Whatever happened to Egypt?
Everybody knows Egypt, the majesty of the pyramids along the Nile, the mystery of mummies and hieroglyphics. The problem is, where did it all go? Today's Egyptians mostly write and talk Arabic, their pantheon has been reduced to mostly one sole god, their ancient buildings crumble and the population is discontent. There are no more divine pharaohs, only disappointing politicans - no more slaves, only free poor people.
Modern and ancient Egypt are two different worlds. If you go to a well-equipped museum, you will see what I mean. Here you have elaborate writings, drawings and carvings from the time the rest of the world was hitting rocks together. Then there is a sudden change. The handcraft becomes crude and simple, while beautiful Greek statues and urns taking form in the same period can be seen in the other room. The Nile has flooded and ebbed many years and things have not stayed the same.
A lump of mud and a lot of sand
Egypt is a land of crossroads and contrasts. It is a meeting point of continents, situated between Africa, Europe and Arabia (or Asia, if you wish). The country borders both the Atlantic, through the quiet waters of the Mediterranean, and the Pacific, via the arm of the Red Sea. It is a land of the dry desert, but also possesses the enormously fertile Nile Valley.
Cairo, located at the beginning of the Nile delta, is the capital city, large and chaotic. Alexandria and Port Said are important coastal towns where the river runs into the sea. Most other major towns lie along the same river, while smaller settlements exist around various oases in the desert. There are 3 Egyptians deserts: the Libyan in the west, the Arabian desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, and the eastern Sinai desert, of the mount and the peninsula, which borders brother Israel.
Old before we were born
The first kingdom of the Nile land began to take form more than 5000 years ago. Long periods of prosperous stability were interpersed with times where the central power declined, and along with it the country, but all in all it was a period of greatness until about 1000 B.C.
What happened was, instead of being allowed to sort out its internal conflicts on its own, Egypt was overrun by just about all its neighbours and then some. The country was not ahead anymore. Like Britain in the industrial revolution, like China before it fell to the colonising westerners, it had set itself apart in arrogant superiority. It had performed sporadic conquests to gain slaves and riches, but was mostly content as it was.
First out to attack were the Nubians, followed by plundering Assyrians and Persians. Then came Alexander the Greek, who gave it a dynasty again and dragged it into the Hellenistic world. Then came the conquering Romans, the Arabs, the Turks, the French, the British. As a result of this everything changed: culture, language, population, knowledge. The large worshipping gallery of gods and pharaohs changed to Coptic Christianity and Islam. A bit of the old Egypt escaped the grinding wheel of time. Farmers in the south have kept many of their ancient ways: the simple plow, the irrigation system, the perfected pottery.
On its own again
The country became nominally independent in 1922. The majority of the British Army pulled out in 1946, except for some soldiers left in a base by Suez. Because of the time with European rulers, Egypt was become one of the most westernised Arabic countries.
Gamel Abdel Nasser dethroned the king in 1952 and became president. He staged great reforms and industrial projects, and was dearly loved by the Egyptian people at his death in 1970. His successor, Anwar Sadat, met with more conflict. Under him the country experienced a lot of political violence, both for and against his power. Still, he was the one that made peace with Israel in 1977. Sadat, too, ruled until his death, and was replaced by the current prime minister, Hosni Mubarak.
Like Algeria, Egypt has had a long-standing conflict between disgruntled Muslim fundamentalists on one side and modernising politicians supported by the army on the other. The conflict is so far gone now that Islamic terrorists attack tourists to hurt the country's economy, while on the other side the government refuses to negotiate. It will be interesting to see which side is victorious.
Great works of mankind
It will be hard to drive out the visiting foreigners completely. Since Antiquity, Egypt has been known as a brilliant tourist destination for one reason: Its magnificent structures. The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid of Giza are natural starting points. As guardian and monument to the dead, they have struck the living with awe since their completion. Although the sphinx is noseless and the pyramid stripped of its glazing, they are still great in every sense of the word.
The Suez canal was finished in 1869 by a European-owned company, allowing ships to take a shortcut around Africa. Presiden Nasser nationalised it in 1956, which led to an attack on Egypt by Great Britain, France, and Israel. A war lasting for six days was fought and lost in 1967, a war of reconquest in 1973.
The dam of Assuan, Saad el-Ali, was built from 1960 to 1970. It was Nasser's great project, supposed to give protection against droughts and floods, but also had many unfortunate effects, such as loss of water and fertile land, and a rise in disease from the now still waters.
And then, who could turn down a visit to the library of Alexandria. Didn't that burn down? It did, but now there is a new one. No wonder. With a past like Egypt's, who could blame them for trying to bring it back?