Why does Egypt speak Arabic today and not Egyptian?

Many who are not familiar with Egypt's history and culture wonder why Egypt does not speak Egyptian today and not Arabic. This article tries to answer this question for those who ask it.

The New Kingdom: The Last Empire

Egypt's last purely Egyptian great empire, known as the New Kingdom, lasted from 1567 B.C. to 1085 B.C. During this period Egypt dominated a lot of its neighbors, such as Nubia, and Syria. This was achieved by various means, such as Thutmosis military campaigns, Ramses II's peace treaties, and Amenhotep III's diplomacy via marriage. The riches of Tut-Ankh-Amen are from this period, as well as the religious revolution of Akhnaten, the heretic monotheistic pharaoh.

Even then, the language of diplomacy was not Egyptian, but rather cuneiform. Baked clay tablets from Tell El Amarna are written in cuneiform script, and form the letters sent from/to vassals in Syria.

Decline and Decay

Egypt's decline started after this period, when priests took over, and centuries of weakness and decay ensued. During that time, most of the royal tombs were looted, either bypriests recovering the riches of long gone by pharoahs to prepare thenew ones, or by robbers looking for gold. Egypt came under successive rule from foreign powers, such as the Nubians, the Libyans, the Persians, and the Assyrians.

An interesting observation is that Egypt was never ruled by a native Egyptian from the time of Nectanebo II, c. 343 B.C. down to 1952 C.E. when Mohamed Naguib came to power! That is about 23 centuries!

The Hellenic Era

Then after Alexander conquered Egypt in 323 B.C., the era of Hellenism started, where Egypt was a Greek cultural center. Egypt saw a renaissance, but not an Egyptian one, it was purely a Greek one. The cultural centers of old in the south never recovered their past glory as cities of pharoahs. The Egyptian language fell into disuse: apart from use in liturgy by some priests and a dialect for the peasants. It was not the language of the state, the language of commerce and trade, nor the language of learning.

Roman and Christian Eras

When Christianity came to Egypt, Egypt was already in decline, having came under Roman rule, and later under Byzantium. Egyptians, like others in the area, never liked their Roman overlords, in fact they loathed them.

Under Christianity, there was persecution against the pagans, such as the mob killing of the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, and the destruction of whatever remained from the Library of Alexandria.

The Arab and Islamic Era

So, Egypt was ready for another era of greatness, but as was true for 1.5 millenia, it would be under a foreign power. The Arabs came in at the invitation of the Egyptians, who loathed the Byzantines. This was a recurring theme in early Muslim conquests, such as that of Julian, the ruler of Cuetta in western North Africa and the supporters of Witiza summoning the Muslim Arabs and Berbers to conquer Iberia (al-Andalus).

Arabic as a Language

As for the loss of language, Arabs/Muslims never enforced Arabic on the population. In fact the process of changing from a minority language to the language of the majority took six centuries to happen.

The simple explanation is that Arabic, being a semitic language, was close to spoken Coptic, and other Semitic-derived languages. This is why areas where a semitic language was spoken (e.g. Nabatean, Syriac, Assyrian, and even Berber) were all easily supplanted by Arabic, while in areas where no semitic language was spoken (e.g. Persia) the native languages persisted.

This is why we see that in Central Asia, India, Malay and Indonesian Archipelago, West Africa, and East Africa, Arabic never took hold as a majority language, despite of a significant portion of the population being Muslims, and a majority in most cases.

Hence, Coptic, the successor to Ancient Egyptian, was relegated to becoming a liturgical only language, and Arabic became the majority language for Muslims and Copts alike.

Greatness and Decay, once again

Egypt was once againt destined to become the leader of a great civilization. The Fatimids build Cairo, and Al Azhar university. Saladin brought the downfall of the Fatimids, but he and his successors, continued to make Egypt a great hub of civilization and learning. After the fall of Baghdad in 1256 C.E. to the Mongol hordes, Egypt became the greatest center in the region, under the Mamelukes. Only after the rise of the Ottomans and their conquest of Egypt in 1517 C.E. did the center of power and greatness shift to Istanbul.




My last name is Mamlouk. I

My last name is Mamlouk. I have been trying to figure out exactly what that means in terms of nationality. My parents are from Egypt but beyond that I don't know if I'm really Egyptian, Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, etc. Is there any way to really know? I'm also christian. Some ariticles I have read on the subject say that Mamlouks were not originally muslim but some say they were. How can I trace this back? My family in Egypt are coptic, maybe this is what they were?

