100, 778, 915 inhabitants (2019).
The official language is Arabic.
English is generally understood. French lesser so, but it is spoken by educated classes.
Around 99% of Egyptians are native to Egypt. The minorities (Armenian, Italian, French) do not exceed 1% of the total population.
The official religion is Islam and a large majority of Egyptians are practicing Sunni Muslims. There is a minority presence of fundamentalists and following terror attacks in recent years, it’s important to seek the government’s foreign travel advice ahead of your stay. Despite this, Egypt remains a relatively tolerant country and the vast majority of tourists travel there with no trouble. Coptic Christians account for about 8% of the Egyptian population.
Note: holidays are calculated according to the Gregorian calendar. The religious holidays, which are not public, but are often not worked, are calculated according to the lunar calendar.
- January 1: New Year's Day.
- April 25: Sinai Liberation Day.
- May 1: Labour Day.
- 18 June: Commemoration of the British withdrawal.
- 30 June: Revolution Day June 30.
- 23 July: Revolution Day July 23.
- October 6: Armed Forces Day.
- October 24: Day of Suez.
- December 23: Victory Day.
Religious holidays – dates vary.
Al-Hijra is the Islamic New Year. Ramadan and then Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham. Eid al-Mouloud celebrates the birth of the Prophet. Ashura commemorates the assassination of Hussein and the dead in general.
Coptic Christianity religious holidays: Christmas (January 7) and Easter (date varies). Coptic Easter is a holiday the whole of Egypt celebrates as the spring festival, Cham el-Nessim, always falls the day after. It’s an ancient ceremony welcoming the new season that dates back to the Pharaonic era.
In around 4000 BC, Egypt had been divided into the kingdom of Upper Egypt in the south and the kingdom of Lower Egypt in the north. In 3200 BC, King Narmer united the two crowns, establishing the first dynasty in Egypt, The Old Kingdom. It ruled from 2575 BC to 2150 BC and was one of the most significant periods of time in Egypt. The pyramids of Saqqara and Cairo were built during this time and sealed the Egyptian empire’s fate as one of the greatest civilisations of all time. Around 2050, the Middle Kingdom began and the capital city was transferred to Thebes (now Luxor) and there was development of the city of Faiyum and the Nile Delta. More pyramids were built and it was a time of great art and literature. Amon, an Egyptian deity sometimes in the form of a ram’s head, presided over these dynasties as the God of the Kings and was worshipped as such. Despite Amon’s watchful eye, the empire became under threat – a population called the Hyksos conquered the north, but the Theban princes retained their reign in upper Egypt.
In 1500 BC, the Theban king Ahmose crushed the Hyksos, drove them out and united Egypt again, creating the New Empire in the process, which reigned until around 1075 BC. During this time Egypt prospered and the Egyptian empire reached its peak of wealth and prosperity. Tutankhamun and Nefertiti were the most powerful and famous icons of the 18th dynasty and Ramesses II, arguably one of Egypt’s most celebrated pharaohs, became the most renowned from the 19th. During this time the pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father, attempted a religious revolution to replace the worship of Amun by the single sun god Aton, but it eventually failed. The New Kingdom was weakened by internal imbalances and collapsed.
In 525 BC the Persians conquered the country and remained in power for over a hundred years. Egypt was unstable until in 332 BC Alexander the Great, defeating the armies of the Persians, conquered the country and founded a new capital, Alexandria. After his death, Egypt fell to one of Alexander’s Greek generals, Ptolemy. He continued where his mentor had left off and founded a dynasty that would rule across Egypt for the next 300 years. Greek was installed the national language. Cleopatra was the last Ptolemaic ruler to reign before Egypt was colonised by Rome. Six centuries of Roman rule followed and brought with it the rise of Christianity, which became the state religion. The conquest of the country in 639 AD by the Arabs saw Egypt reinvent itself into the rhythm of other great Muslim Arab dynasties.
In the 13th century, Saladin restored the Sunni orthodoxy against the Crusaders. The Mamlukes seized power around 1250 – authoritarian and centralised, they were savvy entrepreneurs and the Egypt benefitted from trade between East and West, becoming a hub of international commerce. But the opening of the southern route to India ruined the regime and in 1516 the Turks seized Egypt.
The expedition of Bonaparte landed its fleet in Alexandria in 1798, but by 1801 had surrendered to British and Ottoman forces. Ottoman army officer, Mohammed Ali, became the governor of Egypt from 1805 to 1848 and is widely recognised as the founder of modern Egypt. During his reign he committed to the economic development of the country and he introduced irrigation, roads, education and factories. After his death his successors continue his projects and constructed the Suez Canal in 1869. When Egypt failed to repay massive debts to the British, in 1882 they seized control of the country. The heirs of Mohammed Ali remained on the throne, but Britain held the power. They imposed a protectorate in 1917, ahead of the First World War. Meanwhile, the Egyptian national movement developed.
