The civilizations that grew up along the Nile River have long produced some of the world’s greatest art and architecture. Both Egypt and Sudan’s early cultures had pastoral nomadic backgrounds, with people moving closer to water as the Sahara Desert grew at the end of the Neolithic period. Although they have similar origins, their development was separate and with little or no direct contact until the Old Kingdom period (3100–2181 BCE) of Egyptian history. With such a long period of history, both Egypt and Sudan have been able to contribute great art to the world. Ethiopia has also had a long and productive history in art and architecture.
Some influence from Egyptian art can be seen in church decorations and in manuscripts in Ethiopia, but Ethiopia has had centuries of contact with Yemen as well, and the cultures of the Red Sea have probably exercised even more influence on Ethiopia than did the Nile valley. Ethiopia’s connection with Sudan is less easy than with the Red Sea region, and there has always been greater contact via the sea than by the river and its tributaries. The Sudd marks the end of easy river for transportation and contact and the beginning of an entirely different set of cultures and belief systems.
Here sub-Saharan African cultures predominate, and art and architecture are different. Building materials change as well from stone and mud brick to reeds and rushes bound together to make structural supports as well as woven reeds to make sidings. Architecture is equally impressive, and towns and cities have been large and spacious, although little is left of earlier settlements because they were built from perishable materials. Several architectural styles that developed in Egypt became “national” styles. Fatamid was selected by the Coptic Church for its recent monuments, whereas Mamluk was chosen for Muslim buildings in the 19th century when the Egyptian state wanted something more local than the imperial style of the Ottoman state.
An Egyptian style would set off Egypt from the rest of the Ottoman Empire and help assert the Egyptian identity. Nonetheless, the symbol of the city of Cairo is the Ottoman-styled Muhammad ‘Ali Mosque on the Citadel. In the nationalist period starting in the early 20th century, pharaonic was chosen for the tomb of the nationalist hero Saad Zaghlul, despite his request that his tomb not be in such a style. Beyond Egypt, in the 19th century, Masonic temples in Europe, the United States, and Canada began to take on decorative aspects borrowed from ancient Egyptian temples.
In addition to entries in this volume that address the specifics of ancient, Christian, and Muslim buildings, other entries discuss important museums where it is possible to see much of the art. Cairo has three such museums: the Cairo Museum, which Houses pharaonic treasures; the Coptic Museum, which protects Coptic art; and the Islamic Museum, which houses treasures from across the Muslim world, although its primary purpose is to protect Egypt’s Islamic heritage. During the Tahrir Square movement in the Arab Spring in 2011, the Cairo Museum was on the frontlines of the protests because it is located on the northern end of the square. After people broke in and attempted to steal objects, protesters surrounded the museum to protect it with a human chain of linked arms. It is now suspected that the break-in was done to discredit the protest movement and was perpetrated by the police or state security although most likely those actually involved in the thefts were not official members of either service. Most of the objects were placed on the black market for antiquities and have been recovered.
In addition to art and architecture, the region produces some of the Arab world’s best literature and Egypt, because of the numbers of educated elite who can afford own publishing companies and to buy books, has been the home of a good many Arab authors. Egypt and Lebanon are the publishing locations in the Arab world and authors from other Arab states send their manuscripts to Cairo or Beirut for publication. This encyclopedia includes entries on some to the best-known Arab authors of the modern era: Najib Mahfuz, Taha Hussein, and Tawfiq al-Hakim. They are known outside of the Arab world as well. However, they are just a few of the Egyptian authors who are famous in the Arab world. Other well-known authors include Yayha Haqqi, Yusuf al-Qa‘ id, Ihsan ‘Abd al-Qaddus, Ahmad Shawki, Yusuf Idris, Nawal al-Sa’adawi, and ‘Ala’ al-Aswany. The authors chosen for inclusion have been groundbreaking for their fictional novels, short stories, and plays. The American University in Cairo Press has published English translations of many of their works, and they are easily found in most public and school libraries. Other countries along the Nile also have accomplished authors, and the works of Sudan’s Tayib Salih—Season of Migration to the North and Wedding of Zayn—are readily found in libraries or may be assigned as class readings in some university courses. Ethiopia has a long history of literary production, and many of these works are available as well.
