Egypt and the pharaohs

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.

By about 3100 BC these communities have become sufficiently prosperous and stable to be united in a single political entity - the first Egyptian dynasty.

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 in superb low-relief carving on a plaque of green siltstone (now in the Egyptian museum in Cairo).

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.

Some details are known of Egypt's first great period from evidence other than monuments. Records survive of events during six years of the reign of Khufu's father, Sneferu. They include several elements characteristic of Egypt's imperial development.

There is a raid far south into Nubia, with the capture of numerous slaves and cattle. Forty ships ships arrive from Lebanon with the cargoes of cedar required for Egyptian building projects. Mining operations are undertaken in the Sinai region, already long known for its valuable copper deposits.

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 market place is at the second cataract (today submerged under Lake nasser). Here the Nubians exchange their commodities - and their slaves, always an important element in the trade of this region - for the manufactured goods and the weapons of the more developed economy.

The Middle Kingdom lasts for four centuries before giving way to another era defined only as falling between kingdoms - the Second Intermediate Period. It is far less chaotic than the previous intermediate period, but is almost equally vague. The reason is that very little is known of the foreigners, called by Manetho the Hyksos, who establish themselves with a capital city somewhere in the delta.

The Hyksos derive from Asia, probably from Palestine or Phoenicia, and they worship a Syrian god. But they adapt fully to Egyptian ways, identifying their god as Manetho and ruling as pharaohs (the 15th and 16th of Manetho's dynasties).

The Hyksos are in Egypt for almost a century (c.1630-c.1540 BC). For much of this time they control the whole country (their monuments are found as far south as Nubia). But eventually a powerful family in Thebes (the 17th dynasty) grows strong enough to drive the intruders north. One of its members, Ahmose, completes the task of expelling them from Egypt - and is accorded by Manetho the honour of heading the most glorious dynasty of all, the 18th, at the start of the New Kingdom.

New Kingdom to Cushites

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.

Marriage to a half-sister is common practice in Egypt's dynasties, and it occurs again (and for the same purpose) among Thutmose's children. His heir, also Thutmose, is the son of a lesser wife. So he is married to his royal half-sister Hatshepsut, a daughter of the queen.

Thutmose II succeeds his father some time around 1500 BC but dies a few years later. His heir, Thutmose III, son of a concubine, is an infant when he inherits. Hatshepsut takes power - first as regent for her stepson but then, perhaps in about 1490, as pharaoh in her own right.

Hatshepsut is a rare exception in ruling a native Egyptian dynasty as pharaoh. She appears on her monuments in male attire (even wearing the false beard which is a special attribute of the pharaoh) and she rules as forcefully as any man, though she devotes herself to the arts of peace rather than war. Trade and architecture are her main concerns.

Hatshepsut sends a famous trading mission to Punt (an area probably on the Red Sea coast of modern Somalia), which results in a new supply of gold, ebony and myrrh. She continues her father's building programme at Karnak. And her name lives today in the great funerary temple which she builds on the other side of the river in commemoration of herself and her father.

Hatshepsut dies in about 1470 and is succeeded by her stepson Thutmose III (the rightful heir to the throne which she has usurped). He inherits at a time when the vassal states in Palestine and Syria, subdued by Thutmose I, are reasserting their independence. It is a challenge which Thutmose III proves well suited to meet.

In the first of many campaigns to the north (in about 1469) Thutmose wins a spectacular victory near Megiddo, the details of which he records in an inscription in the temple at Karnak. He soon recovers control over all the regions conquered by his grandfather, but he adopts a more statesmanlike attitude to empire than his predecessor.

Young princes from the conquered territories are brought back to Thebes to be educated in the Egyptian way of life. Thus indoctrinated, and with personal contacts at the centre of power, they return home to rule their vassal states in a frame of mind more inclined to cooperation than rebellion. Thutmose sets an early pattern for a wise imperial policy.

Like his predecessors, Thutmose III is a passionate builder, adding greatly to the splendours of Karnak. His great grandson Amenhotep III continues the tradition, diverting attention to the southern part of Thebes, at Luxor, where he begins the great temple to Amen-re.

During a century and a half Thutmose I and his descendants have done great honour to this traditional god of the pharaohs, the blend of Amen (the local god of Thebes) and the earlier sun god Re. But the status of the Theban god is violently challenged during the reign of Amenhotep IV, son of Amenhotep III, who succeeds his father in about 1353 BC.

The challenge from Aten: c.1353-c.1336 BC

For one brief period Amen is shifted from his central position in the Egyptian pantheon. Soon after Amenhotep IV comes to the throne, in about 1353 BC, he changes his name from Amenhotep ('Amen is satisfied') to Akhenaten ('beneficial to Aten'), signifying that the new state deity is to be Aten, the disk of the sun. Six years later Akhenaten moves the court from Thebes to an entirely new capital city, some 300 miles down the Nile at a site now known as Tell el Amarna. A great temple to Aten is its central feature.

At the same time Akhenaten attempts to have the name of Amen erased from all inscriptions. Aten is to be the only god.

The insistence that there is no other god but Aten represents a first step towards Monotheism, and for this reason much attention has been paid to Akhenaten by western historians. In the Egyptian perspective he seems less significant. Within a few years of his death, in about 1336 BC, the old religion is restored, the court moves back to Thebes, and Tell el Amarna is destroyed.

Again the change is symbolized in a change of name. Akhenaten is succeeded by two boys, each married to one of his daughters to give them legitimacy. The second of the two is called Tutankhaten. In the resurgence of the cult of Amen, the new pharaoh's name is changed to Tutankhamen.

Tutankhamen, famous in modern times for the remarkable contents of his tomb (see Tomb of Tutankhamen), inherits the throne in about 1333 BC at the age of nine and lives only another nine years. He would not feature largely in history on his own account.

With no heir to the throne on Tutankhamen's death, his elderly vizier (a man by the name of Ay, whose wife was nurse to Queen Nefertiti) becomes pharaoh. But Ay dies within four years, again without an heir. This time the throne is taken by a more forceful character - Horemheb, commander of the army. He rules for a quarter of a century, energetically removing all traces of the heretical Aten. Then, having no heir, he bequeaths the throne to Ramses - his vizier and army commander, and now founder of the 19th dynasty

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.