In 1922, independence was negotiated with the British, but their guardianship remained. During World War II, Egypt was an ally stronghold. The creation of the State of Israel changed the game in the region. Egypt participated in the Arab-Israeli wars and eventually in 1952 there was a revolution in which King Farouk was forced to abdicate. In 1953 Egypt became a republic and in 1956, Nasser became the nation’s first president. Nasser established close ties with the USSR and nationalised the Suez Canal. Anwar Sadat succeeded him and his policy marked a clear change: an encouragement of renewed foreign investment and the halting of repeated conflicts with Israel.
These policies lead to the Camp David Accords in 1978 and the return of Sinai. Sadat’s assassination in 1981 appalled the world. The next president, Hosni Mubarak, inherits a country that has acquired a real place in the concert of nations until he is forced to resign in 2011 following calls for his removal. The current president is Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
- Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). The second President of Egypt, he was a young Colonel in 1952 when he led the Republican coup to overthrow the monarchy. He was elected President in 1956. He was nationalist, secular, Marxist and is often credited as the person who laid the foundations of contemporary Egypt.
- Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006). A writer who won the Nobel Price for Literature in 1988 and the first Arabic author to be so honoured. His novels describe an Egypt of two civilizations, both ancient and modern.
- Umm Kulthum (died 1975). A singer, songwriter and actress. Kulthum was a huge star with an exceptional voice and a flamboyant activist of the Arab cause. One of the best-selling Middle Eastern artists of all time, her funeral was a state event.
- Dalida (1933-1987). Born Lolanda Cristina Gigliotti in Cairo to an Italian family, Dalida was a singer, model and actress and won Miss Egypt in 1954.
- Omar Sharif (1932-2015). An Egyptian actor of Lebanese descent. An award-winning actor, he received acclaim for his performances in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
- Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922-2016). A former UN Secretary General (1992-1996), Boutros-Ghali was a fighter for peace and an Egyptian humanist.
Tipping is expected and sometimes enthusiastically encouraged by anyone who offers you a service. It’s always useful to keep smaller notes on hand for tipping and if you settle on a tip amount you’re happy with, don’t be persuaded that it’s not enough – bargaining for more is often part of the process for Egyptians.
The majority of Egyptians are Muslim and so tourists are required to respect the culture. Wear modest clothing that covers arms and legs, remove shoes before entering a room, women should cover their hair when entering a mosque in Cairo, and if you’re invited to share a family meal, wait until the householder had said ‘bismillah’ (‘in the name of God’) before starting. You should also eat with your right hand and taste everything that’s offered.
Egypt is full to the brim with souvenirs, crafts and treasures to take home with you. Beware of antiques, or souk sellers who offer unbelievable prices for incredible pieces – forgeries are excellent and it’s best to go to a genuine antique dealer if you want the real thing. Crafts are beautiful and varied, like many Arab countries; jewellery is excellent and great value and you’ll be spoiled for choice with the baskets, brassware and carpets on offer. Spices are endless and the prices are fairly reasonable, except for one or two products from distant importers, like vanilla. Haggling is an institution and you should feel free to discuss the pricing process at length and with humour – merchants love it and so will you by the end of your stay.
It would be wrong to claim that Egyptian cuisine is the best in the Mediterranean, but that’s not to say it’s not delicious in its own right. Food in Egypt is classic and tasty, with a select number of ingredients forming the base for many dishes – chickpeas, cracked wheat, semolina and beans – are all an integral part to cooking. Hummus, tahini, various stews, kofta, kebabs, vegetables and soups are the staples of modern Egyptian fare, with recipes varying depending on available ingredients. Meals are often served in small dishes enabling you to pick and choose your favourites. Desserts include pastries soaked in syrup, flavoured with almonds and raisins and sweet and sticky rice pudding, which add a delicious final flourish to an Egyptian feast.
Tap water is undrinkable, so always have bottled to hand. Tea and coffee are old friends of the Egyptian people – the first is served hot, sometimes minty and the second is prepared Turkish style. Both are served sweet. Fresh fruit juices are countless, delicious and served chilled. Egypt’s flagship drink is karkadé, a deeply red herbal tea infused with hibiscus flowers, served either hot or cold. Egypt prohibits the sale and consumption of alcohol in public places or shops, with the exception of hotels and tourist facilities approved by the Minister of Tourism.