Ethiopian authors include Hama Tuma, Sahle Sellaissie, Haddis Alemaheyu, and Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin; many of their works are also available in English translation in public or school libraries. Less known are authors from Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Although many of them write in English, access to their publications is harder because of constraints on African authors to distribute their works outside their home countries and the cost of publication. Libraries should have collections of African authors. Although the most famous Egyptian authors have a large area of readership (the Middle East and the Arab world), many of the other states along the Nile have less distribution and are therefore less “famous.” Much of what holds for literature also holds for cinema.
Egypt is the Arab world’s leading producer of both full-length feature films as well as TV series. Egypt’s film industry emerged when film emerged in the United States and Europe. Unlike most of the rest of the Arab world, Egypt had a population that was wealthy enough to consume films. In the first decades of the 20th century, the Egyptian elite saw film as a way to promote nationalism and independence—to be anti-British— and banker Tala‘at Harb invested in the film industry separately and independently of the British regime in the country. The then king of Egypt, Faruq, was pleased; although he did not personally lend financial support to the film industry, he encouraged Egypt’s own productions. Egypt’s film industry was important enough to be a competitor with Hollywood when German Jews were seeking safe haven from the Nazis in the early 1930s; several major directors such as Fritz Kramp went to Egypt.
Aspiring film stars and singers flocked to Cairo from other Arab states, especially from Syria and Lebanon. The one entry on cinema in this encyclopedia is that for actor Yusuf Wahbi Bey; he helped raise the standards of Arabic-language film from comical farce to true drama. He was important for starting the “golden years” of Egypt’s cinema before Nasserist socialist realism came to dominate. Today Egypt is losing its primary place to other Arab states, but because of the widespread appeal of Egyptian films and TV series, the Egyptian dialect is the most widespread and understood of all Arabic dialects.
In addition to literature and cinema, the Nile River valley has also contributed to music since the time of the pharaohs. Both Egypt and Sudan have distinctive musical traditions within the general traditions of Arab and Islamic culture. Egypt’s ancient music is preserved in the music of the Coptic Church, and the Coptic Church of Ethiopia preserves what Ethiopians claim to be their Solomonic heritage. In Egypt, Arabic music reaches the high standards of classical format in both epic poetry and melodic line. In fact, Cairo is one of the main centers of classical Arabic music. One entry in this encyclopedia is on the great female artist Umm Kulthum.
She was able to produce in her audiences a state of ecstasy or tarab that few artists can match. Her monthly concerts were sold out, with fans coming from throughout the Arab world, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia. Whereas Umm Kulthum devoted most of her work to classical music ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, also included in this book, was the heartthrob of young women. His songs in a more popular vein were sung to his smooth voice, similar to the young Frank Sinatra. Both artists were greatly admired by their audiences and their funerals were immense. Umm Kulthum’s funeral brought over 1 million mourners, and several young women committed suicide on the grave of ‘Abd al-Halim.
Both singers died in the 1970s but their music remains among the most popular in the Middle East and beyond. Their importance is why they are included in this volume. Egypt remains one of the most important sources of music in the Arab world. In the 1980s, a new form began called jill (or young generation’s music). Jill was a rejection of the more formal, Ottoman-court musical style that dominated the Arab world, even in popular music before the 1980s. Jill musicians drew on the folk music of Egyptian peasants—simpler tunes, less instrumentation, and fewer formal words. Such singers as Muhammad Mounir, Hamid al-Sha‘iri, Mustafa Qamar, and Amir Diab exemplify jill music.
In more recent times, rap has gained popularity with Egyptian youth, and singers such as Karim Issa, Sha‘aban ‘Abd al-Rahim, Ahmad Amin, and Maryam Mahmud are now well known both inside and outside Egypt. Sudan’s musical traditions are an interesting combination of Ethiopian style with strong Arabic influences. Instruments are shared among the cultures of Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula. Because they share the Red Sea, these peoples have exchanged as much art and culture along the Red Sea coast as they have along the Nile River valley. In addition, Sudan and Eretria share specific ethnic peoples such as the Beja.
