Mizraim as it was known in biblical times is situated in the extreme northeast of Africa. Its area is about 386,198 square miles, most of which is arid and unproductive. The population, numbering well over 81 million is almost entirely concentrated in the fertile valley of the Nile River, and is devoted pricipally to agriculture. The area of the cultivated region is about 13,600 square miles, which includes not only the Valley but the delta and oases in the desert. Much of the area has been reclaimed by irrigation.
The chief crop is cotton. The papyrus plant was used in the making of paper more than 4000 years ago. Today, however, the country imports practically all of this important resource.
The productivity of the Nile River valley is due to the annual flooding of its banks in September and October. The area of cultivation has been greatly extended by the construction of irrigation works, consisting of canals, of several barrages, and of the great Aswan and Sennar dams, each over a mile in length, which now regulate the flow of water.
The Nile proper which flows through the country is formed by the junction of the Blue Nile and the White Nile at the Khartoum in the Sudan. The Blue Nile rises in the mountains of Ethiopia, the White Nile in Uganda. It descends by a series of six cataracts or rapids, and after flowing through the Nile delta, empties into the Mediterranean by two main channels, one near Alexandria, the other near Port Said. The Nile is one of the world's longest rivers.
The south has a dry, healthful climate, which makes it desirable as a resort for tourists. A further attraction is found in the pyramids, the sphinx, various tombs, and other remains of the ancient civilization of the Nile. The Northeastern extremity of the country has one of the world's two most celebrated ship canals, the Suez, which connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea.
The country is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by 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 about 1085 km (about 675 mi) and a maximum width, near the southern border, of about 1255 km (about 780 mi). It has a total area of about 1,001,450 sq km (about 386,662 sq mi). Cairo is the capital and largest city.
The area begins with Menes, who reigned probably about 3400 B.C. He consolidated the whole Nile Valley into a kingdom, with its capital at Memphis. The next thousand years formed a period of rapid development of civilization. About 3000 B.C. King Cheops erected the great Pyramid, and later rulers followed his example, in building temples and tombs.
From about 2400 to 2000 B.C. the country was ruled by a new line of Pharaohs, whose capital was Thebes. This period is called the middle kingdom. It was a time of foreign conquest, of extended commerce, and of the development of great economy.
About the year 2000 B.C. bands of roving invaders from Arabia established themselves in the country and their chiefs began to rule the land from a capital in the delta. These were known as the Hyksos, or Shepherd Kings. It is believed that these folks introduced the horse into the country and it is also at this time that the Hebrews settled in Goshen.
The land of the Nile is the cradle of one of the world’s greatest civilizations that dates from about 3200 BC. This includes what is known as the Dynastic Period (3200 BC-343), Hellenistic (332-30), Roman and Byzantine Rule (30 BC-AD 638), the Caliphate and the Mamelukes (642-1517), Ottoman Domination (1517-1882), and British colonialism (1882-1952) as well as modern times.
The country is divided for administrative purposes into 26 governorates. The capital and largest city is Cairo; other important cities include Alexandria, the principal port; Giza, an industrial center near Cairo; Port Said, at the Mediterranean entrance to the Suez Canal; and Suez, the southern terminus of the canal.
Arabic is the official language of the country. Berber is spoken in a few villages in the western oases. French and English are common second languages among the educated. See Also Coptic Language; Egyptian Language.
Islam is the official religion, and about 90 percent of all citizens are Muslims, most of them members of the Sunni sect. According to official estimates, the Coptic Orthodox church, a Christian denomination, has no more than 3 million adherents and constitutes the largest religious minority; Copts themselves claim some 7 million members. An estimated 1 million belong to the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, and various Protestant churches. The country has a very small Jewish community.