Egypt: Culture - The Egyptian People

The Egyptian People

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In reading several books regarding Egyptian travel, this author was surprised to see the Egyptian populous divided into four cultural groups consisting of Copts, Bedouins, Nubians and Egyptian peasants, or fallahin. Upon closer examination, fallahins are presented basically as farmers living in villages. Perhaps this is a correct and traditional definition of the word fallahin, but it was immediately apparent that this division of cultural groups was out of touch with reality, and showed no feeling for Egypt's true flavor.

Egypt is actually a wonderful and delightful mixture of traditions, with a socioeconomic structure which allows, more and more, a gradient of classes. But one must look, and feel with the heart in order to touch this essence of Egypt.

A considerable amount, if not majority, of Egypt's population now live in larger cities, mostly Cairo and Alexandria. In fact, these two cities dominate the vision of most foreigners. They are vitally important to Egypt's culture, but one should not neglect the many other moderately sized cities. And within these cities there is a virtual kaleidoscope of social stratas. There are doubtless the poor, the recent fallahins come to the city, and the lower echelons of what we will call the commercial or merchant class. They are evident, and plentiful. But these businessmen merge into the middle class, and then upper middle class. More than a few become wealthy.

The travel books seem to neglect this broad range of Egyptian business men. Some come from families who probably have ancient ties with trading, but others are those fallahins who have found what they came looking for in the city. Perhaps the poorest of these merchants, those who sell produce or bean meals in the streets might answer to the term fallahin, but I doubt that most would fall within any of the traditional cultural groups. They have a million faces, and also as many professions and trades. They make gold jewelry and copper pots, rugs, they paint, build buildings and fine pottery. They sell groceries at the corner market. They trade in tractors and water pumps, they are butchers and bakers, taxi drivers, and secretaries. And these days many of these people are simply Egyptian, not Coptic, not Nubian, not Bedouin and certainly not the traditional Fallahin.

But what is equally missing from most travel guide descriptions of the Egyptian culture is a real feeling for the beauty of these marvelous cities. Here, one will find teenagers at McDonalds or Pizza Inn and making the local drag in their small Fiats. There, one will see brightly lit streets with multicolored lights strung from the buildings so as to celebrate a birthday or a wedding. One will find a continuous stream of blaring horns, as a population perpetually late for some meeting scrambles about the city. But one may admire this madness from an armchair next to his favorite coffee shop, where he may be overcome by a feeling of tranquillity. It is often a culture of the back streets of small neighborhoods, particularly at night, where the television has not dispatched social accord. The residents of these small neighborhoods within these monstrous cities know each other well, and look out for one another.

It is also a moral culture, which these authors admire whole heartedly. In a city the size of Cairo, there is virtually no crime rate. Many westerners believe that this is due to stiff punishment, but the real reason is the population's loyalty to their religious faith. The virtual absence of drinking and drugs among the local population, prohibited by their Islamic law and enforced by their own piety, surely has much to do with this. When one ceases judging cultures purely from the standpoint of material wealth, and begins to see the humanistic success of the Egyptian culture, it is difficult for a person of any religious persuasion not to develop a deep respect for Islam.


The rural peasants provided the pharaohs with both the manpower to build their majestic monuments and the food to support the workers. Even today, the fallahin wrest two or three crops from their tiny fields in a futile attempt to feed Egypt's ever-expanding population. These farmers live in small villages, often settled by their Pharaonic ancestors, scattered along the Nile.

Egyptian Villages

Most of the inhabitants live in mud-brick homes, their thick walls insulating against the afternoon heat. Flat roofs, exposed to the northern evening breezes, serve as cool sleeping quarters as well as storage areas. Villagers plaster the outer walls and often trim them in blue, a color they believe wards off the evil eye. As a man becomes richer, he can add a second story to his house perhaps for his married son. Those villagers who have made the journey to Mecca paint the legend of their trip on the outer walls of their homes. Such hajj houses, along with the mosques, are the most distinguished buildings in a village.

Some villagers build ornate pigeon coops close to their homes, using the birds as food and their droppings to fertilize crops. Many houses still have dirt floors and lack electricity or running water; women with jars balanced on their heads make the trek to the community well, and children with donkeys haul the precious liquid in jerry cans.

All this said, government sponsored building programs have also brought newer style residences and utilities to some villages, particularly those outside the Nile Valley in the Oases and the Red Sea coastal areas.

