Egypt Arts and Literature

By | August 12, 2020


The Islamic rulers conquered Egypt in the 640’s. Thus, the conditions were given for the emergence of Arabic literature in the country during the Umayyad and Abbasid times (compare Arabic literature). The 1200’s-1700’s were, for Arabic literature, generally a period of increasing stagnation. However, this was replaced by a literary renaissance (nahda) during the 19th century.

Egypt Population Pyramid

  • Countryaah: Population and demographics of Egypt, including population pyramid, density map, projection, data, and distribution.

Through Napoleon’s campaign (1798-1801), Egypt was opened to Western impulses. Many educational institutions were set up, including: a language school (Madrasat al-Alsun, 1836), whose leader Rifaa Rafi at-Tahtawi pioneered the rebirth of Egyptian literature. Through his journalistic activities and his translations of scientific and technical works, he was driven to re-imagine Arabic as a medium for the thoughts of the time.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Egyptian society was transformed politically, socially and religiously. At the same time, great efforts were made to further transform the Arabic language into a modern literary medium. In the early 1900’s, a relatively liberal literature criticism also emerged. represented by Mustafa Sadiq ar-Rafii, Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad and Taha Husayn.

In the field of prose, the novel dominated at first, but as early as 1914 the first real novel, “Zaynab” was published by Muhammad Husayn Haykal. During the interwar period, strong nationalist currents swept across the Arab world. They were recorded, among other things. in a number of historical novels in Egypt, e.g. by Syrian-Lebanese Jurji Zaydan, Ali al-Jarim and Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid. From the West was also inspired a psychological novel, which often went hand in hand with the pursuit of realism, for example. at Ibrahim Abd al-Qadir al-Mazini, Taha Husayn, Muhammad Taymur, his brother Mahmud Taymur and Tawfiq al-Hakim. Gradually, the social-realist novel was liberated from Western role models and developed into a more profiled Inarabian and Egyptian art, especially through Muhammad as-Sibai,

After the revolution in 1952, a strong social-critical literature developed, which turned to the dominant bourgeoisie and the landowners. The beginning is marked by Abd ar-Rahman ash-Sharqawi’s debut novel “The Earth” (1954). At the same time, recent psychological research has given the authors impetus for a literary depiction of human subconscious. Consideration of the censors’ intervention also forced many writers into symbolism (including Idris and Ash-Sharqawi). The 1967 and 1973 wars played an important role in literature. In today’s Egyptian novel and novel art, realistic and socially critical literature dominates, but it is balanced by a focus on everyday life and a must-have, popular storytelling tradition. Of contemporary female writers, the doctor and social critic Nawal El Saadawi is particularly influential. A literary pioneer is Miral al-Tahawi through his depictions of Bedouin culture from within. One of the most well-known Egyptian novels of the 1990’s was the “Yacoubian’s House” (2002), which made the author Alaa al-Aswany famous in the Arab world and beyond. Egyptian writers include Ahdaf Soueif, although she uses English when writing fiction.

Poetry in Egypt lasted even longer than the prose in solidified forms and conventional modes of expression. A neoclassical movement, at least partially able to take into account the newer trends of the time, emerged through mainly Mahmud Sami al-Barudi, Ahmad Shawqi and Hafiz Ibrahim, and was combined with the romance of Khalil Mutran. In particular , the poets of the Divan group turned to the poetic style of the neo-classical, in particular, demanding greater authenticity in the lyrics. Within the Apollo circle (from 1932) the new era’s lyricism was cultivated in the tension between romance and symbolism.

From the 1950’s, a stronger political commitment broke through and influenced the form of poetry. Different kinds of free verse, including under the influence of Arab poets active in the United States (the so-called mahjar poets), was introduced. The formal and thematic constraints of classical poetry were dissolved and new motives were tried, for example. by Salah Abd as-Sabur and Ahmad Abd al-Muti Hijazi. After the wars of 1967 and 1973, many poets came to an agreement with fatalism and paralysis. Leading poets in Egypt in recent decades include Muhammad Afifi Matar and Amal Dunqul, who represent an intimate and symbolistic lyric.