In Egyptian tradition Ramses II comes to be considered the ideal pharaoh. This is due to many factors - the length of his reign, the size of his harem and family (at least 100 children), the prosperity and calm of Egypt at the time, and a flair for publicity revealed in the vast number of monuments and inscriptions commemorating his achievements (an inconclusive battle against the Hittites at Kadesh, where the pharaoh himself played a central and courageous part on the battlefield, is invariably described as a great victory).

As a result of Ramses' resounding fame, members of the subsequent 20th dynasty all take his name - in an unbroken line from Ramses III to Ramses XI.

These later Ramses, ruling from 1187 to c.1075 BC, are not in fact descended from the great man. Their ancestor, Setnakht, is a commoner who seizes the throne in 1190 after a period of chaos. Setnakht's son, Ramses III, restores a degree of order, but the situation soon deteriorates again.

The problem facing him is gradual loss of control in the three regions into which Egypt has expanded from the narrow valley of the upper Nile - north into Palestine and Syria, west into Libya, south into Nubia. From the north the threat now comes not from the Hittites, with whom a lasting peace was established by Ramses II, but from a group to whom the Hittites themselves fall prey - the mysterious Hittites.

The Sea People most directly threatening Egypt are described in the documents as the Peleset. Pressing south from the coast of Palestine, they are eventually held in this region by Ramses III. They are almost certainly the same people as the Philistines.

Meanwhile loss of control in Libya and Nubia means a great reduction in the revenue of the empire. Amid mounting anarchy, the pillaging of tombs for their immense treasures becomes common practice. When Ramses XI dies, in about 1075 BC, the governor of the northern town of Tanis sets up an independent kingdom in the Nile delta. His act brings to an end the 20th dynasty and the New Kingdom.

Libyans and others: 11th-8th century BC

The 21st dynasty, based in Tanis, never controls the whole of Egypt. Thebes, under the influence of powerful high priests, remains for the most part friendly but independent.

The Theban priests are more resentful of the next dynasty (the 22nd, beginning in about 950 BC). This is a dynasty of Libyans, military men who for a while win control of all Egypt through their garrisons. Their manners and beliefs are fully Egyptian, for they and their ancestors have served in Egyptian armies (they probably descend from Libyan captives brought into Egypt by Ramses III).

The Libyans prove unable to hold Egypt together. Local commanders become increasingly independent. At one time there are as many as six proclaiming themselves kings of their regions, while in about 800 BC a separate dynasty (the 23rd) is proclaimed in Thebes. In the 8th century yet another (the 24th) is established in the Nile delta.

During this chaos there is only one calm region within the old Egyptian empire. Cush, in the far south, has recently gone its own way, operating as a stable and independent kingdom in a traditional Egyptian style. By the mid-8th century the Cushite king is Kashta. He directs his attention to the rich but now chaotic land further down the Nile.

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.

After this achievement Piye retires to his capital at Napata, where be builds a great temple to Amen-re. But it is impossible to remain in control of Egypt from as far south as Napata. The final establishment of the Cushite or 25th dynasty is therefore the work of Piye's brother, Shabaka, who succeeds him in about 719 BC.

Shabaka renews the campaign to the north, defeating Bochoris (a descendant of the previous Egyptian dynasty, whom Shabaka is said to have burnt alive) and installing himself securely in Thebes and Memphis.

Here he and and his descendants might well have ruled peacefully for some time, since they are widely welcomed for their pious safeguarding of the cult of Amen-re. But it is their misfortune to coincide with the greatest external threat yet to confront the Nile civilization. The new power in the middle east is the formidable state of Assyria, now brutally subduing the many small states and cities of Palestine and Phoenicia.

From about 705 BC, when Assyria has a new king (Sennacherib), there is a widespread rebellion in the middle east against Assyrian rule. In support of the rebels the pharaoh (now Shabaka's nephew Shebitku) marches north from Memphis with an Egyptian army. He is heavily defeated. Egypt becomes the next Assyrian target.

In 663 the Assyrian king (Esarhaddon, son of Sennacherib) captures Memphis, seizes the royal treasure and harem and claims the title 'king of Egypt'. When the Assyrian army withdraws, leaving Egypt under the control of vassal rulers, the Cushites briefly recover Memphis. But another Assyrian expedition, in 663, settles the issue. This time Thebes is reached and plundered.

The traditional date for the end of the Cushite dynasty in Egypt is 656 BC. But this is very far from the end of the dynasty itself, which survives in the Sudan for another thousand years - still interring the royal family in Egyptian pyramids, at Napata and subsequently at Meroe.

The move further up the Nile to Meroe is made after an Egyptian expedition sacks Napata in about 590 BC. Over the centuries, living in remote isolation (as Persians, Greeks and Romans follow each other in control of Egypt itself), this southern outpost of Egyptian culture gradually fades away. Pyramids begin to be built in brick instead of stone. The knowledge of writing is forgotten. Finally, in the 4th century AD, Meroe is sacked by an army from neighbouring Aksum.


Assyrians Persians and a Greek: 663-332 BC

From the 7th century BC the middle east is controlled by a succession of powerful empires - Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman. Each, with the exception of Babylon, conquers Egypt. The long centuries of powerful native dynasties are now conclusively over.

The first intruders, the Assyrians, rule with a relatively light hand this large region which seems too distant to govern more directly. They entrust the administration to vassal princes. One of these establishes the 26th dynasty, controlling the entire country and becoming effectively independent of Assyria. During this period Egypt undergoes something of a revival (it is now that the remarkable Voyage round africa is achieved).

Egypt during this dynasty is only on the periphery of the dramatic events beginning in the middle east at the end of the 7th century - the destruction by the Babylonians of the Assyrian capital Nineveh (in 612 BC) and of Jerusalem (in 586), followed by the capture of Babylon by an army of the Persian emperor Cyrus (in 539).

