Egyptian Minorities

Figure 1.--Some Europeans have lived in Egypt for centuries. In modern times many Europeans came to Egypt after the opening of the Suez Canal which created trading and commerial opportunities. We see many Armenians, Greeks, and Italians. Greeks had lived in Egypt since ancient times. This boy is unidentified, but we believe is a Greek boy. The postcard portrait was taken in Alexandria, we think in the 1930s. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 which led to Nasser and an outburst of Arab narionalism, both Jews and Greeks were expelled from the country. Armenians and Italians also began leaving in large numbers. This and Nasser's Arab Socialism spelled disaster for the Egyptian economy.

Modern Egyptians are a fusion of many different people. There is the original Egyptian people centered on the Nile Valley. Africans, Berbers, Greeks, Jews, Persians, Romans, and other mixed in relatively small numbers with the large Nile Valley population. After the Islamic invasion (7th century), Arabs and to a lesser extent Turks added to the Egyptian ethnic base which is today culturally and ethnically relatively homogeneous. There are some minority groups, but not all are ethnic minorities. Some are linguistic and religious minorities. The most important are the Christian Copts who are under increasing pressure from the Muslim Arab majority. There was a small Jewish minority which predated the Islamic era. Egypt expelled it Jews after Six Day War (1960s). Two other linguistic minorities are small communities of Armenians and Greeks, mostly located in Cairo and Alexandria. There is a Bedouin minority centered on the oases of the Western Desert and to a lessert extent the Sinani which is under pressure from the government to assimiate into the country's settled population. Many have done so in recent years. Nubians live in the cities of Lower Egypt and in villages along the Nile of Upper Egypt.


Bedouins are a general term for the nomadic people of North Africa. Ethnicity varies deoending on their location. Almost all of Egyptians live in the Nile valley. Egyptian Bedouins have traditionally inhabit the desert regions, including the Sinai and the Eastern and Western Deserts. Ethnically the northern regions are largely Arab. The southern section of the Eastern Desert ise\thically destinct. Many seem to be related to predynastic Egyptians. The Bedouins are nomadic because they are constantly search for fresh grazing areas for their heards of camels and goats as well as water. Over time the Bedouins leaerned of the best grazing aereas ahnd how they changed seasonally. Thus their wondering became regularized. They return each year to many of the same locations with grazing areas and water. The Bedouins have found when and where to find what he needs. He can tell by the vegetation about rain. He can track from maerks in the desert sands. The desert is in many ways like the oceans. And Bedouins like sailors navigate by the stars. They also recognize and leave stone markers. After independence, the Egyptian Government required Bedouin men to do military service. They of course returned to their sesert communities very much changed. Some Bedouins continue to exist in a traditional life style that dates back milenia and are very little changeds. Many Bedouins have settled down and begun to integrate in the larger Egyptian society. Many can today be found in the resort communities of the Sinai and now the larger cities of Egypt, especially Cairo. A recent issue has become politization. Bediouns have been involved in both ttacks in Israel as well as since the Army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood (2013), attacks on Governemnt forces in the Siani.


The Copts are Egypt's largest minority. Copts constitute about 10 percent of the the country's population. Ethnically they are indestitinuishable from the larger Egyptian population, perhaps including a smaller Aran admixture. The Coptic Church claims to be founded by St Mark the Evangelist early in the Christian era while Egypt was still part of the Roman Empire. Egypt was annexed by the Byzatine Empire (395 AD). With the fall of Rome, the Coptic Church became separated from the Western or Roman Church (451). Copts hold to a Monophysite theology which believes that Christ was both God and Man and that both natures were united in Christ. There are smaller Coptic communities in Sudan (approximately 100,000), and various other Middle Eastern countries as well as Western countries. The Persians conquered Egypt for a brief period (616 AD). Byzantine Emperor Heraclius regained control of Egypt. He appointed Cyrus of Alexandria, a Chalcedonian, as the new Patriarch. Cyrus was determined to fundamnentally change the Coptic Church. He proceeded to wipe out the Miaphysites doctrine and use brute force to do so. He expelled Coptic monks and bishops from their monasteries and sees, often bu\y force. Many perished in the chaos. Conflct between the Copts and Byzantine Empire which pressed for the adoption of Orthodox liturgy created considerable unrest in Egypt. Thus when Arab armies entered Egypt much of the largely Coptic popularion saw them as more liberators than invaders. The initial Arab rulers did not interfere in Christian religious duisputes are press the local popularion to convert. Over time, Arab rulers increased taxation on Christians causing growing disatisfaction. Many began to convert. A series of revolts occurred and were supressed. A major revolt by both Muslims and Christians attempted to expel the Arabs (830 AD). This was the turning point in Egyptian history. After the supression, Egypt increasing became Muslim and culturally Arab. The liturgical language of the Coptic Church today is the popular indigenous Egyptian language at the time of the Arab invasion. A reader writes, "I worked with an Egyptian architect in the 1960's who sent me a Christmas card because he was a Coptic. But, he emphasized that he was also an Arab." Unfortunately many fundamentalist Muslims in Egypt and other Aeab countries don't believe a true Arab can be Christian. Coptic Christians today feel under increasing pressure from the growing Islamic fundamentalist movement in Egypt.


