo (Old Cairo).

Egypt - Amr ibn al-As Mosque Facts, History & Architecture -

Fustat mosque, also known as the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As

In exchange for a monetary and food tribute for the invading forces, the Christians of Egypt were excused from military service and allowed to practice their religion and manage their affairs freely. Conversions of Copts to Islam were initially uncommon, and the old taxation system was retained for the majority of the first Islamic century.

The impact of the Abbasid Caliphate

For more than three centuries, the Abbasids preserved an unbroken line of caliphs, consolidating Islamic law and fostering great intellectual and cultural innovations in the Middle East during the Golden Age of Islam.

Abbasid Egypt

The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasid time is regarded as the Golden Age for the religion of Islam. The Qur’anic injunctions and hadith, such as “The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr” inspired the Abbassids and emphasized the importance of knowledge. As the Abbasids advocated the seeking of knowledge, the Muslim world became an academic hub for research, philosophy, medicine, and education during this time.

In almost every area of endeavor including astronomy, alchemy, algebra, anatomy, optics, and so on, the Caliphate’s scientists were at the forefront of scientific development. Knowledge in a range of areas (mathematical, geometric and astronomical) in Alexandria was recovered in this period, including that of Euclid and Claudius Ptolemy. Egypt’s status as a textile manufacturing base contributed to Abbasid cultural development. Copts worked in the garment industry, producing linens and silks.

Abbasid control eventually crumbled when the Mongols attacked Baghdad, and the empire’s peripheral territories declared local autonomy. Despite its loss of political influence, the dynasty maintained religious supremacy until the Ottoman invasion of Egypt in 1517.

The impact of the Fatimid Caliphate

In 969, the Fatimid general Jawhar invaded Egypt and established a new palace city near Fustat, establishing a new capital in Cairo. Egypt thrived, and the Fatimids developed a vast trading network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their trading and political relations stretched all the way to China and the Song Empire, which ultimately decided Egypt’s economic direction during the High Middle Ages.

In contrast to Western European governments of the day, promotion in Fatimid state offices was focused on merit rather than heredity. Members of other Islamic sects, such as Sunnis, were almost as likely as Shiites to be assigned to government positions. Tolerance was applied to non-Muslims, such as Christians and Jews, who held high positions in government depending on their abilities.

During the Fatimid era, intellectual life in Egypt progressed significantly, with many scholars living in or visiting Egypt and having easy access to sophisticated libraries. Fatimid caliphs elevated scholars to leading positions in their courts, promoted scholarship, and built libraries in their palaces. The freedom of thinking was perhaps the most important characteristic of Fatimid law, given that no one infringed on the interests of others. The Fatimids set aside separate platforms for different Islamic sects, where intellectuals might share their various ideas. They supported scholars and welcomed visitors from all over the world, even when their views clashed with their own. The Fatimid era was a major contributor to the history of science, literature, and philosophy. The era is also noted for its beautiful art and architecture.

Al Azhar Mosque, Cairo, Egypt Attractions -

Al Azhar Mosque – Medieval Egyptian Architecture

Part II

The impact of the Mamluks

From 1250 to 1517, Mamluk generals used their influence to create a dynasty that controlled Egypt and Syria. The name is taken from an Arabic word that means “slave.” During the Mamluk era, Egypt became the unrivalled political, economic, and cultural centre of the Muslim world’s eastern Arabic-speaking region.

Mamluks of Egypt: 1: Mamluk officer in full armour, c. 1795; 2: Mamluk  cavalryman, c. 1798; 3: Mamlu… | Warriors illustration, Historical  warriors, Egypt history

Culturally, the Mamluk era is best known for its advances in historical literature and architecture, as well as an unsuccessful attempt at socio-religious reform. Mamluk historians produced a large number of chroniclers, biographers, and encyclopaedia writers.

The Mamluks bestowed on Cairo some of its most impressive monuments, many of which are still standing today. They were recognized as builders of religious structures such as mosques, colleges, monasteries, and above all, tombs. The Mamluk tomb-mosques can be identified by stone domes whose massiveness is offset by geometrical carvings.