Trade across the Red Sea to the peninsula has also contributed to an exchange of musical instruments and singing styles. Ethiopia exercises a good deal of influence, especially in the Sudanese singing style of singers such as Kamal Tarbas. Egypt is home to one of the Islamic world’s great learning institutions, al-Azhar University, which has produced a large number of religious scholars. Al-Azhar was founded in 970 by the Fatamids to train scholars and missionaries of Isma‘ili (Sevener) Shi‘ism. When Egypt fell to the Sunni Ayyubids, the university began teaching Sunni’s four schools of jurisprudence. Egypt has a long history of supporting institutions of higher learning from the temple schools of the Pharaonic period to the classical Hellenistic academies of the era following Alexander the Great. Egypt always has had an educated elite class who supported writers, musicians, and actors.
Egypt’s legendary wealth was the reason it could have an educated elite class supported by the labor of the peasants. In the modern era, Muhammad ‘Ali of Egypt sent young men to Europe for education and expected them to return home with the knowledge they learned abroad. Muhammad ‘Ali encouraged modern, secular education for his officer corps and wanted to build a strong, modern country with them. Egypt began publishing newspapers and journals In 1875, al-Ahram (The Pyramids) newspaper began publication. In 1892, the first journal for women began its publishing in Alexandria—al-Fatat (The Young Girl). Such publications in Arabic helped grow the Arab nationalist feelings that would soon face European imperialism. As in cinema, these publications served as places for Arab nationalists to express their anti-British feelings and, for a time, their pro-Ottoman sentiments. Following World War I, Arab nationalist feelings ran high, as did the disgust with European imperialism in Egypt and the Levant.
Egypt became the home for journalists from Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, and several major periodicals such as the Syrian Rashid Rida’s al-Manar spread Salafi Islamic ideology, the idea that the early Islamic community served as the best example and could solve all modern problems if imitated throughout much of the Arab world. Such journals found favor with the Muslim readership as it expressed frustration with European imperialism and a general desire for a just Islamic state. Salafi ideas developed into the far less open, inclusive jihadist ideas of today, but their roots are in the late 19th-and early 20th-century Salafi ideas.
These ideas were to restore the golden age of the Arabs and Islam, a period that was wide open to the outside, by going back to the original Islam of their ancestors. Rashid Rida printed articles that today sound much more open and inclusive than the rhetoric of jihadist groups. Even the Egyptian Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) was once a much more nationalist group but over the years it has become less tolerant. Christians preexisted Muslims in Egypt, Sudan, and the rest of the Arab world, and Salafi ideas originally included them as citizens of the same nation. Many Christians were among the nationalists, and their contribution was important to the final liberation of the Arab world from European
colonialism. In Egypt, the more secular branch of nationalism as seen in the army has remained control from al-Nasir to al-Sisi, with a brief period of the Muslim Brotherhood under Muhammad Morsi as almost a hiccup. Sudan, on the other hand, has seen the power of the Salafists grow, and today they hold the country.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Christian missionaries brought education in English and set the course for the eventual separation of Sudan and South Sudan. Although the issue of South Sudan’s secession seems to be more a political issue than one of culture, the cultural incompatibility of the two populations was crucial. For Muslims, the southern Sudanese were not at the same level of cultural development and presented problems of “race,” religion, and language. Few southern Sudanese converted to Islam, and most of those who did were Dinka living in the disputed Abyei region. They had long contact with Arabs, and the region was not part of the area set aside by the British as non-Arab and non-Muslim.
Following Sudan’s independence in 1956, Juba Arabic, the trading lingua franca, became the language of the south. Today, after the separation of South Sudan, there has been an effort to make Swahili the accepted language, although no one in the south speaks Swahili as a first language.
Historically, Swahili is a language of Kenya, Tanzania, and the Indian Ocean coastal communities, not of Sudan. Juba Arabic seems to be a more “natural” choice being composed of Sudanese Arabic and local languages such as Bari. The impact of such a choice is not known. Swahili has a large corpus of literary works in both Arabic and Latin script, but it deals with Swahili culture and history, which are alien to South Sudan.
The countries of the Nile River basin have made long and extensive contributions to the arts not only for Africa but also for the world. Many people are well aware of the contributions by Egypt, both ancient and modern, but many are surprised at the amount of art and architecture from the Nile basin countries. Their contributions continue to be made in all fields, including literature, film, architecture, and fine arts.