Egypt country overview

The people of Egypt

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

Egypt information index

Ethnic groups of Egypt

The population of the Nile valley and delta, which is home to the majority of Egyptians, is a relatively homogeneous group. Their physical characteristics are a result of the mixture of the indigenous African population with those of Arab ancestry. Urban areas, especially the northern delta towns, have a more diverse mixture of physical types due to the influence of foreign invaders and immigrants from Persians, Romans, Greeks, Crusaders, Turks, and Circassians. In these urban areas, it is more common to find people with blond and red hair, blue eyes, and lighter complexions compared to the rural areas of the delta where the peasant agriculturists, known as the fellahin, have had less intermarriage with outside groups.

The inhabitants of the middle Nile valley, roughly from Cairo to Aswān, are known as the Ṣaʿīdī or Upper Egyptians. They are culturally conservative and ethnically similar to Lower Egyptians. In the extreme southern valley, Nubians have distinct cultural and ethnic differences from other Egyptians. Their kinship structure goes beyond lineage, as they are divided into clans and broader segments, unlike other Egyptians who only recognize known members of the lineage as kin. Although Nubians have intermarried with Arabs and other ethnic groups, their dominant physical characteristics tend to be those of sub-Saharan Africa.

The deserts of Egypt are inhabited by nomadic, seminomadic, and sedentary groups with distinct ethnic characteristics. Apart from a few non-Arab tribal groups and the mixed urban population, the inhabitants of the Sinai and the northern section of the Eastern Desert are recent immigrants from Arabia who resemble Arabian Bedouin. They have a tribal social organization, with each group considering themselves united by blood and descended from a common ancestor. Originally tent dwellers and nomadic herders, many have become seminomads or even completely sedentary.

The southern section of the Eastern Desert is inhabited by the Beja, who bear a resemblance to the predynastic Egyptians. The Egyptian Beja are divided into two tribes—the ʿAbābdah and the Bishārīn. The ʿAbābdah occupy the Eastern Desert south of a line between Qinā and Al-Ghardaqah, with several groups settled along the Nile between Aswān and Qinā. The Bishārīn mainly live in Sudan, although some dwell in the ʿIlbah Mountain region, their traditional place of origin. Both the ʿAbābdah and Bishārīn people are nomadic pastoralists who tend herds of camels, goats, and sheep.

The inhabitants of the Western Desert, outside the oases, have mixed Arab and Amazigh (Berber) descent. They are divided into two groups—the Saʿādī and the Mūrābiṭīn. The Saʿādī consider themselves descended from the great Arab tribes that migrated to North Africa in the 11th century. The most important and numerous of the Saʿādī group are the Awlād ʿAlī. The Mūrābiṭīn clans have a client status in relation to the Saʿādī and may be descendants of the original Amazigh inhabitants of the region. Originally herders and tent dwellers, the Bedouin of the Western Desert have become either seminomadic or completely sedentary. They are not localized by clan, and members of a single group may be widely dispersed.

The original inhabitants of the oases of the Western Desert were Amazigh. Over time, they have mixed with Egyptians from the Nile valley, Arabs, Sudanese, Turks, and sub-Saharan Africans, particularly in the case of Al-Khārijah, which was the point of entry into Egypt for the Darb al-Arbaʿīn (Forty Days Road), the caravan route from the Darfur region of Sudan.

In addition to the indigenous groups, there are also small foreign ethnic communities in Egypt. In the 19th century, there was a rapid growth of unassimilated foreign communities, mainly European, living in Egypt. These communities had a dominating influence over finance, industry, and government. The largest community at that time was the Greeks, followed by Italians, British, and French. Since Egypt’s independence, the size of foreign communities has significantly decreased.

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