Foreign Powers in Egypt

One of the things that I find surprising about Egypt is that, despite its development centuries ahead of other civilizations and its great material and cultural heights, it never really expanded too far outside the boundaries of the modern state of Egypt–never was there a real expansionary period, a great and lasting Egyptian empire. True, aspects of Egyptian culture spread far around the Mediterranean (perhaps most famously the cult of Isis, which finds echoes in the worship of the Virgin Mary), but Egypt was far more often part of a foreign political entity than the center of an empire. Perhaps this was because Egypt’s most glorious years came well before the age of great empires, but the last 2500 years or so have seen numerous foreign powers in control. The Persians came in with Darius, the Greeks with Alexander the Great, the Romans with Marc Antony and Caesar; the early Arab conquest from Arabia was followed by the Fatimids from the Maghrib, Saladin from Syria and Turkic rule through the Mamelukes and the Ottomans; and most recently there were periods of quasi-colonial rule by the French and British.

It could be said that in general Egyptian culture was less affected by the outsiders than the outsiders were by Egyptian culture, especially before the Arab conquest–Egyptian forms of religion and art persisted stubbornly throughout the Persian, Greek and Roman periods, and even Christianity developed into a local church, the Coptic Orthodox (see post of 10.1). Outsiders who ruled Egypt, such as the Greek Ptolemies and the Turkic Mamelukes, eventually became essentially domestic dynasties, even if they were by blood foreign. Ancient Egyptian culture and history have an appeal that has persisted even in modern America: “Walk Like an Egyptian” (incidentally, a pose we did not see in ancient Egyptian art), Art Deco (see post of 9.15), countless movies, the list goes on. But, as I began, Egypt has for a very long time seen many foreign powers come and go, and in this post I wanted to share some photographs showing their relics–Egypt is not all pharaohs and mosques.


“Philosopher’s Circle” of Greek thinkers (from Homer to Plato), at the pharaonic Saqqara funerary complex. The Saqqara complex originally dates from Djoser (2667-2648 BC)–these Greek sculptures were added much later during the Ptolemaic era.

Caduceus of Hermes at the Catacombs in Alexandria. The tombs are believed to date from the first to fourth centuries AD, and although there is a mix of Pharaonic and Greek imagery, it is believed that they were for the local Greek population, which had adopted some Egyptian iconography and styles.

The Greek presence in Egypt continued right through into the twentieth century, especially in the city of Alexandria, where a number of Greek coffeeshops remain as witnesses to the city’s Greek past. Early twentieth century Egypt was a far more multicultural place than it is today; since then, most Greeks have moved elsewhere.

Greek Orthodox Church, Old Cairo. The Greek Orthodox Church also maintains the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai (see post of 10.1).

Greek Inscription, Elephantine Island, Aswan


Roman fortress of Babylon, now called Old Cairo. The Romans/Byzantines were decisively evicted from Egypt by the seventh century Arab conquest, but their Christian faith still persists today in a significant minority of the population.

Roman fresco, Luxor Temple

Latin inscription, Luxor Temple

“Pompey’s Pillar” in Alexandria was actually hoisted by Diocletian, following his quelling of a revolt in Alexandria around 300 AD.

Some of Egypt’s finest remaining temples date from the Greco-Roman era, including the Temple of Horus at Edfu and Temple of Isis at Philae, pictured below. The foreign powers continued Egypt’s ancient religious traditions, placing themselves in the place of the pharaohs on the sculpted reliefs on the walls of the temples.


Ruins of Abu on Elephantine Island. There is evidence of Jewish settlements on Elephantine, which is near present-day Aswan deep in Upper Egypt. According to Graham Hancock, the Ark of the Covenant was temporarily stored here in a Jewish Temple, before its journey to its current alleged resting place in Ethiopia.

Jewish synagogue, Alexandria. Most Jews have left Egypt, just as they have left most other Middle Eastern Arab countries.


Napoleon arrived in Egypt near the end of the eighteenth century, and is responsible not only for subduing Ottoman control, but also for the first scientific survey of Egypt’s archeological treasures. This inscription in the Temple of Isis at Philae records the French military expedition in Egypt.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Egypt was run essentially as a colony of the British Empire. During this time, a Belgian entrepreneur by the name of Edouard Louis Joseph (Baron Empain) developed the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, building for himself this mansion (now known as the Baron’s Palace) in the form of a Hindu temple.

Old Winter Palace Hotel, Luxor, built in 1886 during Egypt’s colonial period

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