Egypt until after World War II had a substantial European community, centered in Alexandria more than Cairo. One might think that the British would have been the largest group, but in fact they were a relativelty small group. The two largest groups were the Greeks and Italians, giving Alexandria a mediterranean flavor. [Haag, p. 3.] Another important group was the Armenians. Many of the Greeks and Armenians came from Anatolia, refugees if rising Turkish nationalism. Both were very entrprenurial groups, envigorating the local economy with both small shops and business. The Italians provided much of architechts and enginners who helped build the modern city after it was refounded in the early-19th century. The tolerant atmpsphere and lack of radical nationlism or religious sentiment as well the rule of law attracted Europeans to Alexandria. The Italians were affected by World War II when Mussolini declared war on Britain and then invaded Egypt. The sutuation in Alexandria further changed after World War II with the rise of Egyptian nationlism fueled by Nassar. Egyptian Jews were thec first target and eventually expelled, but many of the Europeans also left Egypt as a result of the less tolerant atmophere and a decline in the rule of law. Many Egyptians felt that they would benefit by expelling Jews and the flight of the European communities. In fact the economy suffered from the loss of so many talented people and the economic consequencs of Nassar's Arab Socialism. There is a rich photographic record of these Eyuropean communities.


Egypt was a major refuge for the Jews of the Dispora following the revolt against Rome (1st century AD). Egypt had one of the most dynamic Jewish communities in the Diaspora. After the Arab conquest Jews were tolerated to a varying degree. During the Caliphate Jews were subjected to major periods of persecution by different caliphs (9th-11th centuries). Finally the large Jewish quater in Cairo was destoyed and the Jews there murrdered in mass (1012). Conditions in Egypt varied at thewhim of local rules after the destruction of the Caliphate. There were periods of relative tollerance and periods pf percecution. The Ottomans seized Egypt (1517). Again treatment of the Jews varied depending on the attitude of the various sultans. Ottoman rule weakened in the 19th century and local rulers began to exert indepedence. The French and British took an increasing interest in Egypt at mis-century with the construction of the Suez Canal. During the late 19th century there were at least six blood libel persecutions in Egyptian cities (1870-92). Egypt was affected by European anti-Semtism. The Tsarist secret police published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a forgery, but widely deseminated. Most Egytians to this day regard it as a historical document. Egyptians nationalists were influenced by the anti-British and anti-Semetic writings and broadcasts of the Grand Mufti of Jeursalem in Palestine. Both the Free Officers movement and the Muslim Broytherhood were heavily influenced by anti-Semitism and impressed by the NAZIs. Few understood just how low the Arabs as Semites ranked on the NAZI racial scale. At the end if World War II (1945), the Egyptian Government offered refuge to the Grand Mufti who spent the War in Berlin making NAZI propganda bridcsts and urging Hitler and Him;rr onkill more Jews. There at the time about 75,000 Jews in Egypt. Most lived in Alexandria and Cairo. Unlike the other Jews in North Africa, the Fascists never occupied Egypt, except for the Western Desert. Thus Egyption Jews did not experience the NAZI Holocaust. After Israel declared independence and Arab armies attacked, Jews in Egypt were targeted (1948). Arabs carried out bomb attacks in Cairo, killing about 70 Jews. Authorities arrested prominent Jews and confiscated their property.


Nubians are the ethnically negroid people of the upper Nile valley. They formed the Kingdom of Kush in early Egyptian history. Some of Egypt's pharoes were Nubians. Egyptian Nubians live in the Upper Nile region of southern Egypt. The Egyptian-British Condominium Agreement deliniated the boundary between Egypt and Sudan (1899). Lower Nile (meaning northern) Nubians found themselves in Egypt and thus under direct Egyptian rule. Egyot at the time also Sudan as paet of Egypt, but shared administration with the British. The Egyptian Nubians were politically separated from their kinsmen to the south in Sudan. The border was ethnically arbitrary, dividing the Nobiin-speaking group roughly in half between Egypt and Sudan. Egyptians did not expect Sudan tgo become and independent country. But after World War II this is exactly what happened. The Sudabnese after the Egyptians abolished the mobarchy (1953), pressed for independence and Britain granted independence to them (1956). Close cultural ties, including a non-Arabic anguage and family bonds connected the Nubians north and south of the border. And there was considerable movement across the border for some time. Construction of the Aswan High Dam changed this. Many Nubians had to be evscuatednd (1964) and were displaced. In addition, large numbers of Arab Egyptians from the north were brght south to work on the dam. Egyptian Nubia is part of the large Governorate of Aswan which includes a populous Nile valley area to the north of the border. Large numbers of the province population are not Nubian majority stock. As a result, Egyptians Nubians find themselves a minority within their own native province.


Haag, Michael. Vintage Alexandria: Photographs of the City, 1860-1960 (American Univ in Cairo Press, 2008), 139p.


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Created: 5:38 PM 12/22/2010
Last updated: 8:56 AM 11/7/2016