Do you know why, of all the truly ancient cultures, Egypt is the one we remember the best? Oh sure, sure, we can discuss Greece and Rome, and all the other subsequent world powers, but I am talking about deep, long and incredibly distant history–Old Testament times, and before. Rome cannot help but be mixed up with the rise of Christianity, and Greece is bypassed in legendary mythology, where the realities are shrouded in magic, the truth and fantasy commingled into uncertainty.
But Egypt–Egypt, for all of her own Book of the Dead mysticism (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780486218663&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), one cannot doubt that the ancient Egyptians had the first truly great historians as a part of their culture. And while the Romans perfected this style of remembrance, the evolution of language serving them much better in the more partisan and highly politicized world of the future, everything started with Egypt. Humanity emerged from the center of Africa, but true civilization comes from the Northern tip of the continent.
Egypt fascinates me, as I’m sure it does a number of you. Take a look at those endlessly familiar images:
What is one supposed to say about this? How can the modern world compete with such ageless wonder?
Years ago, back when I was working towards my teaching certification, I worked as a ‘fine dining’ catering bartender (a top shelf purveyor at a card table in the corner, serving extremely wealthy people and celebrities fancy cocktails at weddings and award ceremonies). The primary location of my job was the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. This was a glorious place, endlessly fascinating, and the home to some truly ancient relics. The main room that most of the parties were held in was called the Chinese Rotunda, an incredibly high-ceilinged chamber featuring swords and spears and daggers, as well as 3000 year old statues of Asian lions that were once worshiped as gods (as an aside, some of the terrible people who went to these parties would bring their small children, who were both bored and overwhelmed by the majesty of what was before them. Some of them wanted to climb up on these deities. Some of the parents even encouraged this, assuming that such blasphemy would make a cute picture. The fact that these relics were covered with signs stating outright “DO NOT TOUCH,” as well as, like I said, that fact that 3000 years ago numerous people lay prostrate before these idols and prayed for salvation in a barbaric world, sickened me. I once yelled at a parent, screaming “That used to be someone’s god! Get your kid off of it!”)
In the next room over there was a crowded wing on ancient Egypt–hieroglyphics on stone tablets and walls, incomprehensible dictates from some forgotten Pharaoh promoting literacy and, oh yeah, a huge graveyard behind glass filled with mummies.
This is where I worked, for several years. This is what I did:
For the last image I was actually there, although not pictured. To the deep sides and pockets, buried beneath spruce trees, a number of tables were set up, some offering savory appetizers, others, like where I worked, were makeshift bars, complete with every sort of booze you can think of, and the capacity to make those obscure, pretentious drinks to keep the unbelievably wealthy people who could afford to be married there feeling like the elitists they otherwise were in their everyday lives.
But Egypt is not about these memories, about the commercialization of a land that once upon a time ruled the world. Without going through an endless list of the man-gods who ruled this place, nor a deep discussion of the hierarchy within their polytheistic religion (those stories have been repeatedly told by people who have spent their lives researching this, instead of the week of cultural reality I have immersed myself in), I would prefer to focus on the practical changes wrought by the modernization that came to their world through the ages.
Scientists believe that the history of civilization in Egypt goes all the way back to 40,000 BC. Sophisticated tools have been recovered that date from this time. Back then they were a loose-knit community of hunter-gatherers, feasting mostly on those fabled creatures long since extinct (I suspect the true reason for their eradication was because they were really tasty.) By 6,000 BC this land had formed into the first known civilization (other parts of the world still existed in prehistory). Divided, yes, as travel was mostly walking, this vast land was home to numerous independent societies that developed tools, pottery, and built structures of greater magnitude than anything else discovered from so long ago. Their written language of hieroglyphics was developed before 3,200 BC. Well before this the Egyptians had formed their own system of faith, depicting their many gods within a symbolic language, and telling the stories of where they came from and how the world came to be.
By 3150 BC a tyrant named Narmer had risen to the top of society through sheer barbarity and a cunning intelligence. He managed to somehow unify the whole nation into one protectorate under his absolute rule. His dynasty lasted all the way up to the 6th Century BC, when the Persians from what is now Iran invaded and conquered the land, imposing an entirely new, yet otherwise familiar way of life.
