Egyptians, along with the rest of the Arab world, call their country Masr. The full name in Arabic is JuMhuriyat Misr al-Arabiyah, which means, the Arab Republic of Egypt. Egypt is a transcontinental country. Most of the country lies in North Africa but it also spans to the southwest corner of Asia via a land bridge formed by the Sinai Peninsula. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Gaza strip and Israel to the northeast, the Red Sea to the east, Sudan to the south and Libya to the west. The location puts Egypt at a strategic crossroads between Africa, Asia and Europe.
Egypt has a rich history and is home to thousands of years of recorded civilization. There have been numerous invasions, battles and victories, dating back to the Pharoranic Era, from 3100 B.C. to 332 B.C. That era was followed by the Greek Era, the Roman Era, the Coptic Era, and the Islamic Era. Then Ottoman rule came, invasions by the French, and ultimately she was colonization by the British, until a revolution in 1952. After that, Egypt became somewhat independent in 1954 when the last British soldiers left, although there were several other times of significant warfare. One in particular happened in 1967 and was called the Six-Day War. This was when Egypt was defeated by Israel, leaving the Sinai Peninsula occupied. Unlike most other countries, there is not a clear moment when Egypt became “Independent.” Some argue the process continues to this day.
Most recently in 2011, after 30 years of rule, there was another revolution in Egypt prompting Hosni Mubarak to step down as president. Unfortunately since the ousting of Mubarak, the country faces new obstacles and many would say that life is far worse and more oppressive than during the Mubarak years. Today the current leader is Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former army chief. Protesters are being prosecuted and there are serious questions about basic human rights, especially freedom of speech. Others claim an iron fist is necessary to keep out the extremists, as the country is surrounded by other countries in conflict.
The vast majority of the people are ethnically Egyptian, Bedouins and Berbers. The minorities are Greek, Nubian, Armenian and other European nationalities. The official religion is Islam (mostly Sunni) with a small Christian population, at around six percent. Christians are referred to as Coptic, although other forms of Christianity are also practiced. For the past 13 centuries, Arabic has been the official language of Egypt. Prior to that, Coptic was the language spoken, which descended from Ancient Egyptian. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world and Cairo is the largest city in all of Africa and all of the Arab nations.
With hardly any rainfall to speak of, the Egyptians are blessed with the longest river on the planet. Egypt’s gift is the river Nile, alongside of which, 94 percent of the population reside. Egypt is mostly desert, except for the fertile valleys surrounding the Nile, as the river delivers rich, dark, Ethiopian soils to nourish her valleys. The Nile runs north, flowing over 4000 miles and ends in the Mediterranean Sea. Wooden sail boats, called feluccas, are the mode of transportation along the Nile, as it has been for centuries. Diversion of the river and controlled flooding have been done secretly since the days of Pharaohs. The fertile soil bestows an abundance of fresh produce. In fact, food production is the number one industrial output in Egypt. Egyptian cotton is the number two export. It is famous for its long fiber that softens and strengthens over time. It is commonly used in luxury bedding and if you have never slept on a set of high thread count, Egyptian cotton sheets, well, you should!
Egypt’s greatest treasures have to be the antiquity and well preserved buildings and temples from ancient Egypt. The most well-known symbol of Egypt is the Great Pyramids of Giza. The largest pyramid, called Khufu, is the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the only one to remain largely intact. Egyptologists believe that is was built as a tomb for the Egyptian Pharaoh named Khufu and was built over a 10 to 20 year period of time, concluding around 2560 BC. Initially built to a height of 481 feet, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3800 years. The structure is constructed of 5.5 million tons of limestone blocks, 8000 tons of granite and 500,000 tons of mortar. There is also the Valley of Kings which was a great burial ground for the Pharaohs. With over 60 tombs and 100 chambers, it is where the Tomb of Tutankhamun, a.k.a., King Tut, was discovered in 1922 and it was found untouched by thieves and vandals. The tomb was packed with amazing artifacts including King Tut’s mummy, a gold mask and a solid gold inner coffin, just to name a few.
We owe a lot to the ancient Egyptians, especially for their inventions and technology which helped to shape many civilizations to come. One of the most important inventions was writing. They wrote in hieroglyphics, which allowed them to keep accurate records and control their empire. The English language has only 26 letters but the ancient Egyptians had over 700. Thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, we found the key to unlock our modern understanding of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Egypt also gets the credit for the invention of paper; basically durable sheets of parchment made from the papyrus plant. They kept the production process a secret so that they could sell their parchment to other countries. Clearly the Egyptian understanding of geometry, structural engineering and architecture allowed them to build the impressive pyramids. They also created make-up and even the men wore it. The substance was called kohl and it was made from soot and other minerals. Aside from creating a fashion statement, it helped to protect their skin from the hot desert sun. Oh and they invented the toothbrush and toothpaste out of necessity, due to the bread having so much grit and sand in it. (Could that be how the sandwich got its name?)
