Area 622,272 square mi (1,001,450 square km)
Population 83.39 million (2014)
Capital Cairo Highest Point 8,625 ft (2,629 m)
Lowest Point -436 ft (-133 m)
GDP $286.5 billion (2014)
Primary Natural Resources cotton, rice, corn.
EGYPT HAS BEEN a unified state for more than 5,000 years and is one of humanity’s oldest civilizations of great political systems and unique art and architecture. Centered on the NILE RIVER, which drains the uplands of East Africa, early Egyptians worshiped the river that brought seasonal flooding and sediments to its river valley, annually rejuvenating its fields and orchards.
As the most populated country in the Arab world, most of its 70 million residents live in Cairo and Alexandria, the river delta and valley, and along the Suez Canal. The remaining desert villages are associated with isolated oases and caravansary routes. The government has repeatedly tried to entice residents to move from the dense cities to rural settings; however, Egypt’s cities have continued to grow.
The population density of Cairo (al-Qahirah) is the highest in the region and is exceeded globally only by mega-cities like HONG KONG, NEW YORK CITY, and MUMBAI. With more than 350,000 people per square mile (136,000 per square km) and a total population of more than 15 million residents, Cairo is bustling city of luxurious skyscrapers and tin hovels, separated by zigzagging passageways and broad boulevards, all cramped with buses, tourists, cars, vendors, taxis, businessmen, and occasional fruit-filled carts. It is a city of dichotomies, with discos and mosques, fruit stands and department stores side by side, all divided by the Nile, the world’s longest river during the rainy season.
Once beyond the lush fringe of the Nile, the arid lands of Egypt are formidable. The harsh land is occupied by native Bedouins and undaunted explorers and researchers. Daytime summer temperatures in the western desert can reach 130 degrees F (55 degrees C) with relative humidity as low as 5 percent. Perpetually battered by the SAHARA DESERT’s desiccating winds, climatologists consider it one of the driest lands on Earth.
Although its desert interior is hyper-arid, Egypt’s delta is lush, humid, and productive. Ninety percent of Egypt’s agriculture is confined to 3 percent of the land: the delta and the narrow belt that lines the MEDITERRANEAN SEA and the Nile River from Cairo to Aswan. Because of its increasing population and small farmlands, Egypt must import increasingly more vegetables and fruits, although agriculture remains an important sector of the economy, contributing 14 percent to the GDP and employing nearly 30 percent of the total employed population. Despite this land of extremes—very rich to destitute, very humid to hyper-dry, open deserts to cramped suburbs—Egypt remains famous for its cheerful and generous people, whose hospitality is as legendary as its pyramids.
Since Egypt’s earliest known ruler Menes created the first pharaonic dynasty in 3100 B.C.E., Egypt has continued to exert power throughout the region. As the kingdom expanded, monumental pyramids and temples were built, and repeated raids by Persians, Greeks, and Romans changed Egypt forever. Influence shifted from Memphis to Alexandria in 322 B.C.E. under Alexander the Great and became a mighty force on the Mediterranean Sea. The Ptolemaic rulers (like the renowned pair of Cleopatra and Marc Antony) guided Egypt until it was conquered by Arab marauders in 643 C.E. and converted into an Islamic state.
Following the Arab invasion and a transfer of power to Cairo as its new center, Egypt was controlled by a series of Arab, Mamluke, and Ottoman caliphs, sultans, beys, and pashas. Ottoman Turks ruled from 1517 to 1882, with a brief interruption by French rule under Napoleon Bonaparte at the end of the 18th Century. Mohamed Ali, an Albanian officer in the Ottoman Army, was appointed pasha in 1805 and founded a dynasty that ruled the region, built the Suez Canal, and modernized Cairo. In 1952, the great-great grandson of Mohamed Ali, Farouk I, was defeated. However, it was after a skirmish with Ottoman troops in 1882 that the British successfully occupied Egypt until the kingdom declared its independence from England in 1922. The Egyptian government nonetheless, remained codependent on English ways and endured their use of Egypt for bases of operations during World War II.
In 1948, Farouk was blamed for the loss in the war with the newly created state of ISRAEL, leading to his defeat during a military coup led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. Nasser’s charisma complemented his strong leadership skills and a new brand of regional socialism. After his death in 1970, Anwar al-Sadat served as president until his assassination in 1981. Strong ties were forged between Egypt and other nations during this period, including the Soviet Union, which supported the two-year construction of the Aswan High Dam (Sa’ad al-A’ali) and the impoundment of Lake Nasser in 1970.
After Sadat’s assassination by Islamic radicals, an Egyptian Air Force commander, Hosni Mubarak, was elected president. Into the 2000s, he has continued to support a number of Middle East peace accords, and his attempts to increase private sector involvement and investment in Egypt have proved successful so far. Mubarak has since been reelected three times, continuing to deal with national concerns of poverty, crime, overpopulation, and poor water resources.