Years and years of battles then took place for possession of this pre-Christian holy land, the Jews having emerged long since, with their own stories of prophets, and a challenge to the polytheistic faith with their a One True God. They served as the slaves, building the famous pyramids and most of the other wonders of the ancient world. By the time Rome took over in 30 BC, the future emperor Augustus defeating Mark Antony and eliminated Cleopatra, Egypt had become the crown jewel of the Roman empire, providing enough grain to feed the world. The subsequent emperors succeeded the pharaohs as man-gods, and replaced the similar religion with their own.
Religion during this period of time among the Egyptian population focused on whatever remained of the old ways, unifying for a short while in the worship of animal cults, primarily cats.
And yet by 42 AD Mark the Evangelist founded the first Christian center in the world in Alexandria.
Christianity spread rapidly with surprisingly little resistance. The long civilized people seemed to understand that their world was profoundly changing, and many were looking forward to it. For so many generations they had endured the ravages of modernization and no one on earth was more prepared to confront this.
Over the next few hundred years, as the wars of Christianity increased, bloodying the entire world, suppressed cult worship of the old gods began to expand once again. Isis seemed to be the central focus of these people, and many times when they were rounded up and slaughtered by the Christian authorities they were fully engaged in massive orgies.
By 414 AD the Jews came under harsh treatment again, when Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria, issued an order to expel all Jews from the city. He declared that the Jews were guilty of nighttime murder sprees against Christians. They were rounded up by rampaging mobs, beaten, killed, and thrown out into the desert or into the sea.
The following year this action was condemned by many of the leading intellectuals of Alexandria, including the governor of the province Orestes
and the first female philosopher and mathematician recorded in history (and Orestes’ closest confident), Hypatia.
Riots broke out in Alexandria, mostly among the remaining Jews, several of who actual did start murdering Christians in their sleep. It had been under the authority of Orestes to expel the murderers, but that was when Cyril took over, imposing religious rule over politics. Cyril, who today is considered a saint within the Catholic church, is said to have tried to reconcile with Orestes by offering him a gilded bible, which was refused. Now, with the Jews still rioting, the Christians also turned against Orestes.
Eventually Orestes abandoned his post, leaving a theocracy run by Cyril in its place. This was the direct result of Hypatia being grabbed out of her chariot as she was going to visit her imperial friend by a Christian mob. They dragged her body through the street, hacking her to pieces and encouraging the fanatical public to join in. The pieces of her were gathered up and thrown outside the city walls, where they were burned until nothing remained. This was the end of popular paganism in Egypt.
In the early 7th Century the Persians were on the rise once again. Their Byzantine empire had been expanding throughout southern Europe and into Asia, with the conquer of Constantinople proving the highlight of Emperor Maurice’s campaign.
In 602 Maurice and his six sons were killed by the army of power-mad future emperor Phocas.
Maurice had left his land deeply in debt, and this was only exacerbated by the brutal reign of Phocas, who treated all people of Constantinople as slaves. By 610 other ruling powers had finally had enough of Phocas and several of the emperor’s own advisers pleaded with the influencial Heraclius the Elder to save the besieged city.
Heraclius was a Byzantine general most noted for leading the campaign of Alexandria, where he was based. Upon meeting with Phocas’ cousin Nicetas for verification of the emperor’s crimes, Heraclius went with his navy to one of the two capitals of Byzantine, Thessalonica in Greece, and then on into Constantinople, where two days after his arrival Phocas was deposed, Heraclius was named emperor and the former ruler was executed in the matter of hours.
These events, within twenty years, provided the ground for the birth of Islam, a political movement and violent slave rebellion alongside a new faith set upon taking over the world. By 641 Muslim invaders conquered Alexandria, then fought back and forth for control of Egypt for the next six years until they finally converted the masses, thus ending nearly a thousand years of Greco-Roman rule over Egypt.
