Ancient region and modern nation, one of the earliest great cradles of civilization, located on the NE coast of Africa, along the fertile valley of the Nile River. It is now the Arab Republic of Egypt.
Egypt first coalesced into a nation c. 3100 b.c. when Menes united the two states of Upper and Lower Egypt and made his capital at Memphis. During the next 400 years Egyptian civilization flourished, developing writing, distinctive architecture, and a complex governmental bureaucracy. The period from 2700 to 2200 b.c. is known as the Old Kingdom and was characterized by the erection of massive pyramids honoring the ruling god-kings as well as by the construction of substantial irrigation projects along the Nile. The Old Kingdom ended in disunity and civil war, and Egypt was not reunited until 2050 b.c. when nobles from Thebes created the Middle Kingdom, from 2050 to 1800 b.c. During this epoch Egypt extended its control into present Nubia, Syria, and Israel. The Hyksos, a Semitic people from the NE, invaded Egypt in the 17th century b.c., employing advanced military techniques. They were expelled after a tenure of c. 100 years.
Circa 1570 b.c. the early New Kingdom brought prosperity and expansion to Egypt. Queen Hatshepsut, heiress of Thutmose I, ruled in the late 15th century with her husband and half-brother, Thutmose III, building temples, on one of which is depicted an expedition to Punt. She was the mother of Amenhotep II. Under Thutmose III Egypt achieved its greatest territorial extent, reaching to Hittite Anatolia and E toward Mesopotamia. In this period, probably under Ramses II, the Hebrews fled Egypt in the biblical Exodus. The kingdom was rocked c. 1370 b.c. when Amenhotep IV ascended the throne. He changed his name to Akhenaton, moved his capital to Akhetaton, now called Tell al Amarna, and attempted to transform Egypt’s religious structure to the worship of one god, Aton, the sun. After Akhenaton’s death the priesthood quickly revived its traditional worship and control and the capital was returned to Thebes. The later New Kingdom, from 1300 to 1090 b.c., was prosperous and successfully fended off attacks by Hittites, Philistines, and other powerful kingdoms. One of the last pharaohs of the New Kingdom was the well-known “boy king,” Tutankhamen, actually an insignificant ruler.
By the beginning of the 11th century b.c. Egypt was a competitor in a world armed with iron weapons. The country had no domestic source of iron and gradually lost its foreign possessions. In 945 b.c. Egypt itself fell under the control of a succession of rulers from Libya, Sudan, Assyria, and Persia. In 332 b.c. Alexand er the Great of Macedon took the country, and after his death control passed to the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies, originating with one of his generals. Egypt flourished under Ptolemaic rule, and the new capital at Alexand ria became the religious and intellectual center of Western civilization. The Ptolemaic dynasty ended with Cleopatra’s death after the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c., when Egypt became a province of Rome.
In a.d. 395 the Byzantine Empire inherited Egypt and ruled it until 639, when an Arab invasion sponsored by Baghdad commenced. Alexand ria fell in a.d. 642, and Islam became the dominant religion in a country that had earlier been a center of Coptic Christianity. In 969 the Tunisian Fatimid dynasty conquered Egypt. A new capital was founded at Cairo, which quickly became a major Islamic center. In 1171 the Muslim warrior Saladin seized the throne, and his successors held it until 1250, when the sultan’s bodyguard revolted and founded the Mamluk Empire. The Mamluks retained practical power in Egypt even after it became a possession of the Ottoman Empire in 1517. In 1805 an Albanian officer of the Ottoman army, named Mehmet (Mohammad) Ali, seized the throne and broke the Mamluk power. During his rule he introduced cotton-growing, modernized Egypt’s armed forces, and revitalized the commercial and educational systems.
The Suez Canal was built by a French company between 1859 and 1869. Great Britain bought out Egypt’s interest in 1875 and in 1881 sent troops to put down a nationalist uprising that threatened their investment. Occupied since 1882, in 1914 Egypt became a British protectorate when the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in World War I, and in 1922 it was granted independence as a kingdom. British and German troops fought tank battles across western Egypt in World War II. In 1953 the country became a republic, and Gamal Abdel Nasser quickly assumed power. Antagonism toward the new state of Israel was the major influence in modern Egypt’s history as it became the leading proponent of nonaligned Arab unity.
In 1958 Syria and Yemen joined with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (UAR), but the union dissolved in 1961. In 1967 the Suez Canal was closed when the Six-Day War brought humiliating defeat as Israel outmatched Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces and seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Nasser died in 1970 and was succeeded by Anwar el Sadat. Another full-scale war with Israel erupted in 1973, and part of the Sinai was initially recaptured by Egypt. Negotiations brought about a further Israeli withdrawal, and in 1975 the canal was reopened. In 1979 Sadat established friendly relations with Israel, in response to the persuasion of U.S. president Jimmy Carter, breaking with the rest of the Arab world. Sadat was assassinated by a fundamentalist Arab group in 1981, and Hosni Mubarak then became president. In 1989 Israel returned Taba Strip, its last occupied territory in the Sinai. In 1991 Egypt supported the United States in the Gulf War and in return the United States cancelled $7 billion in Egyptian debt. In the 1990s terrorist violence from Islamic fundamentalists killed more than 1,000 Egyptians. In 1997 an attack on tourists visiting the Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor claimed some 70 lives. The government cracked down on the militants and over 25,000 were jailed and dozens sentenced to death. In 1999, Mubarak was reelected. In the early 2000s, there were calls for political reform, and in 2005 Mubarak called for a constitutional amendment to permit the direct election of the president from among a multiparty slate, but with some restrictions on the cand idates.