Family Life

Egyptians dote on their children, who as they grow up quickly, take on adult duties. The younger ones start by herding sheep and goats. When the boys reach nine or 10, they begin learning how to farm the land that will eventually be theirs. Young girls feed chickens, milk goats and water buffalo (gamoosa), make the dung patties used for fuel, and fetch water. At an early age, they learn to carry loads on their heads; starting with lightweight items such as bread loaves, they graduate to laundry, and then to large clay water jars. Their work gives them a grace of carriage that remains with them throughout their lives.

In Egyptian extended families, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all feel clan obligations, and these ties unite them in good times and bad. If an individual's crops fail, all relatives contribute from their own supplies. If an animal is fatally injured, the fallahin will slaughter it and each family within the clan will buy a portion, thus sharing the meat and contributing to the cost of replacing the animal. The clan elders arbitrate disagreements, even those between husbands and wives, and give opinions that range from farming techniques to religious obligations.


Outside her home, a married woman traditionally wears a black outer dress over her brightly colored house-dress and covers her hair with a long veil, which often sweeps the ground behind her. She wears her dowry of gold necklaces and silver bracelets and anklets, insurance against poverty if her husband divorces her or she becomes widowed. Her husband dresses in a long robe (galabayya), cotton in summer and wool in winter. He often covers his head with a scarf wound like a turban and in the winter adds a wool jacket. The robes of both sexes cover the entire body, but their looseness allows a cooling circulation of air and serves as insulation. Although the black garments of the women heat up slightly quicker than the paler galabayyas, both, contrary to popular belief, maintain about the same temperature.


At the end of the working day, rural Egyptians return to their villages, the fallahin leading his water buffalo or riding his donkey. A peaceful quiet settles over the mud-brick houses as families gather for their evening meal. Village women once spent much of their lives cooking, but today, they are equal partners in relationships and take a growing and active role in society. They bake their aysh (bread) in clay ovens of ancient pattern, making both an unleavened type and aysh shams (sun bread), which they set in the sun to rise. The main meal consist of rice, ful beans, and vegetables. For special occasions (if meat is available), they will fix fattah, a dish with layers of bread, rice, and meat seasoned with vinegar and garlic and garnished with yogurt and nuts. The fallahin eat with bread rather than knives and forks, tearing the round loaf into finger-sized portions and dipping them into the serving dishes.


On festival days, a village is anything but quiet. To celebrate the mulid (saint's day) of the village, the entire population turns out; the children sample the carnival rides and the adults visit, watch horse races, and take part in the rituals. During weddings, the village women decorate the bride with designs of henna, and after the wedding, whole villages accompany the bride and groom to their new home. The village women work together to prepare the ornate meals that accompany these celebrations. Isolation is inconceivable in an Egyptian village.


Wandering throughout Egypt's deserts, Bedouin nomads continually search for fresh grazing for their camels and goats and water for their families. They don't wander aimlessly, but return annually to various locations in their territory where the land and water can sustain them for the season. Little in the desert escapes the Bedouin's eye. He knows where and when he can find water and whether it's just brackish or toxic; shrubs tell him when it last rained and how much. Signs left in the sand proclaim who has been there before him, when, the directions from which they came and departed, the size of their flocks, and perhaps even the ages of their camels. Bedouins navigate by the stars, familiar landmarks, and stone markers left on a previous trek. They travel light, leaving caches hanging in trees. Other travelers, if in need, are welcome to the food and water but are bound not to touch the remaining articles.


The Bedouin dresses for the desert, his layered and flowing robes absorbing the sun's hot rays while allowing cooling breezes to circulate. He winds a cloth around his head and neck to retard moisture loss that can lead to heat stroke and to shield his face against the harsh, dry sand. Women wear black dresses and head covers embroidered in tiny cross-stitch designs: blue for unmarried women, red for married. They cover their faces with a veil highlighted in the same stitches and often decorated with shells and coins.


Bedouin live in tents of goat and camel hair panels that the women have woven on their narrow ground looms and stitched together. When the tribe moves, the Bedouin wife is in charge of dismantling the tent, packing it on the camels, and reassembling it a the new site. She can roll up the sides so that the cool breeze enters, or stake them down, making it secure in a sand storm. In case of divorce, the tent belongs to the woman, while the man takes his domestic animals and leaves.