Drama and theater

During the literary renaissance in Egypt several theater groups were established. The first to create a Western-inspired Arabic play was Yaqub Sanu, of Italian-Jewish birth (“Operett”, 1870). Salim an-Naqqash successfully put together many pieces, first “Abu l-Hasan al-Mughaffal” (1876), and engaged significant actors, including Yusuf Khayyat and Sulayman al-Qardahi, who founded his own theater group in 1885. Another theater was led by Ahmad Abu Khalil al-Qabbani, who came from Syria to Egypt in 1884. One of his actors, Iskandar Farah, also set up his own group, who soon won a lot of recognition and attracted singer and actor Salama al-Hijazi. Farah recorded in his repertoire many plays by contemporary Arab writers.

Egypt came to dominate the theater of the Arab world during the 20th century. The most important theater troupes during the first two decades of the century were led by Jurj Abyad. His troops provided both Arabic original works and interpretations of European drama, including Molières “Tartuffe” and Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra”. Over time, Abyad merged with al-Hijazi, and from their squad emerged several new theater companies, led by a.k.a. Yusuf Wahbi, Fatima Rushdi and Naguib ar-Rihani.

The neoclassical poet Ahmad Shawqi, who got to know European theater in France, wrote comedies and historical dramas, among others. about Layla and Majnun, about Cleopatra’s case (partly dependent on Shakespeare), about the Persian king of Cambyses and about the Islamist poet Antara ibn Shaddad.

Tawfiq al-Hakim is considered the father of modern Egyptian drama. Among his literary works are some 40 dramatic works. He had also come to know European literature, especially Shaw, in France. Mahmud Taymur wrote a dozen or so plays, partly socially critical, partly comic, in which he sought to depict Egyptian everyday life. He was the first to seriously use dialect in the dialogue.

Among the playwrights of recent decades, Numan Ashur – influenced by Chekhov – is noted as a. dealt with the tension between social and economic groups in society, and furthermore Rashad Rushdy, who, thanks to brilliant style art, managed to escape the Nazi era censorship. Salah Abd as-Sabur embodied i.a. the tragedy of the Persian mystic al-Hallaj, executed in Baghdad 922 (“Masat al-Hallaj”, 1965). Ali Salim, in his “Spirits in New Egypt” (1968), was hostage to the country’s espionage and information services. Yusuf Idris, best known as novelist, has also written dramas, eg. “Småfolk” (1963), where he mocks the Egyptian government.

Economic and social problems in the wake of the June 1967 war and the assassination of President Sadat in 1981 as well as a growing religious fundamentalism have had a negative impact on Egyptian theater life. Cheap popular pieces on film and TV have spread at the expense of serious drama.


In 1896 films were shown by Lumière in Alexandria and in 1900 the first cinema in Cairo was opened. Egypt was long dependent on foreign capital and foreign technologies. It wasn’t until 1927 that the first entirely Egyptian feature film premiered.

During the 1930’s, domestic film production started on a larger scale. at the film company Studio Misr, founded in 1936 by industrialist Talaat Harb (1867-1941). The most popular films were melodrams and farces, which soon captured a market in large parts of the Arab world. An estimated two-thirds of Arabic-language film production has been produced in Egypt. In 1944, Kamal Salim (1912–46) made the realistic “El Bouassa”, freely after Victor Hugo’s “Child of Accident”. However, the censorship, introduced by the British in 1914, explicitly prevented social criticism, even though it permeated works by directors influenced by Italian neorealism. With titles such as “A Night of Love” (1951) by Ahmed Badrakhan (1909-69)) Egyptian film also began to appear at film festivals abroad.