Speaking of bread, today it is subsidized by the government. For generations the government has fed the public by distributing flour to bakeries, which in turn sells bread for as little as five piasters a loaf; less than one U.S. cent. The system turned Egypt into the largest consumer of wheat, draining the government’s foreign reserves. Cairo spends $3 billion a year on this subsidy. Reform has been difficult since the nearly 90 million Egyptians that rely on the bread are living in poverty. They call their bread aish, which also means life and it is used like a spoon to scoop up food.
As we look into the cuisine of this ancient land, it is as diverse and fascinating as its past. Cairo has the oldest spice market in the Middle East, dating back to 2000 BC. Giant burlap sacks filled with every spice imaginable from India, Asia, Africa and Europe are all traded through Cairo.Originally spices were a necessity to preserve food but now spices offer a world of culinary possibilities and they use them generously in their cuisine. Cardamom, coriander, cumin and cinnamon are just a few of the favorites.
There are a couple of dishes that I did not choose to make but must mention as part of our journey, due to their huge popularity. One is called “Koshari.” It has been served for over one thousand years however, it actually originated in India. It is a dish with pasta, lentils, chickpeas, rice and seasoned with a tomato garlic and cumin sauce and served with fried onions. It is said that every woman should know how to make a great Koshari to be worthy as a wife. Another is a breakfast food called “ful medames”, which is a dish of mashed fava beans. Egyptian cuisine makes heavy use of legumes and vegetables as they are so plentiful from the rich Nile valleys. Garlic and onions are also essentials in their everyday dishes. Lamb is a much loved meat for kebabs, along with chicken and beef. Pork is not eaten for religious reasons nor is alcohol consumed.
So let’s eat Egyptian style:
Ta’amiyas (Fava bean falafel)
Baladi Aish (pita bread) with Tahina (Sesame seed sauce)
Egypt Arabic salad (Tomato and cucumber salad)
Molokhia (Jute leaf soup)
Hamam Mahshi (Stuffed squab)
Basbousa (Semolina cake)
We found some lovely and provocative Arabic music to play in the background as we decorated the table in the colors of the Egyptian flag: red, white and black. We placed lotus flowers (water lilies) all around, as they are the national flower. We also decorated with renderings of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and of course a picture of the famous pyramids. For this meal we invited our two cats to join us, since feline ancestry (through DNA) has been traced back to the cats of ancient Egypt that were called “mau.” Cats were treasured and worshiped by Egyptians for they kept the vermin and snakes at bay.
To begin our meal we said “Sahtain”, which is basically the equivalent of “bon-appetit.” Our first course was the famous falafel, called Ta’amiyas. This much loved appetizer or snack, is made of fava beans, versus others varieties, which are made from chick peas. They were served with fresh pita bread and garnished with cucumber and tomatoes and topped with the lovely tahini sauce, which is delicious on everything. These dishes, (cucumber and tomato salad, tahini and fresh bread), are left out on the table for enjoyment throughout the meal.
The next course was an ancient dish made from jute leaves, called Molokhia. It is a soup that is served with rice and chicken or rabbit. I made ours with chicken and the flavor was awesome. However, the jute leaf has a gelatinous texture when cooked, similar to okra and it takes a bit of getting used to. I served it as a soup portion, for a starter, although it is usually served as the main course. The jute leaf is packed with all sorts of wonderful nutritional value.
For the main course, I just had to make stuffed pigeon, called hamam mahshi. Egyptians have kept pigeons or squab since ancient times. Today their mud brick lofts dot the skyline all along the countryside. The pigeons were stuffed with cracked green wheat, called freekeh (but bulgur or rice is also commonly served) and seasoned with all the classic spices. These birds are small and usually served in pairs. They were simply out of this world; crispy skin and the incredible flavor of the rich dark meat combined with the spicy, wheat stuffing, delicious. Pigeons are commonly served on wedding nights, as they are thought to be an aphrodisiac.
For dessert, we made room for the scrumptious basbousa. This is a semolina, cake-like desert that has the signature sugar coating and is flavored with lemon and rosewater. It was cut into diamond shapes and topped with a single, whole almond. This was the perfect complement to our Egyptian meal, served with a hot cup of mint tea. It is customary to say “Daimah” at the end of the meal, which means “may there always be plenty at your table.”
I leave you with a few proverbs found in the temples of Luxor:
If you search for the laws of harmony, you will find knowledge.
True teaching is not an accumulation of knowledge; it is an awaking of consciousness which goes through successive stages.
Seek peacefully, you will find.
Until next week,