The last time a group of scholars attempted to survey the history of Egypt was over sixty years ago—and in French.1 Filling this surprising and large gap, Petrie, Daly, and their many authors do an excellent job of offering a traditional history (dates and kings, culture and economics), untainted by the more fashionable approaches of gender, class, and race. As with all Cambridge Histories, this one aspires to provide a mix of services: a survey for those new to the subject, a basic chronology for those in need of reference, and an update on recent research for those already immersed in the subject matter. Egypt handily achieves these various goals; of special note are chapters by Paul E. Walker and Paula A. Sanders (both on the Fatimids, a medieval dynasty).
The two volumes show how the basic rhythm of Egyptian history depends on whether the country is sovereign or a province to be exploited by an empire based elsewhere (notably Damascus, Baghdad, and Istanbul). The nearly fourteen hundred years covered here find the country's prosperity and creativity going up and down almost exactly with this basic political fact. Thus, Egypt was "essentially passive" from the Arab conquest in 640 until a former Turkish slave soldier, Ibn Tulun, made the country independent in 868 and gave it the basis once again to "become a center of power radiating outside its territory." Then, for six and half centuries, Egypt remained almost always the heart of empire; even when conquered by foreigners, they made Cairo their home (the Fatimids, the Ayyubids) and so kept the good times rolling. Only in 1517 did the curtain come down again, when the Ottomans took Egypt and relentlessly drained it of resources and vitality. Ironically, it was Napoleon's invasion in 1798 that set Egypt free again and despite a long interval of British imperial presence (1882-1952), the country has maintained a leading position among Middle Eastern and Muslim states for the past two centuries.
1 Gabriel Hanotaux, ed., Histoire de la Nation égyptienne, 7 vols. (Paris: Societé de l'Histoire Nationale and Librarie Plon, 1937-40).