After the fall of Nineveh the Egyptians attempt to stake a claim to the Assyrian empire as far as the Euphrates, a region which for so many centuries has been linked to Egypt. In 612 BC they confront a Babylonian army at Carchemish. The Egyptians are soundly defeated, but the Babylonians do not press their advantage to the point of invading Egypt itself.

A century later the rising power of Persia proves harder to keep at bay. This time the defeat of an Egyptian army is very much nearer home, at Pelusium in the Sinai peninsula in 525 BC. It is followed by the capture of Memphis (by now once again the main city of Egypt).

Egypt becomes a province of the new empire under the control of a Persian governor (or satrap). The Persian emperors take their imperial responsibilities seriously. Darius i, for example, commissions the codification of existing Egyptian laws. And under his orders, starting in about 515 BC, a Canal is constructed between the Nile and the Red Sea.

But direct control from the distant capital of another empire is a new and unwelcome experience in Egypt. During the 5th and 4th centuries there are frequent uprisings (usually with the help of the Greeks, implacable opponents of Persia). Sometimes these result in periods of virtual independence. But in 343 BC a new Persian invasion brings Egypt back under tight control.

The date is significant. Just nine years later, in 332 BC, a young Greek prince arrives at the head of a victorious army. He is Alexander the great. Understandably, in the circumstances, he is welcomed as a liberator.

Alexander spends the winter in Egypt. His actions there are the first indication of how he will set about keeping control of distant conquests, places with their own cultural traditions. One method is to establish outposts of Greek culture. In Egypt he founds the greatest of the cities known by his name - Alexandria.

Another method, equally important, is to present himself in the guise of a local ruler. To this end he carries out a sacrifice to Apis, a sacred bull at Memphis, where the priests crown him pharaoh. And he makes a long pilgrimage to a famous oracle of the sun god Amon, or Amen-re, at Siwa. The priest duly recognizes Alexander as the son of the god.

The Greeks in Egypt: 332-30 BC

Alexander the great arrives in Egypt at an early stage of his great journey of conquest. He clears out the Persian administration before moving against Persia herself.

After Alexander's death, in 323, his empire is divided among his generals. Egypt falls to Ptolemy, whose descendants will give Egypt her final dynasty - a glittering one, albeit largely Greek in flavour. Its capital is the city established by the conqueror himself, Alexandria.

Ptolemy adds legitimacy to his rule in Egypt by acquiring Alexander's body. He intercepts the embalmed corpse on its way to burial, brings it to Egypt and places it in a golden coffin in Alexandria.

It will remain one of the famous sights of the town for many years, until probably destroyed in riots in the 3rd century AD.

The Ptolemaic inheritance: 285 BC

The central struggle of Ptolemy's reign is to establish firm and broad boundaries to his kingdom. This involves him in almost continuous warfare against other leading members of Alexander's circle. At times he holds Cyprus and even parts of mainland Greece. When the dust of conflict has settled, he is firmly in control of Egypt and has strong claims (disuputed by the Seleucid dynasty) to Palestine.

He calls himself king of Egypt from 306 BC. By the time he abdicates in 285, in favour of one of his sons, the Ptolemaic dynasty is secure.

Ptolemy and his descendants show respect to Egypt's most cherished traditions - those of religion - and turn them to their own advantage. By favouring the priests, protecting the temple revenues and adopting the customs of the pharaohs, they acquire for themselves the same divine status as their Egyptian predecessors.

Inevitably, in the long run, there is local hostility to foreign rulers. But in the end this proves irrelevant. Egypt, an extraordinarily rich corner of the Mediterranean, falls prey to an irresistible new imperial power - that of Rome.

Nobody could claim that dynastic Egypt fizzles out. It flares to a romantic end, while the last ruler in the line of the Ptolemies flirts with two representatives of the most efficient and expansionist empire of the ancient world.

Cleopatra is twenty when she first meets Julius Caesar, in 48 BC. She is twenty-seven when she first meets Mark Antony, in 41 BC. She is thirty-eight when she applies the asp to her breast in 30 BC, a year after the battle of Actium. With her defeat, the Roman empire achieves a new completeness - encompassing the entire Mediterranean. And Egypt will remain under Roman control for the next six centuries.

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.

Over the centuries a close link develops between two ancient and neighbouring Christian communities, isolated within the territories of Islam - the Coptic church of Egypt and the Orthodox church of Ethiopia.

Arabs and Muslims

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.

The great Christian cities of Syria and Palestine fall to the Arabs in rapid succession from635. Damascus, in that year, is the first to be captured. Antioch follows in 636. And 638 brings the greatest prize of all, in Muslim terms, when Jerusalem is taken after a year's siege.

It is a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam sees itself as the successor of Judaism and Christianity. The city of the people of Moses, in which Jesus also preaches and dies, is a holy place for Muslims too. Moses and Jesus are Muhammad's predecessors as prophets. A Link with muhammad himself will also soon emerge in Jerusalem.

Muslim North Africa: from AD 642

The Arab conquest of Egypt and North Africa begins with the arrival of an army in640 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 Arabs continue rapidly westwards along the coast of North Africa, capturing Cyrenaica in 642 and Tripoli in 643. But these remain largely ineffective outposts. For nearly three decades the Arabs make little progress in subduing the indigenous Berber inhabitants of this coastal strip.

The turning point comes in 670 with the founding of a new Arab garrison town at Kairouan, about sixty miles south of the Byzantine city of Carthage. From this secure base military control becomes possible. Carthage is destroyed (yet again) in 698. By the early 8th century northwest Africa is firmly in Arab hands. In 711 an Arab general takes the next expansionist step. With a Berber army he crosses the straits of Gibraltar and enters Spain.

The north African coast remains from now on in Muslim hands, but it proves impossible to exercise effective control over it from the centre of the caliphate - whether in Damascus or Baghdad. Instead various local Berber dynasties win power.

These include the Idrisids (established from 790 in Fez) and the Aghlabids (ruling from 800 in Kairouan). But by far the most powerful are the Fatimids, of the Ismaili sect. Early in the 10th century they organize an uprising against the Aghlabid dynasty in Kairouan.