The Muslims founded a new capital city in Egypt, which they named Fustat,
founding the Mosque of Amr, the first such shine in all of Africa. Later, during the Crusades, the entire town was destroyed, laying waste to everything.
In the distance here you can see Cairo, which was built upon the ruins.
By the 9th century Egypt was consumed with widespread wars and revolutions against the ruling parties. In 828 a man named Abdallah ibn Tahir resumed the Roman idea of Governorship, although he ruled from faraway Baghdad, sending several administrators to handle the revolts as they saw fit. Several of these men converted to the other side, while most of them sent armies to quell the masses. As with many in Islamic tradition, there are no images to be found of this man, as this was considered blasphemy.
The idea of forming a true Caliphate began to sweep Egypt and most of the rest of the Islamic world around this time. Warring dynasties of slightly different Islamic sects began vying for control of the people, imposing various forms of religious laws meant to keep the people from revolting, and suppress any ideas on disloyalty. It was also then that the construction of Cairo began, with the intention of making it both the home of the formed caliphate and the most holy city in the world.
The rules of these numerous dynasties lasted for over six centuries. In the late 13th century Islamic Egypt had reached the peek of its power, having developed military technology comparable to the most powerful nations then in existence. They managed to claim the Red Sea, and conquer India and surrounding areas. They were set upon taking over the world. And then the Black Death came, obliterating more than forty percent of the entire population of Egypt.
It was in 1517 that the Ottoman Turks took control of Egypt. The Ottoman empire cared little for the people of the nation, and they denounced their form of Islam as heresy. They maintained an armed, short-tempered military presence throughout the land, and ransacked nearly every granary and well, taking everything for themselves.
With the collapse of both the economy and entire social structure Egypt fell into perhaps the hardest times they ever suffered. First off, Portugal took control of the trade routes they had dominated for thousands of years, and then nearly fifty years of famine devastated the population.
Things did not improve much for the Egyptians as more and more invaders arrived to make life increasingly miserable. The greatest famine in the nation’s history occurred in 1784, which saw at least one-sixth of the population die from hunger and disease.
It was not until 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte led France to war with the Ottoman empire, that things began to change. Napoleon’s chief interest in Egypt was not, in fact, claiming that nation (although he was proud to have done so), but to block one of Britain’s chief access routes to India. This invasion led to a new unity among the people, a black market network distributing weapons to people all around Cairo, who were swearing by the Prophet Muhammad that they would kill any Frenchman they encountered. This was the same idea the French had, and so the year 1798 became one of the most violent in Egyptian history.
Also during this time the fabled Rosetta stone was discovered, leading scientists to believe they had uncovered the true meaning of all the ancient writings.
In Great Britain, which defeated France in 1801, the field of Egyptology took hold on many of the greatest minds, re-imagining the history and mythology of the land, and given it a western flair that still exists in the studies of today (for example, this entire history is influenced and inspired, unquestionably, by western historical narratives.)
A power vacuum was now at the head of Egypt and a three-sided civil war erupted between the Ottoman Turks, the Egyptian Mamluks, who had been the previous indigenous rulers of the nation for centuries before the Ottomans arrived, an a roving mercenary band of Albanians, who had once been in the service of the Ottomans, but went independent upon the French invasion. These barbarians attempted to pass themselves off as liberators and found a large following among the increasingly angry and violated population of growing Islamic fanatics.
In 1805 power was finally seized by Muhammad Ali Pasha, an Albanian who organized the slaughter of all those who fought against him. He started a dynasty which ruled Egypt until 1952.
Pasha ruled over Egypt for nearly 43 years. He attempted to keep peace with the Ottomans, declaring himself still in their service, but he independently sent his armies out to conquer Sudan, Syria, some of Saudi Arabia, and Anatolia. In Europe they were nervous that he was attempting to replace the Ottoman empire, surrounding them with his own territories, and they threatened him until Pasha agreed to return some of the territory to his nominal masters.
Under Pasha the economy of Egypt greatly improved, the increase in salable crops one of the primary successes of his reign. He also modernized the army into a significant world power, gathering a large portion of the population into compulsory military service to fight endless wars of conquest.
