Egypt’s history stretches back thousands of years, possibly to the birth of civilization. The country’s tourism dollars are based on travelers’ fascination with ancient Egypt. About 5,000 years ago, northern and southern Egyptian kingdoms were united under Narmer, who became the first Pharaoh. He chose the city of Memphis as his capital, about 15 miles south of what is now downtown Cairo. During the time of the Pharaohs, numerous monuments and edifices were built, including the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. The first pyramid, designed by the deified architect Imhotep, was built about 4,500 years ago.
With the famed death of Cleopatra in BC 30, rule of Egypt was transferred to the Romans, where the country became just one of the many Roman provinces. In AD 641, a Muslim army invaded and took over Egypt, and the country became part of the Arab world. It was the Arabs that moved the capital to “Al-Fustat,” which is now part of “Old Cairo”. The location was chosen because of its strategic location. Struggles between various Islamic sects helped promote the slave trade in the region. The invasion of the Crusaders in the 1100s helped unify the region and made Saladin a legend. He was a Muslim ruler who helped repel the invading forces, but was also known by the Europeans as a just and chivalrous leader.
Egypt came under Turkish rule when it became part of the Ottoman Empire around the 1500s. Even as part of the Ottoman Empire, the city and country was semi-autonomous. In 1798, Napoleon’s army landed in Alexandria, and was able to conquer Cairo with little resistance. The French rule of the city lasted only three years, but it helped connect Cairo with the Western world. It was during this time the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered. French influence in Cairo is still felt today.
In 1801, a joint British-Ottoman force expelled the French from Egypt. An officer in the Ottoman army, Muhammad Ali, took control of the country. He is often credited with establishing modern Egypt. It was Ali who focused Egyptian farming on cotton and helped begin to industrialize the country. He built some of the first teaching hospitals and schools in Cairo.
The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 attracted interest from European powers, as the country now had important commercial and military significance. Great Britain seized power, and maintained power until 1922, when Egypt was granted independence. Internal instability led to the Revolution of 1953, when Egypt became a republic. Egypt clashed with Israel over the Sinai peninsula a few times, and ultimately ended up allying with the United States during the Cold War. Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s President from 1970 until 1981, was responsible for opening up Egyptian society for more western investment and involvement. In a move controversial to other Arabic states, he negotiated a peace treaty with Israel in 1978. The move was very popular with Egyptians, and has helped Egypt forge its place in the modern world.