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All About Egypt (Masr), Ancient Egyptian History, Pharaohs and Pyramids
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Egypt presents the visitor with many striking contrasts, particularly in its landscape and in the ancient, Christian and Islamic elements of its heritage. Signs of Westernization and tradition are sometimes found in startlingly incongruous juxtaposition, bur more usually the new is adapted to blend harmoniously with the old. The country itself is united by the great river which flows down its entire length, and which indeed the creator of the country.

Without the Nile Egypt would not exist. Along its banks the majority of the people live and cultivate the land as their ancestors have done for thousands of year. This narrow, fertile valley is flanked by the desert- a desert which is always threatening to take over the cultivation. Today controlled by dams and barrages, the Nile no longer floods the country every year. The building of the High Dam at Aswan flooded the whole of the Nile valley between Aswan and the frontier with Sudan, creating Lake Nasser. Preserved from the threat of devastating floods, Egypt is now protected from the dangers of famine by the regulation of the water.

The two branches of the Nile, one rising in the highlands of Ethiopia, the other in Lake Vectoria, unite at Khartoum. Flowing north through the deserts of Nubia and punctuated by the rocky Cataracts, the river enters Egypt at the Second Cataract. Aswan itself stands on the First Cataract, the final great bands of granite to break the river's northward course. The Cataract created many rapids and islands which, until the end of the last century, made travel dangerous.

Egypt has a landscape which is surprisingly varide, but all of the terrain derives from a combination of water and sky, cultivation and desert. North of Aswan the river flows on without further interruption to navigation through the orange sandstone hills of Nubia, were the cultivation in many places is confined to a narrow strip by the water's edge. The forked trunk of the dom-palm and the misty foliage of the tamarisk relieve the barrenness. After the fertile open plain at Kom Ombo the sandstone hills close in, forcing the river through the gorge of Silsila before giving way to the limestone cliffs which will form the valley as for as the Delta. Broad but shallow, the river meanders between these cliffs, sometimes in the center of the valley, sometimes hugging the cliff close to one side. Throughout Upper and Middle Egypt the floodplain is broad, and the cultivation rich: there are fields of wheat and sugar cane, and groves of palm trees everywhere. In the Faiyum the lushness increases. Roads run between orchards which are enclosed by high mud-brick walls crowned with dried palm fronds. Within the orchards, a dappled light filters through the palm trees, shady walkways are canopied with vines and roses, and flanked by orange and lemon trees, mango and banana. The quiet is disturbed only by the cooing of turtle doves and pigeons, perhaps the iridescent green flash of a bee-eater, or the call of the hoopoe.

All cultivation stops as one approaches the shores of the eeria Lake Qarun. Flat and salty, the narrow lake is long from east to west, its far shore an unbroken band of desert. North of Cairo the Delta opens out, its roads lined with tamarisk and eucalyptus trees which meet overhead. Its open fields with scattered palm trees and, in the distance, denser groves, have a breadth not found elsewhere in Egypt. The village, houses, in many places still built from sun-dried mud brick, belong to the landscape, appearing to have grown out of the ground itself. Strung out along the edge of the irrigation canals, or built close together in narrow, twisting streets, the villages have a quiet dignity. Cairo, with its tower blocks, its flyovers and ceaseless traffic, is like modern cities the world over. But amongst all this rush and bustle the life of the village has been transferred to the city in the street-side cafes and markets, and in the presence of goats weaving their way through the traffic.

The mighty monuments of the pharaohs and of the Greeks and Romans, the magnificent mosques, the Coptic monasteries- both the ones which lie in ruins and those still thriving-all reflect the many stages of Egypt's rich past. Yet, amidst the signs of change, Egypt continues to exude a strong sense of unchangeability. There is much in the life of the countryside which also evokes the past: the daily and seasonal cycles of farming life seem in many ways to be little different from the scenes depicted on the tombs of three or four thousand years ago. The shaduf and the saqia wheel are still used to life water from the river to the canals, and from the canals to the fields. The simple plough drawn by oxen or camels, the winnowing of wheat and the manufacture of mud bricks and pottery, are all echoes from the past. All the same there is much that is different. Egypt remains one of the most significant states in the Near East, and as in so many places there is conflict of 'progress' with tradition.

The many phases of Egypt's long history are seen clearly in the monuments, and much of what was depicted in ancient art can still be seen today. The landscape, however, has been much altered. The papyrus swamps which lined the river banks and covered whole areas of the Delta have disappeared.

