Although modern day Egyptians are usually lumped together with "the Arabs" due to their language and Islamic traditions, this is not completely accurate. There is a truly Bedouin Arab grouping within Egypt, the majority still nomadic tribal peoples living in isolated oases and roaming through the country's vast desert regions. Many Bedouin Arabs are settled in the Sinai Peninsula and along the Red Sea coast, across from Arabia.
However, anthropologically, the majority of indigenous Egyptians trace their ancestry back to the Semitic tribe of Ham. Their physical appearance and cultural traditions are distinct from all other Middle Eastern peoples.
The third main racial grouping in Egypt is comprised of the Nubian peoples who lived for thousands of years in their own land along the Nile, called Nuba, which overlapped from Upper Egypt into northern Sudan. Most of Nubia was flooded in the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser with the construction of the Aswan high dam and the creation of the artificial Lake Nasser. The government but much of their ancient culture resettled the Nubians and stunning architectural tradition has been lost.
For millennia wave upon wave of conquerors has passed through Egypt, leaving traces in their descendants.
Romans, Greeks and, more recently the Turks, Circassians (Mamluks) and even French and English have intermarried with the Egyptians, adding further to the cosmopolitan melting pot. For a half century the rural population has shifted to the main urban centers in search of employment.
Until today nearly half the
population reside in overcrowded cities. To remedy this, the Egyptian government
has inaugurated a series of incentives to try and lure many Egyptians away from
Cairo and Alexandria. Part of this program includes the construction of
industrial cities located well outside the main centers and the program seems to
be meeting with a measure of success.
There are a number of other small distinct minorities including Berbers, most of whom live around Siwa oasis (pictured), and the 7 million Copts who share the same racial background as their indigenous Muslim countrymen but who were among those who remained wedded to their ancient Christian beliefs and traditions.
The population of Egypt stands at around 58,519,000, with projections placing the population at 65 million by the end of 1997. Although the birth rate has gone down slightly (from 2.8% annually in the 1980s down to 2.3%), the country's population explosion is its greatest and most intractable problem, exacerbated by the sheer lack of habitable land area. Almost the entire population lives in the Delta and in the Nile Valley, which is only about 4% of the country's land area, making this land among of the most densely populated in the world.
Islam is constitutionally established as the official religion of Egypt and around 90% of the population is Sunni Muslim with a small minority of Bohra Muslims and other non-Sunni sects represented.
Egypt is one of Islam's most influential intellectual centers. Al Azhar University, the oldest university in the world, graduates Islamic scholars from every Muslim country on earth. The Rector of Al Azhar occupies one of the most important hierarchical positions in the Muslim world and exercises great influence over religious issues of the day.
Coptic Christians form the country's largest and most significant religious minority with government estimates claiming only 3 million Copts while Coptic Church estimates place the number at around 7 million. This disparity indicates an underlying tension between the dominant Muslim community and the Coptic minority, which has begun to flare up periodically in acts of vandalism with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism.
Another one million or so Roman Catholics, Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians as well as Protestants are also among Egypt's citizens. These groups, which thrived during colonial times, are now dwindling as a result of emigration. There is also a tiny and very discreet Jewish community, which has also been depleted by emigration. There are many churches open in the major urban centers but the lovely art nouveau synagogue in Cairo has been closed for decades.
Arabic is the country's official language. The Egyptian dialect is distinct from all others and, because of the country's dominance of the media (television, cinema, radio and music), the most recognizable and universal. Arab popular singers from as far a field as Morocco and Syria, often immigrate to Egypt and sing in the Egyptian dialect instead of their own.
With its ancient history, cosmopolitanism, strong Islamic traditions, modern pan-Arab political and intellectual history and relative freedom, Egypt is the cultural capital of Arab world. The Arab television and cinema is dominated by the Egyptian television and film industry, as is popular Arabic music.
The Egyptian Ministry of Culture presides over a variety of western-style cultural institutions such as the Cairo Opera House, the National Puppet Theater, the Pocket Theater and the National Symphony, as well as the country's many museums (see Museums section under Tour guide).
Egypt has also been a fount of Arabic literature having produced some of the greatest 20th century Arab writers from Taha Hussein and Tawfiq Al Hakim to Nobel prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Egypt has also produced some of the greatest modern artisans, including the brilliant jewelry designer Azza Fahmy and her equally gifted sister Randa Fahmy, who single-handedly revived the art of Mamluki metalwork.
Egypt has had a strong cinematic tradition since the 1930s. Egypt has the only major motion picture industry in the Arab world, with Cairo is its capital.
The influence of the Egyptian cinema on the Arabs is as profound as that of the American cinema on the rest of the world. The golden age of Egyptian cinema was in the 1940s and 1950s. During that period Omar Sharif emerged as a major international star and his former wife, Fatin Hamama, reigned as the queen of Arab cinema.
Directors such as Youssef Chahine have gained wide respect internationally and many of Egypt's leading literary lights, including Tawfiq Al Hakim and Naguib Mahfouz, have written for the cinema.
Today, the reigning superstar of the Egyptian cinema is comedian Adel Emam, whose political satire has earned him the respect of serious filmgoers and occasionally ire of the government. Other film stars include Ahmad Zaki, Mahmoud Abdul Aziz and Yusra.
The modern atmosphere of profiteering and heavy entertainment taxes has served to drastically lower the standards of modern Egyptian cinema.
Egypt is the capital of Middle Eastern communications with strong journalistic traditions and a relatively free press, the region's most important film, television and recording industries and the largest publishing industry in the Arab world. All newspapers and periodicals are under governmental supervision and partial governmental ownership, as are all publishing houses.
Al Ahram is the semi-official daily has a circulation of nearly 1 million and is far and away the most important newspaper in the country. Other newspapers include Akhbar Al-Youm, Al Akhbar, Al Mesaa, Al Gomhuriyyah, Al Wafd and Al Alam Al Youm. The International Daily Asharq Alawsat is printed in Egypt at the Al Ahram printing presses.
Under Gamal Abdel Nasser Egypt's national broadcasting system became a powerful and influential tool for pan-Arab propaganda. Utilizing Egypt's enormous pool of creative talent and powerful transmitters, the government broadcast throughout the Arab world. While propaganda is no longer of primary importance, Egypt's broadcasting system remains the best in the Arab world transmitting programs in Arabic, English, French and other languages.
Television was introduced to the country in 1960 and, as in all Arab countries, remains solely in the hands of the government. There are five national television channels. Egyptian soap operas are a staple of all Arab television and have, for better or worse, established the standards of broadcasting throughout the region. In addition, the Egyptian Satellite Channel transmits via Arabsat throughout the Middle East and Nile Television broadcasts in English and French to Europe.