An increasingly nominal caliphate: from the 9th century AD

From the 9th century the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad is often, in many parts of the Muslim world, more nominal than real. In Palestine and Syria there are uprisings from supporters of the previous Umayyad dynasty, whose base was Damascus. In the rich province of Egypt, governors are increasingly unruly (as many as twenty-four are appointed and then dismissed during the 23-year caliphate of Harun al-Rashid).

In the further extremes of the empire independence from the Abbasids is even more marked. Spain is ruled by Umayyads. North africa has Berber dynasties from 790. And eastern Persia, by about 870, is in the hands of Persians hostile to Baghdad.

The weakness of the caliphs tempts them into a measure which makes the problem worse. They acquire slaves from the nomadic Turks of central Asia and use them in their armies. The slaves, who become known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic mamluk, 'owned'), are excellent fighters. They distinguish themselves in the service of the caliphate and are often given positions of military responsibility. Well placed to advance their own interests, they frequently take the opportunity.

One of the first Mamelukes to seize power is Ahmad ibn Tulun. In the early 870s he takes control of Egypt. By 877 he has conquered the Mediterranean coast through Palestine and up into Syria.

This half of the Fertile Crescent has been ruled from Egypt at many periods of history. Separated from Mesopotamia by a broad swathe of desert, it is easier to control from Cairo than from Baghdad.

Palestine and Syria remain under Egyptian dominance for most of the next two centuries. The Tulunid dynasty, founded by Ahmad ibn Tulun in the 870s, rules the region until 905. The Ikhshidids, another Turkish dynasty, control it from 935 to 969, when they in their turn are replaced by the Fatimids - masters of an even broader swathe of Mediterranean coastline.

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.

At the height of Fatimid power, in the early 11th century, Cairo is the capital of an empire which includes Sicily, the western part of the Arabian peninsula (with the holy places of Mecca and Medina) and the Mediterranean coast up to Syria.

A century later the authority of the Ismaili caliphs has crumbled. There is little opposition in 1171 when Saladin, subsequently leader of the Islamic world against the intruding crusaders, deposes the last of the Fatimid line. And there is no protest when Saladin has the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad included in the Friday prayers in Cairo's mosques. After a Shi'a interlude, Egypt is back in the Sunni fold.

The collapse of the Fatimid caliphate does not mean the end of the political influence of the Ismailis. There has been a dispute in 1094 over who shall be caliph. The Fatimids in Egypt select one of two brothers. Ismailis in Persia and Syria prefer the other, by the name of Nizar.

The Nizari become a separate and extremely alarming sect. From the late 11th century they begin seizing territory in northern Persia. They make a religious virtue of terrorism and murder in pursuit of their ends. They are known to history as the Assassins.

Egypt and Israel: AD 1956-1973

Saladin's control of Egypt, Damascus and Aleppo, together with his campaign of 1187-8 against the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, brings almost the entire eastern Mediterranean once again under unified rule. The region will remain united during the rest of Saladin's Ayubid dynasty (until 1250), then under the next dynasty in Egypt (that of the Mameluke sultans) and finally under Ottoman rule from Turkey.

The only exceptions, in the short term, are the few strongholds which the Franks retain after 1188 - Tyre, Tripoli and a coastal strip up to Antioch. This region is briefly enlarged by the efforts, in the Third crusade, of Richard I in 1191-2, but a more significant change comes with the fall of the Ayubid dynasty in 1250.

The kings of England and France, Richard I and Philip II, arrive by sea at Acre during the early summer of 1191. On July 12 they accept the surrender of the Muslim garrison, agreeing to spare their lives on stipulated terms (payment of large sums and the release of 1500 Christian prisoners). At the end of the month the king of France, with this symbolic task achieved, sets off home to France. In August Richard, impatient that Saladin has not yet been able to keep the Muslim side of the bargain, orders the massacre of the 2700 members of the captured garrison.

He then sets off on a campaign of conquest - the purpose, after all, of his crusade.

For the next twelve months Richard and Saladin test each other's strength by military and diplomatic means. Richard wins most of the military encounters, often showing outstanding personal courage. But his forces are too few to hold much of Palestine or, the real prize, to take Jerusalem. Time and diplomatic advantage are on Saladin's side.

Eventually a truce is made, in 1192. The Franks are to retain a strip along the coast from Acre down to Jaffa, and Christian pilgrims may freely visit all the holy places of Palestine. With this much accomplished, Richard sets off on a long and disastrous journey (see Richard's journey home).

Mamelukes and Mongols: AD 1250-1260

The decade beginning in 1250 provides a succession of dramatic events in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. In 1250 the last sultan of Saladin's dynasty is murdered in Egypt by the slaves of the palace guard. This enables a Mameluke general, Aybak, to take power. He rules until 1257, when his wife has him killed in a palace intrigue. His place is immediately taken by another Mameluke general, Qutuz.

In the following year, 1258, Baghdad and the caliphate suffer a devastating blow. Mongols, led by Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, descend upon the city and destroy it. The Middle East appears to be open to conquest and destruction.

In 1259 Hulagu and the Mongols take Aleppo and Damascus. The coastal plain and the route south to Egypt seem open to them. But in 1260 at Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth, they meet the army of the Mameluke sultan of Egypt. It is led into the field by Baybars, a Mameluke general.

In one of the decisive battles of history Baybars defeats the Mongols. It is the first setback suffered by the family of Genghis Khan in their remorseless half century of expansion. This battle defines for the first time a limit to their power. It preserves Palestine and Syria for the Mameluke dynasty in Egypt. Mesopotamia and Persia remain within the Mongol empire.

Baybars and his successors: AD 1260-1517

Baybars is ruthless - in the best Mameluke tradition. Seized as a boy from the Kipchak Turks, north of the Caspian, he has been brought to Egypt as a slave. His talents have enabled him to rise to high command in the Mameluke army. In 1260, the year of his great victory at Ayn Jalut, he defeats and kills his own Mameluke sultan. He is proclaimed in his place by the army.