The papyrus itself no longer grows wild in Egypt. Along with the swamps, wildlife has been driven farther south into Africa. The wildlife once included the hippopotamus. a danger to people and crops, which is seen in many tomb scenes being hunted with harpoons. To the ancient Egyptians it was also a symbol of fertility, and the pregnant hippopotamus goddess was believed to protect women in childbirth. The crocodile, another river creature that is both feared and revered, was patron god of the Faiyum region. By the mid-19th century the crocodile had been hunted out of Egypt, and could not be found north of the Second Cataract. The desert wildlife has also been pushed further south by the encroachment of man and the desiccation of the region.

Ostriches, antelopes and lions were hunted here in ancient times, but they must all now be sought in the savannas of the Sudan and East Africa. It is not only the wildlife that has changed. Neither the camel, the immediate image of a desert country, nor the water buffalo, always to be seen basking in the canals or river, can be found in ancient art. Both were relatively late introductions to Egypt, the camel by the Persians in the fifth century BC, and the water buffalo by the Mamelukes. Over the centuries new fruits and crops have been introduced for food, or, as with cotton, for trade. In the 19th century many tropical trees and plants were brought into Egypt, which have altered its appearance further.

The eucalyptus trees which line the roads, and the bougainvillaea which flourishes in Aswan, have now become part of the landscape. Egypt's position in the eastern Mediterranean has assured it an important political role throughout history. Even when the country itself was difficult for Europeans to visit, its ancient power and splendour were an irresistible lure to adventurous travellers. Long before the science of Egyptology developed there was much to focus the Western mind upon the country. Egypt figures in many of the major episodes of the Biblical narrative. The story of Joseph; Moses and the Exodus; the compaigns of Shishak, king of Egypt, against Jerusalem all created images of Egypt as a great power, often in opposition to the Jews. Yet, according to the account in the New Testament, with the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt the country become a haven from the despotism of Herod. Indeed, Christianity flourished in Egypt, and monasticism was developed there.


The Saints and the hermits who retired to the desert to lead a life of contemplation, often living in ancient tombs, were deeply revered. St Mark, who took Christianity to Egypt; St Anthony; St Catherine of Alexandria; and St Athanasius are honoured by the churches of the East and West today. During the Middle Ages Egypt and Sinai were included in the pilgrim route to the Holy Land. On the island of Roda, near Cairo, pilgrims were shown the place where Moses was found by the daughter of Pharaoh.

The tree where the Holy Family rested on the flight into Egypt flourished at Heliopolis the 19th century. This Biblical background continued to be influential and was one of the major inspirations for early archaeological work in the country.

The civilization of western Europe Owed much to its classical inheritance, which was continually being revived during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the preserved books of Greek and Roman authors there was a great deal of information on Egypt, which confirmed and added to the importance accorded to the country in the Biblical traditions. Albeit garbled and, when detailed, confined to the latest periods of Egypt's ancient history, these works were important at a time when Egypt was part of the Turkish Empire and difficult to visit beyond Cairo.


The Greeks were awed by the antiquity of Egypt, so much so that they regarded it as the founder of religious ceremonies, and its culture was a great influence upon their own politics, art and religion. Herodotos visited Egypt in the middle of the fifth century BC and wrote extensively, if not always accurately, about the country, its people and its monuments. The scale of these massive structures was as staggering to visitor then as it is to those of today. Herodotos and others wrote in detail about the 'Labyrinth', a vast temple attached to the pyramid of King Amenemhat 111(1842-1797 BC), which stood at the entrance to the Faiyum. Considered to be more impressive than the pyramids of Giza, the temple apparently had 3,000 rooms and many twisting passages. Today nothing survives of this marvel but a few broken columns. The time scale of ancient Egypt is for many people difficult to comprehend. When Herodotos visited Egypt, at a time when Greek civilization flourished, Egypt's days of greatest glory were already past. Such a time scale can only be grasped when we remember that Cleopatra stands closer in time to us than she did to the builders of the pyramids.

With the invasion of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, Egypt entered a period of Greek domination. After Alexander's death in 323 BC, Egypt was seized by the general Ptolemy, who captured Alexander's body and took it for burial in Alexandria. Under Ptolemy's successors Egypt continued to be the leading cultural and political power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Library and Museum of Alexandria were renowned for being centers of scholarship, and the city itself for its beauty and magni-ficence. The Lighthouse of Alexandria, the Pharos, was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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