Egyptian history is inextricably tied to the Nile. The river’s fertile banks gave birth to the world’s first nation state and a powerful civilisation that invented writing and erected the first stone monuments. The river has been the source of economic, social, political and religious life since the area was first settled. Around 5000 years ago the independent riverfront states were unified under the rule of Menes, giving rise to the first dynasty of pharaohs.
The pharaohs were considered divine and they ruled over a highly stratified society. The first pyramid was built in the 27th century BC; over the next 500 years the monuments grew increasingly grander. Monarchical power was at its greatest during the 4th dynasty when Khufu, Khafre and Mycerinus built the Great Pyramids of Giza. Through the 6th and 7th dynasties power was diffused and small principalities began to appear. A second capital at Heracleopolis (near present-day Beni Suef) was established and Egypt plunged into civil war.
An independent kingdom was established at Thebes (present-day Luxor) and, under Montuhotep II, Egypt again came under control of a single pharaoh. From 1550 to 1069 BC, the New Kingdom bloomed under rulers such as Tuthmosis I, the first pharaoh to be entombed in the Valley of the Kings; his daughter Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s few female pharaohs; and Tuthmosis III, Egypt’s greatest conqueror, who expanded the empire into western Asia.
Amenhotep IV renounced the teachings of the priesthood and took on the title of Akhenaten in honour of Aten, the disc of the rising sun. He and his wife Nefertiti established a new capital called Akhetaten devoted solely to the new god. Akhenaten’s son by a minor wife was Tutankhamun, who ruled Egypt for nine years then died while still a teenager. Thereafter, Egypt was ruled by generals: Ramses I, II and III, and Seti I. They built massive monuments and temples, but the empire began to crumble and it was in disarray when the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great arrived in 332 BC and established a new capital.
Under Ptolemy I, Alexandria became a great city. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt for 300 years, but their reign was plagued by great rivalries amongst the nobles and many people were exiled and assassinated. Meanwhile an expanded Roman empire began taking an interest in Egypt and the scene was set for one of the ancient world’s more celebrated soap operas.
Between 51 and 48 BC, Egypt was ruled by Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VIII, when Julius Caesar sent his rival, Pompey, from Rome to watch over them. Ptolemy XIII had Pompey killed and banished Cleopatra. Julius Caesar came to Egypt, threw Ptolemy into the Nile, appointed another of Cleopatra’s brothers, Ptolemy XIV, as joint leader, and became Cleopatra’s lover. In 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son and two years later had her brother killed. Caesar was assassinated the following year. Marc Antony – one of the triumvirate that succeeded Caesar – came from Rome and he and Cleopatra fell in love. An unhappy Roman senate sent Octavian to deal with Marc Antony 10 years later. Following the defeat of their naval forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide, after which Egypt became part of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire fell apart in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and Nubians, north Africans and Persians invaded. Despite this, Egypt was relatively stable until AD 640 when the Arabs arrived. The Arabs brought Islam to Egypt and established Fustat (on the site of present-day Cairo) as the seat of an unstable government. Ultimately it was the Fatimids who came to control Egypt, building the city of Al-Qahira (Cairo). Egypt prospered under the Fatimids and Cairo became a thriving metropolis.
Western European Christians seized much of the weakening Fatimid Empire in the Crusades of the 11th century, but in 1187 the Syrian-based Seljuks sent an army into Egypt and Salah ad-Din (Saladin) fortified Cairo and expelled the Crusaders from Jerusalem. Salah ad-Din enlisted Mamluks (Turkish mercenaries), but they ended up overthrowing his dynasty and ruled for two and a half centuries before Egypt fell to the Turks in 1517. Since most of the Mamluks were of Turkish descent, the Turkish Ottoman sultans, based in Constantinople, largely left the governing of Egypt to the Mamluks and restricted themselves to collecting taxes. This continued until Napoleon invaded in 1798, only to be ousted by the British in 1801, who were in turn expelled by Mohammed Ali, a lieutenant in the Albanian contingent of the Ottoman army. Said Pasha, Ali’s grandson, opened the Suez Canal in 1869.
Crippling national debt enabled British and French controllers to install themselves in 1879, and the British terminated the suzerainty that Turkey had over Egypt. During WWI Egypt aligned itself with the Allies, and shortly afterwards the British allowed the formation of a national political party – the Wafd. King Fuad I was elected head of the constitutional monarchy and for the next 30 years the British, the monarchists and the Wafdists jockeyed for power. The Arab League was founded after WWII by seven Arab countries, including Egypt, but the war had left Egypt in a shambles, and its defeat in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence saw the chaos escalate. In 1952 a group of dissident military officers, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, orchestrated a bloodless coup. The British and French were loathe to relinquish control, so they invaded. The USA and the Soviet Union joined the United Nations-deployed peacekeepers and insisted that the invaders should leave. Nasser became a hero, particularly among Arabs.
Nasser attempted to unite Egypt, Syria, Yemen and later Iraq in the late 1950s, emphasising Arab unity and demonising Israel. Following months of heightening tension between Egypt and Israel, the Jewish state attacked on 5 June 1967, starting the Six Day War. Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force, captured Sinai and closed the Suez Canal.
Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s vice president, took over from Nasser when he died in 1970, and set about improving relations with the west. On 6 October 1973, the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Egypt launched a surprise attack on the Israeli occupiers of Sinai. Its army initially beat back the much better armed Israelis; although these initial gains were later reversed, the ceasefire agreement favoured Egyptian interests. In 1977 Sadat began making peace with Israel, leading to the 1979 Camp David Agreement. Israel agreed to withdraw from Sinai, and Egypt officially recognised Israel. Many in the Arab world felt Sadat had betrayed them, and he was assassinated on 6 October 1981.
Husni Mubarak, Sadat’s vice president, was sworn in and has been the country’s leader ever since. Mubarak has surprised many with his deft political footwork in the troubled region, improving relations with Israel and other Arab states. With the rise of fundamentalism in the Arab world, Mubarak’s position has at times been precarious and he has suffered numerous attempts on his life. He sent 35,000 troops to fight against Iraq in the Gulf War, and although the war was seen as western imperialists fighting Arabs, Egypt’s commitment proved useful in improving its relations with the west.
In 1992 Islamic fundamentalists began a campaign of violence and intimidation against tourists and Egyptian security forces. The mid-1990s were characterised by tensions with Sudan over the contested Halaib territory, severe flooding in 1994 and a series of conflicts with fundamentalists culminating in an assassination attempt on President Mubarak in 1995. In 1997, the massacre of more than 70 people, most of them tourists, by Islamic militants shocked Egyptians and caused thousands worldwide to rethink their holiday plans. The subsequent government crackdown has contained the violence somewhat, and with low unemployment, rising literacy rates and increasing privatisation of the economy, Egypt remains relatively stable.