During his reign of seventeen years Baybars crushes the Assassins in their last strongholds in Syria, drives the Crusaders from Antioch, and extends the rule of Egypt across the Red Sea to control the valuable pilgrim cities of Mecca and medina.

In exercising this extensive rule, Baybars takes the precaution of pretending that he does so on behalf of an Abbasid refugee from the ruins of Baghdad - whom he acclaims as the caliph. His many successors maintain the same fiction. These Mameluke sultans are not a family line, like a traditional dynasty. They are warlords from a military oligarchy who fight and scheme against each other to be acclaimed sultan, somewhat in the manner of the later Roman emperors.

But they manage to keep power in their own joint hands until the rise of a more organized state sharing their own Turkish origins - the Ottoman empire.

The Ottomans, cautious about Mameluke military prowess, tackle other neighbouring powers such as the Persians before approaching Egypt. But in 1517 the Ottoman sultan, Selim i, reaches the Nile delta. He takes Cairo, with some difficulty, and captures and hangs the last Mameluke sultan.

Mameluke rule, spanning nearly three centuries, has been violent and chaotic but not uncivilized. Several of Cairo's finest mosques are built by Mameluke sultans, and for a while these rulers maintain Cairo and Damascus (500 miles apart) as twin capitals. A Pigeon post is maintained between them, and Baybars prides himself on being able to play polo within the same week in the two cities.

Egypt under the Turks

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.

The Ottoman empire and Napoleon: AD 1798-1799

During the 18th century Turkish involvement in European affairs is limited mainly to the immediate neighbours. There is a succession of Wars with russia and constant adjustment to the Frontier with austria in the Balkans. But in 1798 the Ottoman empire finds itself unavoidably caught up in Europe's great war of the time, when Napoleon decides to invade Egypt as an indirect method of harming British imperial interests.

The Ottoman governor of Egypt and his unruly Mameluke forces are ill-prepared to cope with such an invasion, though the condition of Napoleon's army does much to level the odds - after being shipped from France and marching south through the desert, from Alexandria to Cairo, in the midsummer heat.

It is a profoundly demoralized invading force which finally confronts the Mameluke army at Giza on July 21. But the French are arranged by Napoleon on the open terrain in solid six-deep divisional squares, and their fire-power slices with devastating effect through the wild charges of the Egyptian cavalry. Victory in the Battle of the Pyramids delivers Cairo to Napoleon.

While emphasizing his respect for Islam, Napoleon sets about organizing Egypt as a French territory with himself as its ruler, assisted by a senate of distinguished Egyptians. All is going according to his plan. His team of scientists can now begin to look about them (in the following year, 1799, a French officer finds the Rosetta stone).

But there is already a major snag. Some ten days after Napoleon's victory, Nelson finally comes across the warships of the French fleet - at anchor in Aboukir Bay, near the western mouth of the Nile. On August 1, in the Battle of the Nile, he destroys them as a fighting force (only two French ships of the line survive).

Napoleon, master of Egypt, is stranded in his new colony. He has no safe way of conveying his army back to France. Moreover he has provoked a new enemy. Turkey, of whose empire Egypt is officially a part, declares war on France in September 1798. In February news comes that a Turkish army is preparing to march south through Syria and Palestine to attack Egypt. Napoleon moves first.

When Napoleon gets back to Cairo in June, after four wasted months in Syria, he characteristically claims to be returning from a triumph. But he has now lost interest in this part of the world. He departs to seize his destiny in Paris, leaving behind a French army which is finally expelled from Egypt in 1801 by a combined Turkish and British force.

With the end of this three-year period of high foreign drama, Egypt returns to its traditional ways. The Mameluke beys confidently resume their local tyrannies. But this time, finally, the sultan and his officials find the resolve to confront their unruly subordinates.

Massacres and Mamelukes: AD 1802-1811

On three separate occasions there are cold-blooded attempts by the authorities in Egypt to solve the problem of the Mamelukes. In 1802 a Turkish admiral is instructed to invite Mameluke leaders to a social gathering at Aboukir, for them to be assassinated during the entertainment.

In 1805 a newly appointed governor of Egypt contrives a further but still insufficient massacre. The same governor later completes the task, in 1811, by inviting some 300 Mameluke beys to an event in the Cairo citadel. It is surprising that they accept. Once they are inside, the gates are shut and troops open fire. Only one of the guests survives. Six centuries of Mameluke power in Egypt come to a sudden end.

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.

Ibrahim Pasha has a whirlwind series of successes against Ottoman armies during 1832. He captures Acre and wins a battle at Homs during May. By July he is through the Taurus mountains and in December he wins another victory at Konya. By the spring of 1833 he appears to be in a position to march on Istanbul. In an agreement signed at Kutahya in May, the sultan secures the retreat of the Egyptian army by ceding to Mohammed Ali the hereditary governorships of Adana (in southeast Anatolia) and Syria.

Ibrahim Pasha becomes governor general of the two provinces. His father now rules a vast swathe of land from the Sudan to the Euphrates.

In 1839 the Turkish sultan attempts to recover Syria by military means, in what proves a disastrous failure. Ibrahim Pasha wins another victory at Nizip, this time so convincingly that the Ottoman fleet changes sides and joins the Egyptians. At this point the western powers intervene, fearful as ever of the collapse of the Ottoman empire. At a treaty in London in 1840 it is agreed that Mohammed Ali will restore Syria and Adana to the sultan. In return he is granted the hereditary rule of Egypt, though the province remains within the sultan's empire.

With this concession the separate history of modern Egypt begins. And the sultan in Istanbul is free to turn his attention to the perennial problems on his western flank, in the Balkans.

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.

With the increasing importance of India to the European powers in the late 18th century (as the main scene of rivalry between France and Britain) there is a strong military and economic motive to undertake the great task. During the French occupation of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon himself spends several days surveying the region with a party of officers and scientists.

During the early part of the 19th century several plans for a canal are drawn up without success. The breakthrough comes with the accession to the Egyptian throne of Said in 1854. He is a friend of a French diplomat, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who has long had the ambition of achieving a Suez canal. By November 1854 Lesseps has been granted a concession to undertake the project. Eighteen months later he is ready to float the Suez Canal Company.

