In times Egypt was divided into two main parts, the Delta in the north and Upper Egypt in the south. The former was subdivided into twenty administrative units, and the latter into twenty-two. In addition to about sixty major towns, the number of villages totaled about 2,500.

Under the Ptolemies the land was divided into three main regions: Lower Egypt with thirty-three administrative units, Middle Egypt with seven, and Upper Egypt with fourteen. Each of these units was called a nome, and was governed by a nomarch. With the Roman occupation the country was reorganized into thirty-six nomes: twenty-two in Lower Egypt, six in Middle Egypt, and eight in Upper Egypt.

Later, following the division of the Roman empire into Eastern and Western halves, Egypt became part of the Eastern empire whose was Constantinople; the country was divided into six major sections. The Delta consisted of two major sections, Augustamnic I and II, subdivided into thirty-three units. Upper Egypt consisted of Arcadia, Lower Thebes, Middle Thebes, and Upper Thebes, and was also subdivided into thirty-three administrative units.

With the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT (A.D. 641), the Delta was called Asfal al-Ard (low land) and Upper Egypt was called al- Sa‘id (high land). The former was divided into two regions: al- Hawf, comprising fourteen units, each known as a kurah (Arabic, from Greek khôra, district), and al-Rif (rural area) comprising thirty- one kurahs. The southern part of the country, al-Sa‘id, was divided into thirty kurahs.

In the ninth century, Lower Egypt (Asfal al-Ard) was reorganized into three regions: the land east of the Damietta branch of the River Nile called al-Hawf al-Sharqi, with the city of Bilbays as its capital, consisted of eleven kurahs; the land lying between the two branches of the Nile was named Batn al-Rif, and consisted of twenty kurahs; and the land lying to the west of the Rosetta branch, called al-Hawf al-Gharbi, with Alexandria as its capital, consisted of fifteen kurahs. Thus the total number of kurahs in Lower Egypt was forty-six, in addition to four others: Libya, Qulzum (Suez), al-Tur, and part of Hijaz in Arabia. The Sa‘id, on the other hand, comprised thirty kurahs, thus bringing the total number of kurahs in the Egyptian territory to eighty, each under its own local governor.

The Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir (1035-1094) redistributed the kurahs, grouping them into twelve in the Delta and ten in Upper Egypt. The total number of villages was 2,148, of which 1,601 were in the Delta and 547 in the Sa‘id, in addition to the main cities and ports. Under the Ayyubids two more kurahs were added, bringing the total to twenty-four.

In the fourteenth century, al-Nasir ibn Qalawun reorganized the distribution of Egyptian provinces, replacing the term kurah with ‘amal (administrative district). The land register issued by him, and known as al-Ruk al-Nasiri (land survey), included twelve a‘mal (pl. of ‘amal), in Lower Egypt, and nine in Upper Egypt.

With the occupation (1517) the term ‘amal was substituted by wilayah (state), and the country was divided into thirteen wilayahs, seven in the Delta and six in Upper Egypt, as follows: in the Delta Qalyubiyyah, Sharqiyyah, Daqahliyyah, Garbiyyah, Minufiyyah, Beheira, and Giza; in Upper Egypt Atfhiyyah, Fayyumiyyah, Bahnasawiyyah, Ashmunayn, Manfalutiyyah, and Jirja. In addition to the above wilayahs, there was the capital, Cairo, and six other governorates: Alexandria, Rosetta (Rashid), Damietta (Dumyat), al-‘Arish, al-Qusayr, and Suez.

Under the French expedition of 1798, Bonaparte’s scientists made a thorough survey of the country, and recorded the following provinces in the Description de l’Egypte (Jomard, 1809-1828), starting from the south to the north: I: Thebes (Luxor), Jirja, Asyut, Minya, Bani Suef (Suwayf), al-Fayyum, Itfih, and Giza; and II: Qalyub, al-Sharqiyyah, al-Mansurah, Damietta, al-Gharbiyyah, Minuf, Rashid, Beheira.