The documentation of archaeoacoustics identity of Sultan-Barquq complex -  ScienceDirect

The Sultan al-Zahir Barquq complex

The Interior Of The Mosque Of Sultan Al-Zahir Barquq | Islamic art, Old  Egypt, Islamic architecture -

The interior of Sultan Barquq mosque

In terms of trade and industry, the Mamluk era represents the pinnacle of medieval Egyptian economic history.

It is intriguing that the Mamluks—all of whom were of non-Arab (mostly Turks and, later, Circassians) and non-Muslim descent, and some of whom understood little or no Arabic—founded a regime that developed Egypt’s dominance in Arab culture.

The impact of the Ottomans

However, by the 15th century, Egypt’s economic importance had steadily deteriorated due to plague-related population declines, intensified government involvement in commerce, Bedouin raiding, and Portuguese competition in the Indian trade.

The economic downturn that began with the late Mamluks persisted, as did the decline of Egyptian culture. Given Egypt’s political turmoil and economic downturn since the late Mamluk days, it is not shocking that Ottoman Egypt’s society lacked vitality. The rapid reduction in the number of notable historical works produced in Egypt was perhaps the most telling example of the intellectual dormancy.

Ottoman Egypt,

Ottoman Cairo

While the Ottoman strategy was directed toward imperial rather than Egyptian needs, it was clearly in the rulers’ best interests to have a stable government that would keep Egyptian agriculture productive and encourage transit trade. Egyptian lands were divided into four classes: the sultan’s territory, fiefs, army maintenance property, and religious base lands. Officers in the Ottoman Egyptian army were chosen locally from the numerous militias and had close relations with the Egyptian elite. With the difficulties that beset the Ottoman Empire’s metropolis, the governors installed there came to be regarded with ever-decreasing respect by the Egyptians. Famine and pestilence wreaked havoc on the country during this time.

The impact of the French

A French invasion fleet led by Napoleon disembarked near Alexandria on July 1, 1798. Egypt was important to France for two reasons: its economic and agricultural potential, as well as its strategic role in the Anglo-French rivalry. They also sent a committee of scholars and scientists to study all aspects of life in ancient and modern Egypt.

The French Occupation of Egypt -

The French Occupation of Egypt

The Suez Canal Company, or Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal, was established by French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps to create the modern Suez Canal, which began construction on April 25, 1859. Initially, the majority of the company’s shares were held by French and Egyptian investors.

Ferdinand de Lesseps - Wikidata

Ferdinand de Lesseps

They discovered the famous Rosetta Stone, which contained a trilingual inscription that enabled them to decode hieroglyphs and thus laid the groundwork for modern Egyptology. Despite arguments to the contrary, the three-year French occupation was too brief to have any long-term effect on Egypt. Its most significant internal impact on Egypt was the gradual decline of the Mamluks’ force.

Egypt - Rosetta Stone -

The Rosetta Stone, Picture Credits: British Museum

The influence of the French invasion on Europe was important. Napoleon’s conquest exposed the Middle East as a region of enormous geopolitical significance to the European powers, launching the Anglo-French struggle over dominance in the region and pushing the British into the Mediterranean. The French conquest of Egypt has had a significant impact on France due to the publication of Description de l’Egypte, which detailed the observations of the scholars and scientists who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. This book laid the groundwork for contemporary study into Egypt’s culture, society, and economy.

The impact of the British

The British rule in Egypt that started after the 1882 defeat of the Egyptian army has significant political and economic consequences. The British were mostly interested in retaining ownership of the trading route that went through Egypt to the Red Sea and then to India. Despite the straight sailing routes around the Cape of Good Hope, Egypt remained the fastest way for Britain and India to establish communications. Egyptians were also a significant market for British industry. Egypt was opened up to the rest of the world after the British colonization, and it was integrated into the modern imperialist system.

Egypt under British Rule -

The British Occupation of Egypt

In general, Egypt’s wealthy and influential ruling classes accepted British rule. They frequently sent their children to be taught in the United Kingdom. They served as prosecutors and secretaries for the British. The British made no attempt to mess with the great majority of Egyptians’ Islamic views. In reality, British governors issued subsidies to aid in the construction of mosques. Nonetheless, many Egyptians despised British rule. By the early 1900s, Egypt had a small but rising liberation movement. The British were able to help Egypt in a variety of ways during their rule. Although they did have certain benefits, the occupation still had several drawbacks for Egypt.