Half the money is subscribed in France, where Napoleon III has been very supportive of the scheme. None comes from Britain. Indeed the British government does all it can to prevent a development which looks alarmingly like providing the French with a back door to India.

Said Pasha himself rescues the scheme by subscribing 60 million francs. On 25 April 1859 Lesseps swings the first pickaxe at the northern end of the route, the site of a new harbour to be named Port Said. He is the first in a labour force soon numbering tens of thousands, who between them excavate over the next ten years 97 million cubic yards (more than two cubic miles) of earth and rock.

For the opening ceremony, in November 1869, thousands of distinguished guests assemble from all over Europe and the Middle East. The procession of ships through the canal is led by the French imperial yacht with the empress Eugénie on board. The journey time to and from India is slashed. East and west are linked as never before.

Expansion and bankruptcy: AD 1863-1879

It is a myth that Verdi's Aida is commissioned for the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 but misses its deadline (not being produced until 1871 in Cairo). It is commissioned for the new Cairo opera house, which has opened in 1869 with a production of Rigoletto.

This profusion of Italian opera vividly suggests the speed with which Egypt is being Europeanized. Ismail, who succeeds his uncle Said on the throne in 1863, has been educated in France. He now begins to employ, with carefree enthusiasm, a stream of European and American experts to provide his country with western weapons, buildings, railways and amenities (such as piped water and gas) in addition to opera.

This level of expenditure, combined with mismanagement of government finances, leads by the mid-1870s to bankruptcy. Government revenue is not even sufficient to pay the interest on foreign loans. In 1875 Ismail tries to stave off disaster by selling his Shares in the suez canal to the British government (from having no part in the scheme, Britain becomes at a stroke the largest shareholder).

Even this proves insufficient. From 1876 Egyptian finances are placed under joint French and British control. When Ismail subsequently refuses to cooperate, in 1879, the two nations appeal to the sultan in Istanbul. Using the authority as sovereign which still remains to him, he dismisses Ismail - replacing him as khedive with his son, Mohammed Tewfik.

Pan-Islam and nationalism: AD 1872-1882

During the 1870s there are two strands of resistance to the existing state of affairs in Egypt. One is the impulse of nationalism which has swept through Europe during the 19th century. The other, first surfacing at this period and of great significance again in the late 20th century, is the pan-Islamic movement - based on the premise that Muslim states must reject the corrupting influence of the Christian west and rediscover the strength and purity of early Islam.

The natural head of any such Islamic movement is the Caliph, a role seen since the 16th century as being held by the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul. Abdul-hamid II, sultan from 1876, actively encourages pan-Islamic sentiments.

The intellectual leader of the movement at this time is Jamal al-Din, an Afghan philosopher who moves to Cairo in 1871. He builds up a large following through lectures in which he urges resistance to western influence, if necessary by the use of assassination.

After Egyptian finances are placed under foreign control in 1876, with the resulting influx of European administrators, these threats become more serious. An alarmed Egyptian government expels Jamal al-Din in 1879, sending him into exile in India. But in this same year a different threat, more nationalist in kind, becomes evident.

A secret society has recently been formed by Arab officers within the Egyptian army, with the intention of removing their Turkish-speaking superiors who occupy all the senior ranks. They organize a mutiny in 1879. In the short term it achieves nothing. But one of the society's members, Arabi Pasha, continues to rise in the army and acquires increasing popularity as the champion of Egyptian nationalism.

By 1882 there is enough support for a nationalist ministry to be forced on the khedive. A new chamber of deputies is put in place, with Arabic now the official language of government. Arabi Pasha is minister of war.

These developments greatly alarm the western powers, particularly since the Egyptian government is proving incapable of suppressing the Mahdist movement in the Sudan, which also aims at removing all foreign control.

In May 1882 British and French fleets are sent as a precautionary measure to Alexandria. Their presence inflames an already tense situation. Riots in Alexandria in June result in the deaths of many of the European residents. The British fail to persuade the French to join them in an invasion of Egypt to restore order, so a British army undertakes the task alone.

An Egyptian army under Arabi Pasha confronts the British at Tel-el-Kebir on September 13 and is defeated. Two days later the British enter Cairo. Arabi Pasha is tried for sedition and is exiled to Sri Lanka.

Egypt is now an occupied country, though in terms of international law it remains a strange hybrid. The British, settling down to the business of administering the realm, are doing so ostensibly on behalf of the Egyptian khedive who himself is technically subject to a distant sovereign, the sultan in Istanbul. It is a more complex version of the fiction by which the British rule their empire in India.

British rule

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'.

Eight years to independence: AD 1914-1922

At the moment when Britain makes Egypt a protectorate, the khedive (now Abbas II) is away in Constantinople. Being closely linked to the Turkish enemy, he is replaced on the throne by his uncle, Husayn Kamil. Three years later Husayn dies and is succeeded by a younger brother, Fuad.

Egypt is not directly involved in World War I but the defeat of the Axis powers, including Turkey, leads to immediate hopes of independence - particularly after France and Britain declare their commitment in November 1918 to the self-determination of the various peoples liberated from the Ottoman empire.

On 13 November 1918, within two days of the signing of the armistice, a political party is formed in Cairo by Saad Zaghlul. It is named Wafd, short for Al-Wafd al-Misri and meaning the Egyptian Delegation. The name reveals the immediate purpose - to send to the coming peace conference delegates who will voice the demand of the Egyptian people for independence.

This is more than has been envisaged by Britain, which ensures that there is no Egyptian presence at the talks. When the leaders of Wafd react angrily in Cairo, martial law is introduced. Zaghlul and several colleagues are arrested in March 1919 and are deported to Malta. The result is uproar in Egypt, with demonstrations against foreigners in general and the British in particular.

During the next three years the situation remains tense, while it becomes increasingly evident that the nationalist policies of Wafd are shared by a large majority in Egypt. In 1922 Britain proposes immediate independence, with various strings attached. British troops are to remain in Egypt to protect imperial interests (meaning in particular the Suez canal). And the Sudan is left out of any settlement.

