HOME I. Introduction

Egypt, officially the Arab Republic of Egypt (Al Jumhuriyat Misr al-Arabiyah in Arabic), country in northeastern Africa and southwestern Asia. Most of the country lies in Africa, but the easternmost portion of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, is usually considered part of Asia; it forms the only land bridge between the two continents. Most of Egypt's terrain is desert, divided into two unequal parts by the Nile River. The valley and delta of the Nile are the main centers of habitation. The capital and largest city is Cairo.

Egypt has been a coherent political entity with a recorded history since about 3200 BC. One of the first civilizations to develop irrigated agriculture, literacy, urban life, and large-scale political structures arose in the Nile Valley. The annual flood of the Nile provided for a stable agricultural society. Egypt's strategic location between Asia and Africa and on the route between the Mediterranean basin and India and China made it an important hub of international trade. Beginning in the 4th century BC, a series of conquerors brought new religions and languages to the land. However, Egypt's rich agricultural resources, pivotal commercial position, and long-term political unity have sustained a high level of cultural continuity. Although present-day Egypt is an overwhelmingly Arabic-speaking and Islamic country, it retains important aspects of its past Christian, Greco-Roman, and ancient indigenous heritage.

Muslim Arab invaders conquered Egypt in AD 641, and Egypt has been a part of the Muslim and Arab worlds ever since. The foundations of the modern state were established by Muhammad Ali, who served as viceroy of Egypt from 1805 to 1849, while the country was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882. After 40 years of direct British colonial rule, Egypt became an independent monarchy in 1922. However, British policies enforced by a continuing military occupation limited its independence. In 1952 a group of military officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy and established Egypt as a republic. Nasser negotiated the evacuation of the last British troops from Egypt by 1956. In 1979, under President Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state of Israel. Egypt remains an important political and cultural center for the entire Arab world.

This article deals mainly with Arab Egypt. For information on the history, culture, and contributions of Egypt prior to Arab times, see  Ancient Egypt.

Joel Beinin contributed the introduction to this article.

II. Land and Resources

Egypt is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea; on the east by the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the Red Sea; on the south by Sudan; and on the west by Libya. The country has a maximum length from north to south of 1,105 km (687 mi) and a maximum width, near the southern border, of 1,129 km (702 mi). It has a total area of 997,739 sq km (385,229 sq mi). 

Less than one-tenth of the land area of Egypt is settled or under cultivation. This territory consists of the valley and delta of the Nile, a number of desert oases, and land along the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Gulf of Suez, an arm of the Red Sea. More than 90 percent of the country consists of desert areas, including the Libyan Desert (also known as the Western Desert) in the west, a part of the Sahara, and the Arabian Desert (also called the Eastern Desert), which borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, in the east. The Libyan Desert includes a vast sandy expanse called the Great Sand Sea. Located there are several depressions with elevations below sea level, including the Qattara Depression, which has an area of about 18,000 sq km (about 7,000 sq mi) and reaches a depth of 133 m (436 ft) below sea level. Also found in the Libyan Desert are the oases of Siwa, Bahriyah, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharijah. Much of the Arabian Desert occupies a plateau that rises gradually east from the Nile Valley to elevations of about 600 m (about 2,000 ft) in the east and is broken along the Red Sea coast by jagged peaks as high as 2,100 m (7,000 ft) above sea level. In the extreme south, along the border with Sudan, is the Nubian Desert, an extensive region of rocky and sandy plains and dunes. The Sinai Peninsula consists of sandy desert in the north and rugged mountains in the south, with summits looming more than 2,100 m (7,000 ft) above the Red Sea. Mount Catherine (Jabal Katrinah) (2,637 m/8,652 ft), the highest elevation in Egypt, is on the Sinai Peninsula, as is Mount Sinai (Jabal Musá), where, according to the Hebrew Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments.

The Nile enters Egypt from Sudan and flows north for 1,545 km (960 mi) to the Mediterranean Sea. For its entire length from the southern border to Cairo, the Nile flows through a narrow valley lined by cliffs. Lake Nasser, a huge reservoir formed by the Aswan High Dam, extends south across the Sudan border. The lake is 480 km (300 mi) long and is 16 km (10 mi) across at its widest point. Most of the lake lies in Egypt. South of a point near the town of Idfu, the Nile Valley is rarely more than 3 km (2 mi) wide. From Idfu to Cairo, the valley averages 23 km (14 mi) in width, with most of the arable portion on the western side. In the vicinity of Cairo the valley merges with the delta, a fan-shaped plain, the perimeter of which occupies about 250 km (about 155 mi) of the Mediterranean coastline. Silt deposited by the Rosetta, Damietta, and other distributaries has made the delta the most fertile region in the country. However, the Aswan High Dam has reduced the flow of the Nile, causing the salty waters of the Mediterranean to erode land along the coast near the Nile. A series of four shallow, brackish lakes extends along the seaward extremity of the delta. Another larger lake, Birkat Qarun, is situated inland in the desert north of the town of Al Fayyum. Geographically and traditionally, the land along the Nile is divided into two regions, Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt, the former consisting of the delta area and the latter comprising the valley south of Cairo.

Although Egypt has 2,450 km (1,520 mi) of coastline, two-thirds of which are on the Red Sea, indentations suitable as harbors are confined to the delta. The Isthmus of Suez, which connects the Sinai Peninsula with the African mainland, is traversed from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Suez by the Suez Canal.

