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Islamic mystic, Youssef Chahine, Coptic Museum, Muslim pilgrimage, Gare centrale

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Egypt has long been a center of Arabic and Islamic literature, architecture, and decorative arts. Performances of epic poetry, murals depicting the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Sufi (Islamic mystic) singing and dancing, and other expressions of popular culture are all part of Egypt’s artistic heritage. In the pre-modern period, the country’s elite supported artists who worked in formal Islamic styles that tended to be austere and centered on Arabic calligraphy. In the modern period many elements of European-style art, literature, and cinema have been incorporated into Egyptian cultural life.

The following section deals primarily with Egyptian arts in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Music and Dance

Sayyid Darwish, who composed musicals, operas, and popular songs, was the leading figure in Egyptian music in the early 20th century. Other prominent musical figures of the 20th century were female singers Umm Kulthum and Layla Murad, composer and singer Muhammad Abd ‘al-Wahhab, and singer Abd al-Halim Hafiz. Umm Kulthum was the leading lady of Egyptian (and Arab) song in the 20th century. Layla Murad, often considered the second greatest female Egyptian singer of the 20th century, was also a movie star. Muhammad Abd ‘al-Wahhab was the leading male vocalist of the 20th century, while Abd al-Halim Hafiz was especially popular with younger audiences in the 1950s and 1960s. The national dance company, the Reda Dance Troupe, specializes in modern adaptations of folkloric dances. Belly dancing is popular among all classes and is performed in a variety of settings ranging from nightclubs to family celebrations.

Theater and Film

The first modern Arabic plays were performed in Cairo in the 1870s. Leading 20th-century dramatists include Mahmud Taymur, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Yusuf Idris, and Nu`man`Ashur. Egypt has been the center of film production in the Arab world since the 1930s. The best-known director, Youssef Chahine, made his reputation in the 1950s and 1960s with nationalist works of social realism such as Bab al-Hadid (1958, also released as Central Station and Gare centrale) and Al-Ard (1969, The Land).

Libraries and Museums

The Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, houses the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian art, including the treasures from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The Museum of Islamic Art, also in Cairo, has a rich collection of illuminated Qur'ans (Korans), wood carvings, pottery, and other Islamic artifacts. Cairo's Coptic Museum has an especially fine collection of textiles made by Copts. The Greco-Roman Museum, housing collections of art from the periods when Egypt was under Greek and, later, Roman rule, is located in Alexandria. The Egyptian National Library and the Al-Azhar University Library, both in Cairo, house major collections of Arabic manuscripts.

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