Towards the end of his life Muhammad Ali Pasha came to resemble many of the modern dictators in his growing paranoia and increasingly irrational demands of those under him. He berated his sons, who were looking to succeed him, declared that they were sick and weak and dying and unable to understand what it takes to rule over a nation of such power.
In 1848 Pasha was without question senile, known to gibber in unknowable languages, in moments of clarity stating that he could see the archangel Gabriel, and even going so far as to declare himself the Mahdi. When he finally died his grandson, the future ruler Abbas I, who hated his grandfather, had him quickly buried in a mosque, declared no time of mourning, nor public celebration of his life. After a year of family fights with older relatives, Abbas came to power.
The civil wars continued until 1863 (Abbas I was murdered by two of his slaves in 1854), until the man who came to be known as Ismail the Magnificent took over in January of 1863.
Ismail is most noted for his development of Egyptian science, his dedication to the education of youth (both boys and girls, rich or poor) and his banning of slavery. He even founded a new national library, filled with more than just sacred and ancient texts. He announced that by the 20th century he wanted Egypt to be 100% literate.
Of course, for all these noble endeavors, Ismail was still a conqueror at heart. Under the guise of humanitarian advancement of the end of slavery, Egypt swept into more and more African nations, Ismail’s dream being to rule every country that bordered the Nile River. The war with Ethiopia is particularly notable.
After gobbling up most of the remaining land of the waning Ottoman Empire in Africa, Egypt was ready to claim the entire continent. They ravaged and rampaged, eventually taking Darfur, and waiting on the outside of the far better supplied nation of Ethiopia, ruled at that time by a man with similar tastes for conquest, Yohannas IV, who had taken over the nation in a military coup.
The small band of Egyptian soldiers trekked through narrow mountain passes, figuring that within days they would have another land for their empire. What they encountered was a huge mass of Ethiopian warriors, hiding for hours upon seeing the men. They raced down to meet them. To a man, this entire Egyptian army was either killed or surrendered. Not a single soldier or weapon ever made its way back home.
This rout had a devastating effect back home, Ismail for the first time being looked upon with grave doubts. After a second expedition was similarly defeated, led by Ismail’s son Bogos, the leader was being roundly denounced. His son had been captured and held for a huge ransom for more than eight years, eventually being converted to the variant Ethiopian form of Islam then being practiced. This conflict was finally settled in 1884 with British assistance.
Ismail was also a major player in the development and building of the Suez canal, the most significant trading gate in the history of the world to that point, connecting the Northern Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean and Red Seas, along with the Indian Ocean. Yet these developments occurred well before the loses to Ethiopia.
Because of the enormous debts Egypt incurred to England during the war with Ethiopia, the British started oozing into the nation once more, financial issues overcoming, then dominating all interest in nations and religion and politics. The Bank of England took over the debts and rendered Egypt, which at the start of Ismail’s reign had fought for freedom from Ottoman and European forces, completely dependent on the UK.
In 1879 a revolt within the place deposed Ismail, who was exiled to a palatial estate in southern Italy with much of Egypt’s remaining riches. His eldest son, Tewfik Pasha, made a deal to serve as the regional leader upon the removal of his father from power. His own reign is unremarkable.
Ismail died shortly after he was allowed to return to his quiet castle in Constantinople, purportedly choking to death while attempting to guzzle two bottles of champagne at the same time.
In 1906 a nationalist movement rose up against the British with an ordeal known as the Denshawai incident. This was when a group of arrogant British soldiers decided to start hunting pigeon for sport on a crowded beach. When confronted by several outraged Egyptians, a fight broke out, which eventually led to one of the soldier’s guns going off (he claimed unintentionally, but even his fellow soldiers disputed this), wounding a woman. This led to a riot, where the soldiers eventually fled, one of them exhausted by the sun, racing out into the blazing desert heat. He collapsed and died, both of his injuries as well as dehydration. When one of the locals stopped to try and help the man, he was arrested and accused of murder. He was beaten to death on the spot.
