Egypt country overview

The land of Egypt

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

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Geographic regions of Egypt


The Nile river dominates the topography of Egypt, cutting through the country for about 750 miles (1,200 km). Its narrow valley stands out as a vibrant strip of green amidst the surrounding desert. From Lake Nasser to Cairo, the river is confined to its trenchlike valley by cliffs, but at Cairo, it begins to spread out into its delta. The Nile and the delta make up one of four physiographic regions in Egypt, along with the Western Desert, the Eastern Desert, and the Sinai Peninsula.

The Nile divides the desert plateau into two sections—the Western Desert, between the river and the Libyan frontier, and the Eastern Desert, extending to the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Suez, and the Red Sea. Each section has its own distinct characteristics, as does the smaller Sinai Desert. The Western Desert is arid and lacks wadis (dry riverbeds), while the Eastern Desert is heavily dissected by wadis and bordered by rugged mountains in the east. The central Sinai Desert consists of open country, with isolated hills and wadis.

Contrary to popular belief, Egypt is not entirely flat. Mountainous areas can be found along the Red Sea and in the extreme southwest of the Western Desert and southern Sinai Peninsula. The highest elevations in the southwest are associated with the ʿUwaynāt mountain mass, which lies just outside of Egyptian territory.

Except for the delta, the coastal regions of Egypt are surrounded by desert or mountains and are generally arid or of limited fertility. The coastal plain in the north and east is typically narrow, rarely exceeding a width of 30 miles (48 km). Aside from a few cities and ports such as Alexandria, Port Said, and Suez, the coastal regions are sparsely populated and underdeveloped.

The Nile valley and delta

The Nile delta, also known as Lower Egypt, spans an area of 9,650 square miles (25,000 sq km). It stretches approximately 100 miles (160 km) from Cairo to the Mediterranean, with a coastline of about 150 miles (240 km) from Alexandria to Port Said. Previously, the delta had up to seven branches of the river, but now it is concentrated in two main branches: the Damietta Branch to the east and the Rosetta Branch to the west. Despite being mostly flat, the delta is not devoid of features, as it is intersected by a complex network of canals and drainage channels. Along the delta coast, a significant portion is occupied by brackish lagoons such as lakes Maryūṭ, Idkū, Burullus, and Manzilah. The conversion of the delta to perennial irrigation has enabled the cultivation of two or three crops per year on over half of its total area.

The cultivated part of the Nile valley between Cairo and Aswān varies in width from 5 to 10 miles (8 to 16 km), although there are sections where it narrows to a few hundred yards and others where it widens to 14 miles (23 km). Since the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970, this 3,900-square mile (10,100 square km) valley has been continuously irrigated.

Previously, the Nubian valley of the Nile extended for 160 miles (250 km) between Aswān and the Sudanese border, forming a narrow and picturesque gorge with limited cultivable land. However, it was flooded by the waters held back by the High Dam to create Lake Nasser. The approximately 100,000 inhabitants were resettled, primarily in the government-built villages of New Nubia, located north of Aswān at Kawm Umbū (Kom Ombo). Lake Nasser has been developed for fishing and tourism since the 1970s, leading to the growth of settlements around it.

The Eastern Desert

The Eastern Desert makes up approximately 25% of Egypt’s land surface, covering an area of around 85,690 square miles (221,900 square km). The northern part consists of a limestone plateau with rolling hills that stretch from the Mediterranean coastal plain to a point opposite Qinā on the Nile. Near Qinā, the plateau transforms into cliffs reaching heights of about 1,600 feet (500 meters) and is deeply marked by wadis, making it challenging to navigate. Some of the main wadis form deep bays where small settlements of seminomads can be found. Moving southward from Qinā, the second part of the desert is a sandstone plateau. This plateau is also marked by ravines, but they are relatively obstacle-free and can be used as routes. The third part is made up of the Red Sea Hills and the Red Sea coastal plain. These hills, which extend from near Suez to the Sudanese border, are not a continuous range but rather a series of interconnected systems. Some peaks in the Red Sea Hills reach heights of over 6,000 feet (1,800 meters), with the highest peak, Mount Shāʿib al-Banāt, reaching 7,175 feet (2,187 meters). They are geologically diverse, containing ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks, including granite that extends across the Nile valley to form the First Cataract near Aswān. At the base of the Red Sea Hills, the narrow coastal plain widens as it extends southward, and there are almost continuous coral reefs parallel to the shore. In popular perception and usage, the Red Sea littoral can be considered as a distinct subregion.

The Western Desert

The Western Desert, which accounts for two-thirds of Egypt’s land surface, spans approximately 262,800 square miles (680,650 square km). Starting from its highest point at over 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) on the Al-Jilf al-Kabīr plateau in the southeast, the rocky plateau gradually slopes northeastward towards the first of the depressions that characterize the Western Desert. This depression is home to the oases of Al-Khārijah and Al-Dākhilah. Moving further north, we find the oases of Al-Farāfirah and Al-Baḥriyyah. Continuing northwest from the latter, the plateau descends towards the Qattara Depression (Munkhafaḍ al-Qaṭṭārah), an uninhabited and nearly impassable region for modern vehicles. Situated west of the Qattara Depression, near the Libyan border, is the largest and most populous oasis known as Siwa. Inhabited for thousands of years, Siwa has experienced minimal influence from modern development. South of the Qattara Depression, extending westward to the Libyan border, the Western Desert is characterized by vast ridges of wind-blown sand interspersed with stony areas. As we move beyond the Qattara Depression towards the north, the plateau’s edge aligns with the Mediterranean Sea, leaving behind a narrow coastal plain.

Sinai Peninsula

The Sinai Peninsula is a wedge-shaped block of territory located along the Mediterranean Sea coast, with its apex bounded by the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba. It covers an area of approximately 23,000 square miles (59,600 square km). The southern portion of the peninsula consists of rugged, sharply serrated mountains, reaching elevations of over 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). The highest mountain in Egypt, Mount Catherine (Jabal Kātrīnā), stands at an elevation of 8,668 feet (2,642 meters). In the central area of Sinai, there are two deeply indented and northward dipping plateaus, Al-Tīh and Al-ʿAjmah, which slope towards Wadi al-ʿArīsh. Towards the Mediterranean Sea, the northward slope of the plateau is broken by dome-shaped hills. Between these hills and the coast, there are long, parallel lines of dunes, some of which reach heights of more than 300 feet (100 meters). The coast itself is characterized by a salt lagoon called Lake Bardawīl, which stretches for approximately 60 miles (95 km).


Apart from the Nile, there are only a few small streams in the mountains of the southern Sinai Peninsula that provide natural perennial surface drainage. Most of the valleys in the Eastern Desert drain westward to the Nile. These valleys are eroded by water but are usually dry, except during heavy rainstorms in the Red Sea Hills when they carry torrents. The shorter valleys on the eastern side of the Red Sea Hills drain towards the Red Sea and are also typically dry. In the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula, the drainage is towards the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba. Similar to the Red Sea Hills, torrential action has resulted in deeply eroded and usually dry valleys.

The central plateau of the Sinai drains northward towards Wadi al-ʿArīsh, a depression in the desert that occasionally carries surface water. The Western Desert is characterized by its aridity, evident from the absence of drainage lines. However, there is a significant water table beneath the Western Desert. In some oases, wells have been drilled to access the water table when it is close to the surface.

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