A. Climate

The climate of Egypt is characterized by a hot season from May to September and a cool season from November to March. Extreme temperatures during both seasons are moderated by the prevailing northern winds. In the coastal regions average annual temperatures range from a maximum of 37° C (99° F) to a minimum of 14° C (57° F). Wide variations of temperature occur in the deserts, ranging from a maximum of 46° C (114° F) during daylight hours to a minimum of 6° C (42° F) during the night. During the winter season desert nighttime temperatures often drop to 0° C (32° F). The most humid area is along the Mediterranean coast, where the average annual rainfall is about 200 mm (about 8 in). Precipitation decreases rapidly to the south; Cairo receives on average only 26 mm (1.0 in) of rain a year, and in many desert locations it may rain only once in several years.

B. Natural Resources

Egypt has a wide variety of mineral deposits, some of which, such as gold and red granite, have been exploited since ancient times. The chief mineral resource of contemporary value is petroleum, found mainly in the Red Sea coastal region, at Al 'Alamayn (El 'Alamein) on the Mediterranean, and on the Sinai Peninsula. Other minerals include phosphates, manganese, iron ore, and uranium. Natural gas is also extracted.

C. Plants and Animals

The vegetation of Egypt is confined largely to the Nile Delta, the Nile Valley, and the oases. The most widespread of the few indigenous trees is the date palm. Others include the sycamore, tamarisk, acacia, and carob. Trees that have been introduced from other lands include the cypress, elm, eucalyptus, mimosa, and myrtle, as well as various types of fruit trees. The alluvial soils of Egypt, especially in the delta, sustain a broad variety of plant life, including grapes, many kinds of vegetables, and flowers such as the lotus, jasmine, and rose. In the arid regions alfa grass and several species of thorn are common. Papyrus, once prevalent along the banks of the Nile, is now limited to the extreme south of the country.

Because of its arid climate, Egypt has few indigenous wild animals. Gazelles are found in the deserts, and the desert fox, hyena, jackal, wild ass, boar, and jerboa inhabit various areas, mainly the delta and the mountains along the Red Sea. Among the reptiles of Egypt are lizards and several kinds of poisonous snakes, including the asp and the horned viper. The crocodile and hippopotamus, common in the lower Nile and the Nile Delta in antiquity, are now largely restricted to the upper Nile. Birdlife is abundant, especially in the Nile Delta and Nile Valley. The country has 439 known species of birds, including the sunbird, golden oriole, egret, hoopoe, plover, pelican, flamingo, heron, stork, quail, and snipe. Birds of prey found in Egypt include eagles, falcons, vultures, owls, kites, and hawks. Many species of insects live in Egypt. Beetles, mosquitoes, flies, and fleas are especially numerous; the ichneumon, a parasitic insect, occurs in various areas, especially the delta. Scorpions are found in desert areas. Some 70 species of fish live in the Nile and in the deltaic lakes.

D. Environmental Issues

Egypt has many environmental problems, and some of them complicate efforts to promote economic and social development. The primary issues are water quality and quantity, soil loss, urban growth, air pollution, and the environmental effects of tourism. 

Egypt gets almost all of its water from the Nile. The quality of the river water is seriously threatened by untreated industrial and agricultural wastes, sewage, and municipal wastewater. In addition, the Aswan High Dam, which was completed in 1970, has reduced the flow of the Nile and trapped the nutrient-rich silt, which once fertilized the country's farmland, behind it. To compensate for the loss of the silt, farmers make more use of chemical fertilizers, which add to the water pollution. To increase crop yields they use modern herbicides and pesticides, which also contribute to the pollution. Furthermore, the reduced flow of the river increases the concentration of pollutants in the remaining river water. The reduced amount of silt deposited in the Nile Delta has caused the delta to shrink, resulting in coastal erosion that threatens the lagoons that are important sources of fish. Finally, year-round irrigation, using the water impounded behind the Aswan High Dam, causes salts to accumulate in the soil, leading to the loss of some agricultural land. 

The size and rapid growth of Egypt's population have caused additional environmental problems. The expansion of urban areas into nearby farming areas infringes on the already limited agricultural land in the Nile Delta and Valley. Efforts to relieve this pressure by establishing satellite cities in the desert away from the Nile have been only partially successful because it is difficult to attract people and industries to these bleak environments. Dense urban areas such as Cairo, Alexandria, Al Minya, and Aswan have poor air quality, worsened by lax enforcement of measures to reduce emissions from industrial plants and motor vehicles. In these overcrowded cities, streets are filled with pollution-spewing cars and trucks, public transportation is poorly developed, and factories contaminate the air.

Tourism provides an important source of revenue for economic growth. However, poorly controlled construction and waste disposal in new tourist centers along the eastern coast have seriously degraded the water quality of the Red Sea. In addition, large concentrations of tourists threaten the fragile desert areas and the marine corals along the coast.

None of Egypt's environmental difficulties is impossible to solve. However, in an economy that is short on financial resources, it is often hard to find the political will and money to invest in long-term environmental protection. Some attempts are being made to address these issues; for example, a proposal has been made to create nature parks in the Sinai region.

Douglas L. Johnson contributed the Land and Resources section of this article.