In the late 1950’s, a state film agency and a film school were set up, while parts of the film industry were nationalized. During the decade, Salah Abu Sayf (1915-96) emerged as a portrayal of petty bourgeois and urban workers in, for example. “The Leech” (1956). More versatile was Yusuf Shahin with often politically challenging themes about corruption, homosexuality and religious conflicts. His “The Blazing Sun” (1954) introduced the later internationally active actor Omar Sharif, and in 1997 the Shahin Cannes Festival was awarded the prize for his collected works.

In the 1950’s, Tawfiq Salih also made his debut (1927–2013), who with his harsh depictions of the relationship between exploited and exhausted, made himself unpopular with the censor. About the same time that Shadi Abd as-Salam’s (1930–86) internationally esteemed “The Graves” (1969) premiered, the New Film group was founded in a vain attempt to revitalize the domestic film. With increased political pressure in the 1970’s, the leading directors sought other countries.

Artistically, Egypt’s political and social crisis had a creative effect on a new generation of filmmakers, such as Atif Tayyib (1947–95; “Bus Driver”, 1982), Mohammad Khan (1942–2016; “Return of a Citizen”, 1986, “Factory Girl “, 2013) and Inas al-Dighidi (born 1953;” Lace “, 1998), the latter one of the country’s few female film directors.

In the 1990’s, liberal filmmakers encountered Islamic fundamentalism as a counter-force that partly worked successfully for censorship on religious grounds. Still in the 21st century, the broad comedies dominate the taste of audiences with, among other things, Mohammed Saad (born 1968) as a leading star. Internationally renowned names in recent years include Maarwan Hamed (born 1977; “The Yacoubian Building”, 2006) and Sharif Arafa (born 1960; “Escaping Tel Aviv”, 2010).

Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz has been a scriptwriter and film director for decades. he has worked with Tawfiq Sali.

Egypt annually produces about 40 feature films and has an overwhelming domestic market dominance.

Arts and crafts

Muslim art is a decorative art – for example. in the form of wood carvings and stucco work – which largely serves the architecture. Ornaments and calligraphy characterize the artworks; only rarely do figurative representations occur. Individual art forms are hardly tangible, although names are sometimes familiar. The craftsmanship’s foremost items have often been determined for special environments, mainly mosques and, in the alternative, private palaces. Particularly prominent among these art objects are glass or rock crystal lamps, but also illuminated Korans in ornamented leather bands, candlesticks, jugs and saucers in metal (usually bronze), pulpits, Quran shelves and the like in wood, burial screws in linen and woolen rugs.

The ceramic production in the period about 1000-1500 deserves special attention. In the previous stage, the ceramics had been copied according to Iraqi models, but during the Fatimids a metal glossy glaze was developed, and the decor of large bowls and saucers often consisted of figurative representations, sometimes genre scenes. During the Mamluks about 1300-1500 there is a ceramic special for Egypt with thick lead glaze with heraldic decor in brown, yellow and green. At the same time, they tried to imitate the blue-white Chinese porcelain with moderate success.

After 1500, the traditional craftsmanship has lived in Cairo’s bazaars and has often reached good quality. A new focus was given to the weaving art through Wissa Wassef’s weaving school for children in Harraneya, whose products were mainly internationally acclaimed during the 1960’s.


While the Pharaonic temples often served as Christian churches after 395 AD Egypt came from the mid-600’s to have an architecture completely characterized by a new, international Arabic design language. From the first Arab city of Fustat, urbanization expanded north, and the city merged with the year 969 founded Cairo. Up to about 1500, one of the foremost centers of the Arab world was developed there, whose stone architecture is one of the highlights of Islamic architecture. It was initially marked entirely by the influence of Damascus and Baghdad; Ibn Tulun’s mosque from 868–883 is a completely Iraqi product, the city walls from 1087–92 are a legacy of Byzantine via Syria. The main tasks for the architecture were mosques with associated schools and hospitals, fortifications, baths and wells as well as palaces and residential buildings. In addition, tombs were mainly for the rulers, to which mosques were connected (the caliph and the Mamluk tombs in particular tombs). The basic type of mosque with open courtyard, minaret and prayer wall is international.