In 1805 Muhammad Ali reorganized the administrative division of the country into khutts (districts) each consisting of a number of villages under a local governor. He also subdivided Bahnasawiyyah and Ashmunayn each into four administrative districts or marakiz, and later introduced another land partition in Sharqiyyah, Daqahliyyah, Gharbiyyah, and Beheira. In 1826 he replaced the term wilayah with ma’muriyyah (a district run by a superintendent of police). In 1833, however, he introduced the term mudiriyyah (province) instead of ma’muriyyah, and redistributed the country into fourteen mudiriyyah in Lower Egypt and ten in Upper Egypt, which is identical with the distribution of provinces under the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, and the Mamluks.

In 1871 Khedive Isma’il adopted the use of the term markaz for the subdivision of the mudiriyyah. According to a census carried out in 1937, the number of marakiz was seventy-five, including 4,188 rural units, in addition to the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Damietta, and the Canal.

When the Arabs conquered Egypt, they recruited a vast number of Coptic scribes and translators to draw up a comprehensive list of Egyptian towns and villages. In carrying out their task, these translators had recourse to the following methods: retaining the original Egyptian name through transliteration; translating names into Arabic; or modifying the original name into a form that could be easily pronounced in Arabic.

Throughout the following centuries various Arabic words were adopted to designate villages and hamlets of different sizes. In his al-Qamus al-Jughrafi, Muhammad Ramzi, who had made an extensive survey of the entire land in the course of his duties as inspector of land taxation in the early 1940s, came to the conclusion that the terms qaryah (village), baldah (small town), nahiyah (small district) had been in use since the early days of the Arab conquest. The term kafr (village), of derivation, was adopted during the Fatimid period (969-1171) and is used frequently by the thirteenth- century writer THE ARMENIAN. The term naj‘ also belongs to the same period. In the sixteenth century, the term nazlah, also meaning a small village, was introduced during the period.

Some of these and many others are always used dually to indicate a town or village. The first part of the name remains unchanged; the second indicates a place named after a person or persons (Abu, Awlad); a tribe (Bani Ahmad); a location or a settlement (Mahallat, nazlat); an establishment (Ma‘sarat Hajjaj, probably an oil press); and Tall or Kom, designating an elevated ground (Tall Rak, Kom al-Shahid). A list of the constants that appear in many geographic names are: Abu (father) Busir or Abusir (house of or temple of); Awlad (sons); Bani (tribe); Dayr (monastery or cemetery); Hissat (area of); ‘Izbat (farm); Jazirat (island or peninsula); Kom, Tall, and Shubra (hillock); Ma‘sarat (oil press); Mit (referring to a very ancient site); Mahallat, Minshah, or Manshiyyah (settlement); Manyal, Minyat, or Munya (location close to a waterway); Nizarah (administrative location); Qasr (named after a palace or a temple); and Saft (wall fortress).

In 1890 the of each mudiriyyah was separated into a city administratively independent of the smaller towns and villages. In more recent times the term mudiriyyah was substituted by muhafazah (governorate). At present, the administrative organization of Egypt is as follows:

  • Lower Egypt Governorates al-Daqahliyyah
  • al-Buhayrah (Beheira)
  • al-Gharbiyyah al-Minufiyyah al-Qalyubiyyah al-Sharqiyyah
  • Dumyat (Damietta) Kafr al-Shaykh
  • Upper Egypt Governorates al-
  • al-Giza
  • al-Minya Aswan Asyut
  • Bani Suef (Suwayf) Qina
  • Suhaj
  • Urban Governorates
  • Alexandria
  • al-Isma‘iliyyah
  • Cairo
  • Suez
  • Port Sa‘id
  • Frontiers Administration
  • Southern desert province: and Dakhlah
  • Western desert province: Bahariyyah Oasis, Siwa, Maryut, and
  • Matruh
  • Sinai Peninsula


  • Jomard, E. H., ed. Description de l’Egypte, 19 vols. in 23. Paris, 1809-1818.
  • Muhammad Ramzi. Al-Qamus al-Jughrafi lil Bilad al-Misriyyah min Ahd Qudama’ al-Misriyyin ila Sanat 1945, Vols. 1 and 2, in 5 pts. Cairo, 1953-1963.