Mamlouk is slave

The word Mamlouk (or Mamluk, or Mamelouk) in Arabic is مملوك which means "slave". But it has a special historical meaning. Back during the Ayub dynasty (Saladin's descendants), there was an influx of slaves from the areas around the Black Sea and Central Asia. Some were Kipchaks, some were Circassian, some were Georgian, ...etc. They were trained in the military arts, and became army commanders.

After the Ayub dynasty, the Mamluks took over for about three centuries in what is now Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Southern Turkey.

After the Ottoman take over of Egypt and Syria, they continued to rule as vassals for the Ottoman Sultan. During the French Expedition to Egypt by Napoleon, they were defeated and fled to upper Egypt (in the South).

Under Muhammad Ali, they continued to have a power base there, but he arranged for them to massacred after inviting them for a celebration.

Only one Mamluk survived and fled to Syria. Others have names surviving today in Egypt, such as Abaza and Alfi ("Thousand").

You can read more about this fascinating history here.

Because of your Coptic ancestry, I doubt very much that you are related to any of the above Mamluks, since being Copt denotes that your ancestry predates the presence of Arabs, Turks or Mameluks in Egypt.
Khalid Baheyeldin


I just read the discussion about "mamlouks"..
I was born in South East of Turkey and some people lived around was brought to here at Ottoman times after the conquest of Egypt by Turks with the leadership Yavuz Selim(Selim 2) in 1517..
Mamlouk is spelled as Memluk in Turkish and deriven from Arabic "Mamluka" related with "ownership"..
In Turkish they are called as Kolemen,an army formed by slaves,
It is believed that they are originally one of the 24 Turkish clans and coming from central Asia..
After they acknowledge Islam they became a part of Islamic army and gradually really important for the the new campaigns..
When Yavuz Selim start to move his army down to Egypt and holy lands,Memluks support him..this is why they got rewarded with getting some fertile lands by today's Turkey's Eastern Mediterranean coast such as Adana,Antakya,Iskenderun etc.,

This is not the whole story

This is not the whole story.

Mameluks existed from early times during Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. They were slaves who became court officals, and army generals and were quite influential.

They rose to power after the time of Saladin, and established dynasties in Egypt and Syria long before the rise of the Ottoman Empire and Selim Yavuz. They were instrumental in eliminating the remnants of the Crusader Kingdoms in the Eastern Mediterranean (e.g. Baybars I), and stopping the advance of the Mongols to Egypt (Qutuz).

Your version may be correct, but it is incomplete as to the presence of Mameluks in Egypt and Syria.
Khalid Baheyeldin


According to this information then, would egyptians be considered arab? Or egyptian? Is there a difference?

Depends ...

It depends on whether you are talking about ethnicity, language or culture?

Today Egyptians are Arabs by language, and culture. They do have some Arab blood in them too.

Ethnically, they are mixed from millenia of influx of various people. The original stock of people was a mix of African and Semitic branches, and so was the language. Over the centuries there was influx of Syrians (Hyksos), Nubians, Lybians, Persians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Europeans, Albanians,...etc.

Interestingly, that mixing did not seem to change the ethnicity much from the days of the New Kingdom (circa 12th century BC). A study was done by skeletons from that period and comparing them to modern Egyptians (in the 1930s or 1950s). The results were almost the same. I can't remember the name of the author or the exact year though.
Khalid Baheyeldin

Egyptian are not arab

We are not arab by culture nor arab by language becuase Egyptian language which u call dialect of arabic still haved the same grammer as coptic and there still some coptic words in it. We also have different festivels and culture which is completlly diffrent than the Arab ones.
The population of Egypt are not mixed either but I doupt that u do. We still the direct decend of ancient egyptian whether u like it or not.


You are conflating many things together: ethnicity, religion, language, and culture. These are separate, although often interrelated things. Do not attempt to refute what falls under one by attempting to dismiss the other.

If u say Egptian are arab by

If u say Egptian are arab by language I might agree with u although Egyptian diaalect is far away from Arabic that it considered to be seperate language and as you said, a languge is not determend by the similarity of words the language has similar to other language for examaple English has 70 percent of it words of french organ nevertheless it considered as seperate language and it is even within different branch called germanic languages because it has completly different grammer than roman languages like french and spanish.

When it comes to culture and say it i Arabic u are 100% wrong. it seems that u never been to gulf countries like saudi arabia to say so. They are nomands living in desert herding goats living in tents etc but Egyptian since its pheronic past depended on agriculture and nile river and beening farmers etc.Egyptian are completly different than arab in every aspect u could imagine. it is extremly unfair and unjust to classify Egyptian as pedouin nomads arab and forget about its 7000 years past.

For the race of Egyptian are one of the oldest race in the world. there has been of course mixing like all countries in the world but they are still miniorites in the country that were and still the most populated country in the middle east.

Sorry for my spelling,
Canadian Egyptian