Nomadic Life

The Bedouin band into small, tightly knit tribes, and their leaders, picked for their wisdom and judgment, retain their positions by finesse and largesse, for their proud Bedouin brethren would find direct commands insulting. To the Bedouin, hospitality is mandatory, and guests are welcomed to a tent for three days and three nights. The teapot or coffee pot is always on for either kinsman or stranger. In exchange, the host expects conversation, for the Bedouin thus keeps abreast of the news.

If water is far away, the men and boys make the trip with camels, bringing it back in goatskins. They also go into the nearest town to exchange news and barter, trading rugs, cheese, milk, goats, and camels for cloth, jewelry, rifles, flour, rice, tea, sugar, and coffee.

Modern inroads into the desert are changing the Bedouin's life. Over the past, some rulers of Egypt have provided farm land to the Bedouin, and encouraged their settlement. Many families have settled, building houses, and the handmade tents are disappearing. Trucks bring water in 100-gallon barrels and move goats to pasture. The Bedouin is investing in land and businesses, and sending his sons to school in Cairo and Alexandria and the nearby governorates, where more higher institutes and universities were set up recently. Although he still keeps himself apart from the sedentary Egyptian, his ancient desert lifestyle is vanishing; the Toyota pickup is steadily replacing the camel.


Dark-skinned Nubians inhabit the narrow valley south of Aswan. Although modern studies have been unable to establish the ancestry of the Nubian people or trace changes in the race through history, they carry predominantly Caucasian genes and appear unrelated to other Africans. These people once farmed the narrow margins of the river, planting palm groves along its edge. Hoisting triangular lateen sails above their boats, they hauled rock, transported villagers, and fished the clear, cold Nile.

A distinct group for centuries, the Nubians (called Medjy) served the pharaohs as traders and elite military forces. (Middle Kingdom models show them marching in precise rows bearing shields and bows or spears.) During the Late Period, Nubians traveled north, invading Luxor to reestablish classical Pharaonic culture.

For centuries, the Nubians have taken great pride in their unique culture, refusing to intermarry, and in spite of centuries of inbreeding, the population shows little ill effect--weak traits must have been eliminated generations ago. In modern times, their pride has led to valiant attempts to maintain their village life even when nearly all of the men worked and lived hundreds of kilometers to the north. Today, transplanted from the lands inundated by the waters of Lake Nasser, these hard-working people are attempting to revive their culture in the face of economic and social pressures.

Village Life

Originally Nubian villages were closely knit, celebrating births and marriages with village-wide festivals, rituals that always included the river. The newborn child was washed in its life-giving flow, and at circumcision his foreskin was tossed as offering into the river. A bride and groom bathed separately in the fertile waters on the eve of their marriage, then again at dawn, together. After a death, at the end of mourning, the women came to the waters to wash from their faces the mud and blue dye that had been their badge of sorrow, and offer henna and perfume to the spirits of the river. Although the Nubians converted first to Christianity and then to Islam, beliefs in the water angels persist, and the people continue to petition these spirits for favors and blessings.


The Nubian lifestyle suddenly changed when the British built the first Aswan dam in 1902. Its rising forebay drowned their durra plants, choked their date palms, and swallowed their mosques and homes, forcing the people to rebuild their villages higher up the barren slopes. They attempted to cultivate the new banks of the river, but the sandy soil lacked fertile silt and production levels fell. Many of the men left their families to seek work in the towns, traveling as far as Cairo.

The dam was raised three times within 75 years, ultimately sending over 85% of the Nubian men north to find work. The women and children left behind attempted to maintain the village customs, but with husbands and fathers returning only a couple of times a year, traditional rites and festivals were often abandoned. In smaller ways, too, their lifestyle continued to change: tin pots, aluminum pans, and plastic plates replaced woven baskets, for the date palms that had supplied the fronds were now under the lake. The flat roofs, once supported by palm trunks, gave way to vaulted domes, and even dates themselves, a staple of the Nubian diet, had to be imported.

Although some villagers had earlier moved to Aswan, the High Dam forced a final exodus of the Nubians. When 50,000 trekked north, they could at last claim fertile land. Although living in an alien culture, they were no longer solely dependent on wages sent from the cities; families could bring their men home again. Thanks to government programs, the Nubians who have now settled around Aswan and Kom Ombo face a more promising future. Although many Nubian men still work in the cities, the demand for domestic help (jobs Nubians frequently filled) has nearly vanished, and they now can be found running some of the small shops ubiquitous in Egypt, driving cabs, or sailing faluccas. Others have opted for an education, and Nubians with college degrees make up part of Egypt's educated elite.

Last Updated: August 21st, 2011