The following day the British army arrived and they arrested fifty-two people, all of them known leaders of the nationalist movement, and nearly all of them not present at the previous day’s incident. Half of them were whipped and sentenced to hard labor. The rest were sentenced to death. One of these men, Hassan Mahfouz, was hanged in front of his own house with his wife and children screaming.
Another one of the executed, the man named Darweesh, was heard to have said on the gallows, “May God compensate us well for this world of meanness, for this world of injustice, for this world of cruelty.”
World War One made Egypt ever more dependent on Britain for protection. With German incursions on the rise and growing international interest in the ancient culture of the land, they were under constant threat. Their weapons remained in the hands of their protectors, a few loyalists given power over the radicalizing masses.
After World War II came and went, most of the Egyptian involvement involving mystical Nazis interested in exploring the ancient sites in search of magic weapons, British control rapidly collapsed. In 1952 a military coup overthrew the last Sultan of Egypt, Farouk.
The idea of the coup was far more political than it first came across, the leaders of the revolution interested in forming a constitutional republic modeled on the United States. This corresponded, also, with a further rise in fundamentalist Islam, mostly as a result of horror over the formation of Israel. By 1956 Egypt was invaded by England, France and Israel in what has come to be known as the Suez Crisis.
While this was a tremendously deadly conflict, in the end it left Egypt completely in charge of the canal.
The leader of the 1952 revolution was Gamal Abdel Nasser,
a man of great prominence and importance in the history of the second half of the 20th century. In 1954 the then president of Egypt, Mohamed Naguib,
asked the radical Muslim Brotherhood to assassinate Nasser. After they failed, and Nasser, an Islamic moderate, cracked down on the terrorist organization, he had Naguib arrested and took control of Egypt until formally elected in 1956.
Without going too far into Nasser’s legacy (this essay is already very long, and that history could add nearly as much as has thus far been written), it is important to note a few things. Here, a bullet list:
- Helped found the United Arab Republic with the goal of unifying the neighboring nations under cooperative policies.
- Adopted a policy of Neutralism on the escalating feud between India and Pakistan
- Influenced by growing socialist tendencies, he abolished all political parties except for his own, convincing much of the nation that they were better off under him, which turned out to be true for most.
- Inspired revolutionaries throughout the Arab world, who repeatedly overthrew tyrants and kings, seeking to model their new governments on Nasser’s example.
- Was referenced as a primary influence in the Algerian revolution against France in 1962.
- Saw the Arab world collapsing as repeated revolutions and counter-revolutions spread through the area, more of the subsequent leaders seeming to be modeled on Joseph Stalin than Nasser.
- Continued his socialist nationalization programs, incorporating nearly every national resource into the people’s hands, giving the profits from these endeavors as tax breaks to the public, which made him very popular.
- Saw Egypt humiliated in the Six-Day War with Israel, when, upon being warned by the Soviets that Israel was about to attack Syria, Nasser did his best to protect his Arab ally. This led to Israel invading Egypt too, briefly. Nasser went on television to announce the defeat, and stated he was resigning his post. Popular protests broke out, the citizens pleading with him to remain in office, which he did. Meanwhile, Anwar Sadat,
- declared that Nasser had lost his mind, and was becoming increasingly irrational. Some of Sadat’s followers even denounced Nasser as anti-Muslim.
- Attempted to recapture the territories lost in the Six-Day War in a conflict known as The War of Attrition. This proved to be a back and forth stalemate, mostly, with the United States finally coming in to help with the peace process. Their ideas were rejected because it was all about recapturing the Suez Canal. Eventually Israel and Egypt signed a cease fire agreement (not a peace treaty). Meanwhile the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was gaining power throughout Jordan and much of the rest of the region, turning the entire middle east into a bubbling cauldron of religious fanaticism and hatred.
- Died of a heart attack in 1970, probably as a result of untreated diabetes and heavy smoking.
Anwar Sadat took over Egypt after Nasser, and his first move was to renounce the Soviet Union that Nasser had been aligned with, and to welcome the United States as Egypt’s new sugar daddy. Sadat expelled the Soviet diplomats entirely in 1972, shortly before launching the October War–also known as the Yom Kipper War–in 1973.