As a direct product of British occupation, Egyptian nationalism grew and prospered. Professional, social, and political feelings were able to unite toward a common enemy, forming a loosely knit nationalist movement.

Egypt Post Independence

The Mohammed Ali Pasha family reigned until 1952 as a British Empire puppet. During this time, the Suez Canal was finished, as was the construction of Cairo’s new city. Egypt’s monarchy was deposed in 1952, and the ‘Arab Republic of Egypt’ was created. Major General Mohamed Naguib, one of the founders of the Free Officers Movement who led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 along with Gamal Abdel Nasser, was Egypt’s first president, taking office on June 18, 1953, the day Egypt was proclaimed a republic.

Abdel Nasser was elected as the second president of the Republic. Nasser seized hold of the Suez Canal and rose to prominence in the Arab world.

The Suez Canal in the old days (left) and the present day (right)

Three years later, under new government leadership led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the United Kingdom agreed to withdraw its forces in the Anglo–Egyptian Agreement. The British withdrawal was concluded in June 1956. Egypt achieved full independence on this day. Since then, four more people have held the position of president of the Arab Republic of Egypt: Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Egypt's seven first presidents -

The presidents of Egypt (1953-2021). From left to right; Mohamed Naguib, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

The memory of the Egyptian revolution is the only weapon we have left |  Omar Robert Hamilton | The Guardian

Regardless of the many ancient cultures with which it has had contact, Egypt unquestionably belongs to an Arab and Islamic social and cultural heritage. As a result of getting in contact with different cultures, a national culture has emerged that has assimilated all that is new while remaining distinctively Egyptian. This practice continues to shape Egyptians’ perceptions of themselves and the universe.


Part I

  • Stanwick, Paul Edmund. Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2003.
  • Dalachanis, Angelos (2017). The Greek Exodus from Egypt: Diaspora Politics and Emigration 1937-1962. London: Berghann. ISBN 978-1-78533-447-4.
  • Bailey, Donald M. (2012). Riggs, Christina (ed.). Classical Architecture. The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt(online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199571451.001.0001. ISBN 9780199571451.
  • Christiansen, Erik (2004). Coinage in Roman Egypt: The Hoard Evidence. Aarhus University Press.
  • Ostrogorsky, George (1956). History of the Byzantine State. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Butler, Alfred (1902). The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Kennedy, Hugh (2007). The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live in. Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-81740-3.
  • Holt, Peter M. (1984). “Some Observations on the ‘Abbāsid Caliphate of Cairo”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. University of London.
  •  al Juyushi: A Vision of the Fatemiyeen. Graphico Printing Ltd. 2002. ISBN 978-0953927012.
  • Cortese, Delia (January 2015). “The Nile: Its Role in the Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Fatimid Dynasty During its Rule of Egypt (969-1171)”(PDF). History Compass. 13 (1): 20–29. doi:10.1111/hic3.12210. ISSN 1478-0542

Part II

  • Philipp, Thomas; Haarmann, Ulrich (eds.). The Mamluks in Egyptian Politics and Society. Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization. P. M. Holt, A. Levanoni, D. S. Richards, M. Winter, J. Hathaway, David Morgan (illustrated ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521591155.
  • Michael Winter (1992). Egyptian Society Under Ottoman Rule: 1517-1798. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-02403-7.
  • M. W. Daly; Carl Forbes Petry (10 December 1998). The Cambridge History of Egypt. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-47211-1.
  • “Napoleon in Egypt”. Retrieved 2020-06-01.
  • Coller, Ian (2013). The French Revolution in Global Perspective. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Mak, Lanver. The British in Egypt: Community, Crime and Crises 1882-1922 (Volume 74 of International Library of Historical Studies). I.B.Tauris, 15 March 2012. ISBN 1848857098, 9781848857094.
  • Kirk, George. 1955. “The Egyptian Revolution and National Aspirations.” In Peter Calvocoressi, editor. Survey of International Affairs 1952. London: Oxford University Press, 203-230.
  • Panayiotis J. Vatikiotis, The history of modern Egypt: from Muhammad Ali to Mubarak (1991).
  • Cleveland, “A History of the Modern Middle East” (Westview Press, 2013)

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Egypt: the 2,000 year wait to return to indigenous rule (332 BCE to 1953)

by Editorial Team time to read: 12 min