During the Fatimids, a distinctive Egyptian style was developed, which was continued with new features under the Mamluks. The stone architecture used elements of stucco, marble, timber and glass, but very rarely tiles. The domes got gigantic dimensions, as did the portals, e.g. Sultan Hassan’s Mosque (1356–63). After the Turkish conquest of 1517, major construction activities only occurred sporadically. First with Mohammed Ali’s tomb mosque, the so-called alabaster mosque in the citadel, a large monument was rebuilt, but completely characterized by Istanbul’s style. Even in modern times, the Egyptian religious architecture is almost entirely based on the traditional elements of the period around 1000-1500, however, with modern materials such as steel and concrete.


For centuries, Egyptian music has played a leading role in the Middle East. From the late 1800’s to the present, art-musical aspects have been influenced in various ways by political changes in the country; inter alia Western colonialism brought with it musical cultural ideas. The need for formal music education grew during the early 1900’s and paved the way for the establishment of a number of music institutions, where both Western and Egyptian / Arabic traditional music are studied on equal terms. By these initiatives, the Egyptian traditional art music has experienced a renaissance. Significant foreground figures such as the Umm Kulthum- respected singer throughout the Arab world have passed on the cultural heritage and renewal.

In some respects, folk music in Egypt is close to art music. With the exception of desert areas west of the Nile, where the Berber music predominates, and the Nubian music in the border regions with Sudan, where clear African features can be read, the country has a predominantly Arabic music culture. Like the art music, it is vocally based and monophonic in its structure with partly improvisatory sections in free rhythm and partly in strict meters, often with complicated additive rhythm groups. Popular music has to some extent adapted to contemporary Western patterns. Despite this, Egyptian / Arabic features shine through to varying degrees, especially in song and play modes. String and string instruments as well as wind instruments and various kinds of drums are used in all genres of music.

The traditional instrumental ensemble takht consists of qanun (trapezoid), ud (short-necked lute), nay (flute), a violin called here kaman or kamanja, and riqq (tambourine type frame drum). In both art and folk music, the simple tubular instrument argul (in the traditional version consisting of two pipes: bordunpipe and melodipipa) is sometimes replaced by the clarinet and the double tubular instrument zurna (actually of Turkish origin) by the oboe. In solo songs of mainly epic nature, rhabas (string cloth) and sometimes darabukka are often used. (cone drum) as accompaniment.

For Christian singing and music tradition in Egypt see Coptic Church.

In the 1970’s, two different popular musical phenomena gained a foothold in the Egyptian audience, partly shaabi, a working-class music that is often sung at, among other things. wedding parties and partly the Arabic pop music shababi. A foreground figure in shaabi is Ahmed Adaweyah (born 1945), who broke with old traditions including by using street snakes in his often controversial lyrics, while managing mawal, an improvisational singing style used in classical Arabic music. Popular but controversial because of his political texts is also Shaaban Abdelrahim (born 1957). Other successful Shaabi artists are Amr Diab (born 1961) and Hakim (born 1962).

The electronic dance music shababi emerged in the 1970’s as an Arab counterbalance to Western pop music. During the 2000’s, a number of female artists have achieved stellar status in Egyptian popular music, including Shereen (born 1980) and Ruby (born 1981), who have attracted attention, among others. by performing lightly dressed in their videos.

Worth to mention is also percussionist Hossam Ramzy, who has created an international career, partly with his own recordings and partly through collaborations with various rock and pop artists.

Among Cairo’s Nubian population, popular music has emerged with roots in traditional Nubian music. One of the most significant musicians for this development is Ali Hassan Kuban (born 1933). Also superstar Mohamed Mounir (born 1954) has nubian roots. Among the more internationally renowned Nubian musicians is the music player Hamza El Din (1929–2006), not least thanks to his collaborations with Western musicians.

Egypt Arts and Literature