Egypt has a spell – or perhaps Egypt is a spell. For its lovers, and for those attempting to decipher the secrets of its immensely rich experience over millennia, Egypt’s geography and history form meanings that have been unfolding over successive epochs.
Inherent in the land, along the flow of the Nile on this spot of earth, in the narrow Valley and its Delta, and on the country’s shore on the Mediterranean, there has grown and flourished a multifaceted idea of what Egypt is in a slow process of unfoldment.
For the learned groups of ancient Egypt, the country was a symbolic reflection of the sky on the earth, a sacred land upon which one of the most important phases in the evolution of human understanding of itself and the world around it took place. For some neighbouring cultures, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt was the embodiment of wealth and plenty, a symbol of stability and sustenance in a region populated by struggling nomads and entrepreneurial seamen leading precarious lives.
For the ancient Greeks, Egypt was a foundational school. It was not a coincidence that several pillars of Hellenic civilisation from Pythagoras to Plato received their formative education in Egypt.
Some think that Egypt matured at the height of her ancient civilisation and that it has since trod an often-declining trajectory. Egypt indeed glowed in ancient times, but the meanings that were born thousands of years ago out of the greatness of its civilisation continued to blossom throughout the ages. But this blossoming was often veiled, and it often appeared in works inspired by Egypt but produced in distant lands.
It was also not a coincidence that many learned leaders of different countries and throughout different ages chose to put symbols of Egypt on the landmarks of power in the most notable parts of their capitals. These symbols were hardly decorative and were mostly deferential. From Rome to Washington DC, Egyptian symbols have carried and denoted a form of knowledge of immense sophistication in the inner sanctums of power.
For Egypt, however, looking within was the country’s normal state of being. Rich and self-contained, its Valley of life, the Valley of the Nile, separated from its neighbours by vast deserts, Egypt was absorbed in itself. Distant countries came to Egypt for trade, knowledge, and support, and on several occasions to raid its riches.
At the height of the Hellenistic period and at the beginning of the Roman ascendancy over the Mediterranean, Egypt was a key trading destination for both the Greeks and the Romans. Egyptian centres of knowledge, particularly Thebes in Upper Egypt and later Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast, were leading cities of learning for the entire ancient world.
Christianity deepened Egypt’s look within. The first four centuries CE witnessed immense theological debates about the meaning of Christianity, the nature of Christ, and consequently the essence of religion. Egypt contributed to this foundational period through the intellectual work of its theologians who later became the founding fathers of the Egyptian Church and luminaries of early Christian thought.
Egypt’s contributions, however, transcended narrow theology and extended to wider philosophy. Deep thinkers during this period, including ones whose ideas were formative of different schools of Christianity, whether in the religion’s mainstream, or in schools of thought that have survived at the margins, borrowed heavily from ancient Egyptian philosophy. This was a continuation of Mediterranean and later Western delving into Egyptian ideas to form new understandings of the divine, humanity, and the interactions between them.
The look within ceased with the arrival of Islam in the 7th century CE. This shifted Egypt’s scope and attention eastwards. For the first time in its history, Egypt began to take inspiration and be on the receiving end of cultural influences from abroad. This led it slowly but steadily to absorb from the culture that had begun to appear and develop within the then expanding Islamic world.
Over time, Egypt also began to contribute to this world. But by and large Egypt’s entry into the Islamic world resulted in influences from without much more than expressions from within.
Expressions of Egyptian thought underwent a low period during the long six centuries of Mameluke and then Ottoman rule. During this period, Egypt became simply a province to be exploited and one of less and less importance rather than a seat of power and let alone a commanding presence or inspiring idea. The period witnessed the first time in recorded Egyptian history when leading Egyptian thinkers and artists began to emigrate, often to Turkey, often because of incentives, and often as a result of force.
However, the situation changed in the early 19th century. The birth of modern Egypt after the shockingly easy fall of the country to the forces of French general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 triggered a painful but healthy questioning of the self and of why the defeat had taken place. Egypt’s new ruler Mohamed Ali put in place a new project to create a strong modern state in Egypt in the first half of the 19th century. This was fate’s marvelous and compelling response to these painful questions.
Gone was the lethargy and in was fresh momentum for rebirth. With the rebirth of a new state in Egypt there quickly emerged questions about the identity of the country, the frames of reference of its society, the role of religion in society, the basis of legitimacy of the new era, and the relationship between the new rulers, the House of Mohamed Ali, and the people of the country, since the Mohamed Ali family had had no prior relationship with the Egyptian people.
There were questions about how Egypt was to look within again, as well as about how it would look to the West and to the northern shores of the Mediterranean after many long centuries of looking elsewhere.
This series will trace the different answers that thinkers and movements in Egypt have given to such questions over the past 200 years.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.