Egypt country overview

The culture of Egypt

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

Egypt information index

The arts of Egypt

Egypt is renowned for its contribution to modern Arabic literature, with many of the Arab world’s most prominent writers hailing from the country. The impact of Western influence is a recurring theme in Egyptian novels, as seen in works such as Tawfīq Ḥakīm’s Bird of the East and Yaḥyā Ḥaqqī’s novella The Lamp of Umm Hashim. Another common theme is the portrayal of the Egyptian countryside, depicted both romantically and realistically in various novels. Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s greatest modern novelist, is known for his ability to capture the essence of urban poverty in his early and middle works, particularly in Midaq Alley. Mahfouz later received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his renowned Cairo Trilogy. Other notable Egyptian novelists include Sonallah Ibrahim, Nawal El Saadawi, Bahaa Taher, and Alaa Al Aswany.

The modern theatre in Egypt has its roots in European influence, with the first Arabic-language plays being performed in 1870. Two influential dramatists, Maḥmūd Taymūr and Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm, played a significant role in shaping the development of Egyptian theatre. Al-Ḥakīm, in particular, reflected the cultural and social history of modern Egypt through his versatile and thought-provoking plays. Younger dramatists have also embraced the changes in Egyptian society, exploring new themes in their works.

Given the country’s low literacy rates, electronic media, particularly television, have played a crucial role in spreading mass popular culture in Egypt. Egyptian television programs have had a significant influence on regional tastes, attracting viewers from across the Arab world. The country’s most popular actors are widely recognized internationally.

Egypt has a long tradition of filmmaking, dating back to World War I. The establishment of Miṣr Studios in 1934 further stimulated the growth of Arabic-language cinema. Modern Egyptian films are not only popular within the Arab world but also distributed in Asian and African countries. The film industry in Egypt is a mix of private and state ownership, with numerous private film-production companies and the Ministry of Culture’s Egyptian General Cinema Corporation. Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu Sayf, and Muhammad Khan are among the well-known Egyptian directors, while actor Omar Sharif gained international fame in the 1960s and ’70s before continuing his career in Egyptian films. Renowned singers and composers such as Umm Kulthūm, Layla Murad, Farid al-Atrash, and Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab have also made significant contributions to Egyptian cinema.

Music and dance have always held a prominent place in Egyptian culture. Traditional Egyptian musical styles are diverse, reflecting the country’s ethnic heterogeneity. Instruments commonly used in Egyptian music, such as the ʿūd, qānūn, nāy, riqq, and rabāb, are similar to those found in other Middle Eastern and North African countries. Egyptian music encompasses various genres and repertoires, offering a wide range of musical variety. While some religious groups technically eschew music, musical traditions are prevalent throughout the country. Sufi Muslims, for example, engage in communal repetition of the names of God accompanied by instruments and dancing. The zār, a purification ceremony involving singing, dancing, and musical instruments, is also popular, particularly in rural areas. Martial dances and the performances of female singers known as ʿawālim and ghawāzī have been part of Egyptian culture in the past. Raqs sharqī, or belly dancing, is a thriving art form performed by professional dancers at various celebrations.

Contemporary Egyptian music combines indigenous forms, traditional Arab music, and Western influences. The revival of traditional Arab music owes much to state support, while the rise of popular stars was fueled by the availability of musical recordings, radio, and motion pictures. Sayyid Darwīsh, Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Umm Kulthūm, and ʿAbd al-Ḥalīm Ḥāfiẓ are among the notable figures in Egyptian music history. Western-style music has also been integrated into Egyptian musical culture since the 19th century, with pioneers like Yūsuf Greiss and Abū Bakr Khayrat incorporating Arab elements into their compositions.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional crafts, indigenous music, and folkloric dance in Egypt. The government sponsors two folk dance ensembles, the Riḍā Troupe and the National Folk Dance Ensemble, to preserve and promote these cultural traditions. The visual arts have also embraced local themes, leading to the emergence of an active school of Egyptian painting and sculpture. The Awakening of Egypt, a statue by Maḥmūd Mukhtār, is a notable example of this artistic movement and stands as a symbol of Egyptian identity in front of Cairo University.

Egypt boasts a rich architectural heritage that spans thousands of years, encompassing various traditions including Pharaonic, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine, Islamic, and European influences. Many locations in the country have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites due to their historical and architectural significance.

Among the ancient sites are the ruins of the city of Memphis and its necropolis, situated south of Cairo, as well as the pyramid fields including the renowned Pyramids of Giza and the stepped pyramid at Dahshūr. The city and necropolis at Thebes in Upper Egypt, which includes notable features like the villages of Karnak and Luxor, along with the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, also hold great importance. Additionally, a series of monuments stretching from Abu Simbel to the Nile island of Philae in southern Egypt represent the Roman and Byzantine periods. Noteworthy sites from the Islamic era can be found in the old city of Cairo, known as Islamic Cairo, which is adorned with prominent mosques, citadels, madrasahs, and bathhouses.

European influences, particularly in Alexandria and Cairo, are evident in sections of the cities’ corniche, where townhouses, hotels, and mansions showcase a distinct European design. These styles dominate certain areas in major cities. Western influence is also apparent in public buildings, especially those constructed during the colonial period, such as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (1900). Furthermore, Egypt boasts ultramodern structures like the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a contemporary version of the ancient Library of Alexandria, which was opened in 2002. In recent years, there has been a movement to blend European and Islamic architectural styles in new constructions, reflecting a fusion of influences.

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