Fuad, the sultan, accepts these terms. In March 1922 he becomes Fuad I, king of an independent Egypt. He already has an heir to his throne, the two-year-old prince Farouk.

Throne and Wafd: AD 1922-1939

A constitution providing for parliamentary government is introduced in 1923. Elections in the following year sweep Wafd into power with Zaghlul as prime minister. One of the party's main principles, the demand for the merging of Egypt and the Sudan, guarantees friction with the British government. And its commitment to constitutional government puts it at loggerheads with the king. Whatever the details of his new constitution, Fuad instinctively inclines to more absolute royal powers.

The issue of the Sudan comes to a head in 1924, when riots and violence by Sudanese nationalists prompt the British government to use force majeure in a unilateral solution. Egyptian forces are evicted from the Sudan.

A compromise on the Sudan is not found until 1936. During the intervening twelve years the struggle between Wafd and the king continues. Zaghlul dies in 1927 but he is followed at the head of the party by an almost equally forceful leader, Mustafa al-Nahas Pasha.

The conflict between the king and Nahas Pasha (who is determined to curb the royal powers) lasts until the death of Fuad in 1936. It includes one lengthy period (1928-34) when Fuad tears up the constitution of 1923 and rules by decree. Relations are hardly any easier after the young prince Farouk succeeds to the throne.

Early in the new reign Nahas Pasha leads a delegation to London and signs an Anglo-Egyptian treaty which goes some way to easing the tensions between the two countries - at any rate on the topic of the British troops stationed in Egypt and much resented by Wafd.

It is agreed that the number of these troops will be steadily scaled down while Egypt strengthens its own defensive forces, and that they will eventually be limited to the region of the Suez canal. Nothing is settled on the long-term future of the Sudan, but the treaty at least enables Egypt to resume its shared responsibilities after a gap of twelve years.

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.

To this there is added a religious and terrorist element in the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, responsible in December 1948 for the assassination of both the Egyptian prime minister (Nokrashi Pasha) and the chief of the Cairo city police. Acts of violence against British forces become increasingly common, until an encounter between British troops and rebels at the police headquarters in Ismailia, in January 1952, results in forty-six Egyptian deaths.

The response, on the following day, is widespread rioting in Cairo and the destruction of numerous buildings and businesses owned by foreigners. There are a few British deaths.

For the next few months Farouk and his government attempt, unsuccessfully, to cope with a deteriorating situation. But the pleasure-loving king, widely regarded as a playboy, is soon deprived of these responsibilities. On the night of 22 July 1952 a group of officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seizes power in a bloodless coup. Farouk, forced to abdicate, sails into exile on his luxury yacht. He is succeeded by his nine-month-old son as Ahmed Fuad II. But the council of regency soon dispenses with the need for an infant monarch.

A modern republic

Nasser and the Aswan dam: AD 1952-1956

The group which has toppled Farouk is a small secret organization, the Free Officers, founded by Nasser with Anwar el-Sadat and others in the Egyptian army in the 1940s. Their aim is to rid Egypt not only of the monarchy but also of the hated British presence.

After the coup of 1952 Nasser wields the real power behind the scenes. But the government is headed at first by Mohammed Naguib, who becomes president when Egypt is declared a republic in June 1953. Meanwhile political parties have been banned. In 1954 after a brief power struggle (Naguib has a greater following than his colleagues realize), Nasser takes open control.

He intends to create a non-aligned socialist state occupying a position of leadership in the Arab and Muslim world. But the proximity of Israel makes non-alignment difficult. Israel's western allies are reluctant to sell arms to Egypt (the Egyptian-Israeli border in Gaza is a dangerous flashpoint), so in 1955 Nasser arranges for a supply of eastern-bloc weapons from Czechoslovakia.

At the same time Nasser is greatly increasing Egypt's trade with the communist nations (China is by now the main market for Egyptian cotton). Nasser considers these economic links compatible with non-alignment. But soon they jeopardize the great domestic undertaking which he is above all determined to achieve.

Nasser's pet project is the construction of a high dam at Aswan, to form a massive lake (inevitably Lake Nasser) some 300 miles in length. The dam will control the annual flooding of the Nile, crucial to Egypt's agriculture, as well as generating vast amounts of electricity.

Early in 1956 Nasser seems able to demonstrate that non-alignment is viable. He secures the offer of loans from the USA and Britain to finance the Aswan dam. But in July of this year the USA withdraws its offer, shortly followed by Britain. Nasser's response is prompt. Within days he declares that the Suez canal is nationalized. Income from the canal will fund his dam - and there is soon Soviet finance on offer, to offset the rebuff from the west.

The Suez Crisis: AD 1956

Nasser's seizing of the Suez Canal, in July 1956, is made possible by the success of an agreement which he has negotiated two years earlier with Britain. This has provided for the withdrawal over twenty months of all British troops from the canal zone, thus removing the last cause of Egyptian resentment against British imperialism.

Any cause for resentment is now on the British side. The 99-year lease granted to the Suez Canal Company still has twelve years to run, and Nasser is not proposing to pay compensation. In the short term there is little that can be done about this by Britain or France (the other main shareholder in the company) except make forceful protests at the United Nations.

During the autumn of 1956 Britain and France build up their forces in the Mediterranean, but the tension escalates abruptly on October 29 when Israeli troops move into the Sinai peninsula, a province of Egypt. Their pretext is provocation from the Egyptians in successive border incidents. But the Suez Canal lies in the path of the invading Israelis, making the issue of immediate international urgency.

Britain and France issue an ultimatum to both Israel and Egypt, ordering each to withdraw ten miles from the canal. It is a somewhat one-sided demand. Israel as yet has hardly any troops near the canal, of which Egypt is in full possession. The Israelis accept the ultimatum. Egypt disregards it.

The British and the French, in defiance of the wishes of the UN security council and general assembly, begin bombing Egyptian airfields. On November 5 they land marines and paratroops near Port Said. Egyptian forces on the canal (now blocked with sunken vessels) are soon at a disadvantage. But the occupation is still incomplete when international outrage causes Britain and France, along with Israel and Egypt, to accept a ceasefire at midnight on November 6.