At the beginning of this brief conflict Egypt was very impressive. Israel, not used to losing a single battle, was baffled by the calls for retreat, some of the soldiers abandoning the army to form Zionist cells (eventually known as West Bank Settlers). But in the end Israel prevailed, as even Sadat likely suspected they would. But the results worked out as a compromise. The conflict, ultimately another stalemate, was far more complicated because of the presence of Syria. Israel took much of their frustrations out upon Syria, which was admittedly transforming into an Islamic death cult, fundamentalists gaining power in these years before the Iranian Revolution. Israel pushed Syria back into a smaller territory, further enraging the already enraged people.
Egypt broke the ceasefire, which had been rapidly put together at the United Nations, and went ahead in an effort to defend their ally. This lead to some of the bloodiest days in Middle Eastern history.
There were heavy casualties on both sides, and a general exhaustion with war on every side (other nations involved in this war in one way or another included Jordan, Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria and Cuba, and always with the hovering presence of both the United States and the Soviet Union backing the opposing sides) led to an agreement that finally culminated in 1978 at the Camp David Accords. This was a ground-breaking effort at peace, US President Jimmy Carter’s finest accomplishment, and a deal which led to both Sadat and then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sharing the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite the fact that this deal was celebrated around the world (and even by the majority of Egyptians), many of the nations of the Islamic world felt betrayed, which led to Egypt being expelled from the very Arab league that they had helped start years before. Peace was shaky in the homeland, with food shortages, occasional looting and riots, as well as radical Islamic recruitment efforts emanating from Iran. In 1981 Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a group of fanatics who had declared war on everyone not a true believer.
The result of Sadat’s assassination cannot be understated. This event led to the birth of numerous worldwide Islamic terrorist groups, including the earliest germs of Al Quida, co-founder Ayman al-Zawahiri among the more than 1500 people arrested in the chaotic crackdown. al-Zawahiri was recorded shouting in English from a crowded prison cell to the hordes of press passing through. He declared that worldwide jihad was underway.
Then Hosni Mubarak took over.
Mubarak was a true dictator, a cruel, petty, vicious man who ruled Egypt for 29 years.
Mubarak had been Sadat’s vice-president, and had even been injured during the assassination. But when the government was pieced back together there was no one willing to run against him for president. Subsequent elections displayed the typical tyranny of the strongman: 99% of the electoral returns, numerous last minute allegations and scandals–even the arrest of political rivals leading up to election day.
Peppered by scandal and allegations of wide-spread corruption, Mubarak remained outside of the dirty work of his instructions, always clean and well-dressed, never even seeming to sweat when meeting some of the top leaders in the world.
Mubarak fell once the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 got underway. The protests, part of the Arab Spring that had spread throughout the entire region, were especially emphatic against Mubarak, who declared that he would not run for re-election later that year. This was not good enough for the protesters, some of whom were getting violent, riots spreading, people getting killed. Mubarak finally resigned in February, and was forced to stand trial in May for corruption, murder, and treason, among other crimes. The old man fell ill, and was commanded to sit in a cage during his trial, saying nothing, laying in a bed and listening to the ranting of many of the people who hated him for both real and purely political reasons.
Mubarak was at first found guilty, followed by his sons, but after a series of re-trials he was finally set free in 2017.
Egypt today is both an open, wonderful place, a product of its deep, dark and glorious history, as well as a troubling symbol of the dangers of both the ancient and modern world. The current president–who has stated openly that he has ambitions to remain in office until at least 2034, is a slimy, toad of a man named Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
He has made no excuses nor even evaded the charge that he wishes to be a dictator-for-life. His true intentions can only be hinted at, however, as he is still relatively new to the game. But his laughter in the photo above, beside a smug Donald Trump, cannot bode anything good. It seems too genuine and, looking at the apparent indifference on the US President’s face, this sort of ebullience has nothing to do with jokes. It can only come from promises, from an easy solution to a problem that had been worrisome. And this is where Egypt hovers today, on the edge of a new sort of fundamentalist futurity.
©2019 Lance Polin