It was nineteenth-century archeologists who coined the term Middle Egypt for the stretch of river between Cairo and the Qena Bend – a handy label for a region that’s subtly distinct from Upper Egypt, further south. (In this guide, we’ve drawn the “border” just beyond Sohag, assigning the temples of Abydos and Dendara to the Upper Egypt account as access to them is easiest from Luxor.) Owing little to tourism, Middle Egypt’s towns are solidly provincial, with social conservatism providing common ground for the Muslim majority and Coptic minority (about twenty percent of the local population, roughly double the national average). The Islamist insurgency of the 1990s and Salafist provocations since the 2011 revolution have strained relations, but peaceful coexistence still prevails almost everywhere.
Most tourists rate Middle Egypt a low priority, as towns like Minya and Sohag lack the romance of Aswan or the stupendous monuments of Luxor, for all that the local antiquities have fascinated scholars. The rock tombs of Beni Hassan and the necropolis of Tuna al-Gabel are well-preserved relics of Middle Kingdom artistry and Ptolemaic cult-worship, while the desolate remains at Tell el-Amarna stand as an evocative reminder of the “heretic” Pharaoh Akhenaten.