Within weeks UN forces arrive. The French and British withdraw after a disastrous fiasco. Israel gains nothing. Nasser has lost his air force (soon replaced by the USSR), but he has secured his ownership of the canal and has gained immeasurably in local prestige.

Egypt and Israel: AD 1956-1973

Nasser's standing in the Arab world after the Suez crisis brings him the chance of wider leadership. This soon becomes evident in the 1958 merger of Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic (to be joined a month later by the kingdom of Yemen, to form the United Arab States).

Nasser is the most prominent figure in this unwieldy political unit, which comes to an abrupt end in 1961 when Syria withdraws. Significantly, Nasser continues till the end of his life to use the name United Arab Republic for Egypt on its own (the nation becomes Egypt again in 1971). But at this time leadership of the Arab world means only one thing - leadership of the opposition to Israel.

While successfully maintaining non-alignment in relation to the power blocs of the Cold War, Nasser is inflexibly antagonistic to his northern neighbour. When hostilities flare up between Israel and Syria in 1967, he is quick to involve Egypt in the escalating crisis.

The Arab side is decisively defeated in the resulting Six Day War, as a result of which Egypt loses both Gaza and the Sinai peninsula (including, at first, even the east bank of the Suez canal). Nasser offers to resign, but he is able to stay in office thanks to vociferous popular demonstrations on his behalf - orchestrated no doubt, but with an undercurrent of genuine enthusiasm.

The war leaves the Suez Canal closed, to the great detriment of Egypt's finances. Negotiations for an Israeli withdrawal are still under way when Nasser dies of a sudden heart attack in 1970. He is succeeded as president by Anwar el-Sadat.

Sadat at first follows Nasser's hawkish policy towards Israel, launching with Syria the surprise attack on Israel during the holiday of Yom Kippur in 1973. In this war Egypt recovers some of the Sinai peninsula, becoming the first Arab nation to win territory from the Israelis. This success prompts Sadat to risk a dramatic volte-face. He attempts to lead the Arab world in negotiation with the shared enemy.

In 1977 Sadat takes the unprecedented step of travelling to Jerusalem to propose a peace plan to the Israeli parliament. His advance is well received by another politician who has been equally hardline in the past, Menachem Begin. Together the two leaders enter a process of negotiation which leads to a peace treaty between their two nations, signed at Camp David in 1978.

But in this important achievement Sadat has moved too far ahead of majority Arab opinion, and in particular of Muslim sentiment.

Fundamentalist Muslims have long been disenchanted with the Egyptian leadership. In 1954 an assassination attempt on Nasser is traced to the Muslim Brotherhood, which as a result is forcefully suppressed (putting an end to the only organized opposition group in Egypt).

Now, in the early 1980s, the peace treaty with Israel revives Muslim opposition - which in its turn provokes repressive measures by Sadat's government. In October 1981 the peacemaker pays with his life. At a military parade to commemorate the war of 1973 Anwar el-Sadat, reviewing the march past from the podium, is gunned down by Muslim terrorists.

Mubarak: from AD 1981

Sadat is peacefully succeeded by his vice-president, Hosni Mubarak, who in broad terms follows the same policies - keeping to the terms of Camp David, and thus ensuring the agreed return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in April 1982.

Relations with Israel take a temporary turn for the worse two years later as a result of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but by the 1990s Mubarak is again following Sadat's example. He becomes the most prominent peacemaker in the middle east, restoring Egypt's position of leadership in the Arab world. He is helped in this role by his own enhanced status in the west - the result of Egypt's support of the USA in the Gulf War. But withiin Egypt his method of rule is brutally authoritarian

In 1994 Mubarak is the broker in peace moves between Israel and the PLO. In 1995 he hosts a summit in Cairo attended by Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein and Yasser Arafat. But as with Sadat, these initiatives do not endear him to Muslim fundamentalists.

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. By various questionable means, such as on some occasions being the only candidate, Mubarak wiins a new six-year term as president in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005. But during the election year of 2011 Egypt's internal situation changes dramatically.

The Arab Spring and aftermath: from 2011

The long-repressed resentment against Mubarak's rule flares up almost immediately in the Arab spring, in January 2011, just a month after Tunisia's inspiring example. On what becomes known as the Friday of Anger hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country fill the streets and squares after Friday prayers in protest against the government The vast day-and-night crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square, demanding the resignation of Mubarak, become the most powerful image of people's longing for genuine democracy in the Muslim countries of north Africa and the Middle East. And they achieve success after less than three weeks of escalating violence between police and demonstrators and between pro- and anti-Mubarak factions. On February 11 Mubarak announces his resignation. Since that time he has been charged with a wide range of crimes including the murder of peaceful protesters. Appearing in court on a stretcher after a heart attack, he has been sentenced in various trials to life imprisonment and a fine of 200 million Egyptian pounds (about £18 million).

After Mubarak's resignation Egypt is governed on a temporary basis by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. There is continuing unrest in coming months as people feel that progress towards democracy is not fast enough. But the military keep their word, organizing parliamentary elections late in 2011. The elected representatives meet for the first time on 23 January 2012 and the Council transfers legislative authority to them.

A presidential election follows in the summer of 2012. It is won by Mohamed Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. In December demonstrators demand the resignation of Morsi after he grants himself powers to introduce legislation without any judicial oversight or powers of address. This raises fears that he intends to use these powers to move the country in the direction of the fundamentalist Islamic rule favoured by the Muslim Brotherhood.

By the summer of 2013 the level of demonstration around the country is so high, with violent clashes between groups against and in support of Morsi, that the army intervenes and removes him from office, keeping him in detention. The military leaders insist that their intention is once again to bring the country as quickly as possible to parliamentary rule. But their methods of keeping order at a time of unrest are brutal. On August 14 they declare a state of emergency. On the following day there are large demonstrations by Muslim supporters of Morsi. The soldiers use live rounds to disperse the crowd and in doing so kill about 600 demonstrators.
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