Egypt: On Understanding Egypt

On Understanding Egypt

By Ralph Ellis

For many people, and perhaps most of all for Americans, Egypt is a very misunderstood country. As an Islamic country, bordering the Middle East but actually in North Africa, it is an Arabic republic, but at the same time, altogether different than any other. This is due to its 5,000 year old heritage, as well as its strategic location and other unique attributes. Current analysts often refer to Egypt as a "Moderate Islamic State", but in characterizing Egypt in this manner, one really fails to grasp its essence as a modern member of the world community.

The Old Shepeard's Hotel was the Heart and Soul of Visiting English Society

The Old Shepeard's Hotel was the Heart and Soul of Visiting English Society

Specifically, Egypt as a country is worldly, more than a little influenced by ancient Mediterranean, more recent European and even more recent western media influences. Throughout the ages, Egypt has often been forced to open its eyes to the world and foreign influences, while other countries in the region were allowed to sleep a little longer. It is the entertainment capital of the Middle East and Northern Africa, as well as a power broker and regional peace maker.

Egypt's first tourists might be considered to be the Greeks, who came to Egypt perhaps because of its mysteries. Indeed, probably no other country on earth has been influenced so much by tourism. Even as Egypt's importance as an agricultural breadbasket to Rome, and later as a crosswords of East and West by Europeans, and to all a gateway to Africa, many people came to Egypt either to explore the antiquities, or often just to escape the European winters.

Of course, while Egypt's mysteries may have bought attention to the country, its strategic location and agricultural potency sustained that interest. Mostly, Egypt's worldliness comes from its European heritage, though of course the Greek influence is still felt particularly on the North Coast. But it was the French and English that established themselves in the country and influenced what is today's Egypt. The French came for conquests, but bought with them inventive ideas, the French language, still widely known in Egypt, French culture as well as social and diplomatic influences. The British seem to have come because of the the French, and bought with them railways, politics and money. Together, they practically made a European city of Cairo, aided by the Egyptian rulers themselves.

Both the British and French built important transportation systems that would add considerably to Egypt's exposure to foreign influence. The French, of course, built the Suez canal, though in reality it was built with Egyptian labor, and eventually, with Egyptian money. But the English also built the rail line between Alexandria and Cairo, along with a telegraph, opening up an important route between Briton and India. With the railway came English merchants, clergymen and teachers, middle class girls looking for husbands and Thomas J. Cook, who in 1860 organized his first tour to Egypt for thirty-two ladies and gentlemen. Hence, he began the modern era of tourism to Egypt.

the English also built the rail line between Alexandria and Cairo

In fact, in the mid 1800s as war raged in the U.S. and European countries sought other sources for King Cotton, almost every European country had citizens living in Cairo. By 1872 there were three hundred thousand people living in Cairo, and eighty-five thousand of them were non-Egyptians. Other countries in the region had little to offer these Europeans, and so their cultures developed along different paths, less effected by the outside world. Even today, Cairo maintains a huge presence of foreign residents, numbering at least in the hundreds of thousands.

These foreigners bought with them there own standards and ideas on almost everything, including the houses they lived in, their food, their entertainment and other tastes. These had a great influence on local pashas, merchants and princes, and by the mid 1800s many Egyptians had also been abroad, and they too bought back their own ideas of clothing, how stores should operate, what streets should look like and what sort of houses they wished to live in.

On Understanding Egypt

They bought in foreign architects from Italy, France, Austria and Briton, and the combination of rich pashas, imported capital and foreign experts changed Cairo forever. By now, Ismail, Mohammed Ali's grandson ruled Egypt. He had been educated in France and had traveled extensively in Europe. His dream was that Cairo should rival modern Paris, and he set about to accomplish this ambitious scheme.

His plan was to establish a new quarter to the west of Cairo proper and he had this area laid out according to French plans with straight streets and roundabouts, and the organized pattern of modern Cairo is the results. To populate the area, Ismail gave land to anyone who would build within eighteen months a house or building worth at least thirty thousand francs. the rich instantly obliged, and while the buildings at first were mostly residential, soon banks and consulates also built their new headquarters, moving across the borderline of Ezbekiya from the old Rosetti quarters to develop this new commercial district that was not going to be Arab, but rather European. Greek and German brasseries and French cafes also sprang up along the new streets, and many of them had orchestras or bands. It was a lavish time in Egypt for the rich, and even middle class.

1869 was an astonishing year for Egypt because of the opening of the Suez Canal. For the Europeans living in Egypt, and the rich Egyptians, it was a year of balls, banquets, theaters, operas and races. More Europeans came, including such notables as the Prince of Wales and without doubt Egypt was the destination of anyone with style and money.

Completed in 1869 to host Verdi's Rigoletto, the Old Cairo Opera House was an exact copy of La Scala of Milan

Completed in 1869 to host Verdi's Rigoletto, the Old Cairo
Opera House was an exact copy of La Scala of Milan

Eventually the money would run out, and in the end, European bankers basically foreclosed on Egypt, capturing the country without a shot being fired. Much of the money used for buildings, roads, and the Suez Canal itself had been borrowed at lofty costs, and so Egypt fell even further under the influence, and now outright control of Europeans.

In 1952, Egypt again became a free country, and certainly things have changed over the years. But its worldly attitude remains, and it is a country so very different than its Arab and Islamic neighbors. The French Restaurants, British banks and hotels of every nationality have been supplemented by modern American fast food chains and even Radio Shacks. In fact, Egypt reminds me so very much of America, with its convergence of cultures, rising middle class and raging free enterprise. Also very similar to the U.S., Egypt certainly has its own distinctive culture, but it is tented by global influences.

While its marriage to Europe was often uncomfortable, particularly for the poor, a tradition of welcoming visitors with open arms continues, for Egypt's tourism heritage is over two thousand years old and hospitality has become a matter of considerable national pride.

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Last Updated:
June 22nd, 2011