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Flag Source: CIA World Factbook
One of the world’s primary cradles of civilization, Egypt began more than 6,000 years ago, and Egyptians are thus some of the earliest descendants of human beings. The country’s strategic location no doubt has aided in Egypt’s general flourishing over the centuries.
Within Egypt’s extensive past, several events have exerted lasting influence. The unification of upper and lower Egypt by King Menes in the third millennium B.C.E. is considered one of the most important achievements in Egyptian history, as it heralded the start of Egypt’s age of pharaohs. Ancient Egyptians are known for their significant contributions to human history, including the development of the plow, the hieroglyphic writing system, the 365-day calendar and leap year, and the earliest forms of paper, made from papyrus. Among the notable leaders during ancient Egyptian was Djoser, who built the step pyramid during the Old Kingdom (26
00–2200 B.C.E.). Pharaoh Akhenaton reigned from approximately 1379 to 1362 B.C.E. and attempted to direct Egypt’s polytheistic religion into a single worship of the sun god. Akhenaton’s death led to the ascension of his queen, Nefertiti, and the country’s ultimate return to the ancient polytheistic system. King Ramses II ruled from 1279 to 1212 B.C.E. and oversaw the construction of many temples, statues, and monuments all over Egypt, most notably Abu Simbel, near Aswan.
Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E. and founded Alexandria a year later. Alexandria grew to become a major civic center in the Hellenistic age, well known for its library, commercial trade, and rise of intellectualism. During the Ptolemaic dynasty of 305 to 30 B.C.E., the Roman leader Octavian, later known as Augustus Caesar, defeated Cleopatra’s fleet and annexed Egypt as a province of the Roman Empire, which prevailed until A.D. 642. During Egypt’s Roman period, the Coptic church was the popular strain of Christianity and now represents one of the oldest branches in the world of that faith.
The Arabic conquest of 641 forever changed the face of Egypt, leading to a shift to Islam and Arabic culture that lasts to this day. In the ninth century Cairo became the capital of Egypt, and in 1260 the Egyptian ruler Qutuz successfully defended the nation against Mongolian advances during the battle of Ain Jalut in Palestine, allowing Egypt’s Islamic identity to grow and thrive.
In 1517 the Ottoman Empire settled itself into Egypt, beginning a long but relatively undistinguished reign. In 1796, Egypt revolted against Ottoman rule and achieved a partially independent state within the empire. Napoleon and his troops arrived in 1798, however, and easily defeated Egyptian forces, facilitating the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799. The first half of the 19th century was marked by the Ottoman viceroy Muhammad Ali’s attempt to remove Egypt from Turkish control; he was unsuccessful.
In a move to secure foreign control over the Suez Canal, British occupation began in 1882. Although Egypt was technically granted independence in 1922, true liberty was not gained until the Suez Crisis of 1956. In 1952 the Free Officers, led by Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, removed the incumbent ruler, King Faroukh, from power. In 1956, Nasser, by then the Egyptian president, nationalized the Suez Canal, a decision that led to a tripartite invasion by Britain, France, and Israel. Egypt successfully defended its initiative, and troops withdrew by 1957. Armed discord with Israel continued in a brutal conflict that did not end until 1979, when both countries signed the Camp David Accords in the United States.
The Top 5: Local Advice
1. Egypt is divided into 29 governorates. If you look closely at a map, you can see that some of them, like the New Valley in the Sahara, are relatively large, while the governorates immediately surrounding the Nile, like Aswan, Luxor, and Qena, are very small. That accounts for the difference in population in the desert and in the fertile Nile region.
2. One Egyptian pound (E£), the nation’s currency, equals 100 piastres. All notes are written in Arabic and English, and the smaller the note, the smaller the monetary denomination. It can be a challenge to find a merchant willing to break the larger denominations from the currency exchange office, and you’ll need smaller denominations of piastres for the practice of baksheesh, as described below. Try to obtain smaller notes at the time of your exchange.
3. The Egyptian tradition of baksheesh is extremely common in the area and is more or less comparable to the Western practice of tipping. Baksheesh in Egypt encompasses a wider range, however, and is expected as a thank you for any service rendered, even if that service was not technically requested. Want to see a closed tomb? Twenty-five piastres. Want to turn on a light in a museum display case? Only 50 piastres. This constant exchange of baksheesh can be surprising for a first-timer, but it’s the norm all over the country.
4. Egypt uses the electric plug type called C, so make sure you pack a plug adapter before you leave. You’ll also need a transformer that can convert streams into 220 volts.
5. Religion plays an important part in Egypt’s history and modern culture, and Egypt’s constitution requires all legislation to conform implicitly with Islamic law. Today almost 90 percent of the population practices Sunni Islam, and the call to prayer can be heard five times a day from the mosque minarets that dot the country’s horizon. It is not uncommon for the small population of Christian followers to get a small, voluntary tattoo on their hand indicating their faith.