mating patterns in egypt

in family type in egypt, i hinted that inbreeding in egypt is greater in southern or upper egypt than in northern or lower egypt. now i’m going to show you the proof. PROOF i tell you! (^_^)

every few years, egypt conducts a demographic and health survey (so do a lot of other countries — thanks to us, i think). the egyptians, very thoughtfully, collect data on consanguineous mating patterns, i.e. first- and second-cousin marriages. here are the most recent egypt dhs surveys from 2000, 2005 and 2008 [all pdfs]. and here is a chart of the consanguineous (first- and second-cousin) marriage rates for four regions of egypt: urban governorates, lower egypt (delta) governorates, upper egypt (nile valley) governorates, and frontier (border regions) governorates (see list at bottom of post for which ones are which):

and here’s a map of those four regions:

the first thing you’ll notice is that egyptians marry their cousins a LOT. much more than americans or most europeans (esp. nw europeans). even in 2008, in cairo or alexandria nearly one in every four (23.2%) of all marriages were between people who were first- or second-cousins. and it was practically double that (41.2%) upriver in upper egypt. so, there’s a lot of cousin marriage in egypt — and much more in the south than in the north (told ya!)

the inbreeding rates have been decreasing over the last couple of decades, though. here is a chart of just the first-cousin marriage rates for pre-1991 (don’t ask me what that means – that’s all my source said), 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2008:

so, you know, just one generation ago, first-cousin marriage rates were twice as frequent in egypt as they are today. the decline is good news maybe, but keep in mind what the very recent high rates might mean for the frequencies and distribution of “genes for altruism” in the egyptian population. things don’t just change overnight.

father’s brother’s daughter (fbd) marriage is pretty popular in egypt. in 2008, nearly ten percent of all marriages were between the children of two brothers. there’s more fbd marriage in rural areas than in urban areas:

in Family in Contemporary Egypt [available on questia], andrea rugh says that the shift away from marrying cousins by urbanites began “about a generation ago.” rugh’s work was published in 1984, so she’s talking about sometime in the ’60s or maybe late-’50s. that means that nowadays there’s a good two or three generations of urban egyptians — not the recently arrived ones from the countryside, but people whose families have lived in the cities for several or maybe scores(!) of generations — that are now relatively outbred, certainly compared to most other people in the country. from rugh [pg. 140]:

“Among the middle classes and élites there is evidence that relative marriage persisted as a common form until the present generation of young people [i.e. in 1984 – hbd chick]. Until the 1952 revolution and the extension of education to the masses of Egypt’s population, there was little to interfere with the family as a key socializing institution. Those who received private educations did so in carefully sex-segregated institutions, along with their sisters or brothers, cousins, and well-screened others of the same social classes. Leisuretime socializing took place in the family courtyards or apartments of relatives. Parents exerted much stronger controls over whom their children met than they do now. Middle-aged and older people of those classes almost universally comment on how restricted their access to the opposite sex was, beyond those individuals of the extended family group with whom almost their whole time was spent.

Family genealogies of these classes are filled with kin and sibling marriages up until about a generation ago when, in an impressive reversal, stranger marriages replaced them in the vast majority of cases. This phenomenon to a large extent reflects the changing degree of parental control among these social classes. Young people now have greater freedom of movement, rationalized as noted by the increasing importance of extended education. Controls now are vested less in overt mechanisms such as confinement and protection (seen in chaperonage and veiling) and more in internalized ‘nice-girl’ constructs (see Chapter 9) which individuals implement to a large extent by themselves.”


rugh also found [pgs. 143-45] that father’s brother’s daughter marriage was more common amongst the lower classes in rural areas than urban areas. amongst the lower classes in urban areas, fbd marriage was still the most common form of cousin marriage, but mother’s sister’s marriage was also quite popular.

how long have egyptians been marrying their cousins or otherwise inbreeding or marrying endogamously?

well, certainly fbd marriage was most probably introduced when islam arrived in the country, i.e. from sometime after the seventh century a.d. so that’s, at the max, a possible 1600 years of fbd marriage — an interesting, quirky twist in history since that’s just about the length of time nw europeans have been outbreeding.

were egyptians inbreeding before that? hard to say. it seems like a good guess ’cause most peoples in the world have tended to inbreed one way or another. from the third century a.d. until the arrival of islam, most egyptians had been christians. but afaik, none of the christian churches started with this whole cousin marriage ban thing until the roman catholic church did in the 400s.

the ethiopian coptic ban on cousin marriage out to sixth cousins originated from something written by an egyptian copt in 1240 a.d. is that when egyptian copts began to avoid cousin marriage? if so, then they seem to have missed out on the roman catholic church’s revisions of its regulations in 1215 a.d. which pushed the ban from sixth cousins back to just third cousins.

on the other hand, perhaps the copts didn’t like that reversal and so in 1240 decided to re-emphasize their already existing sixth cousin ban. it’s possible. don’t know. just a guess. the timing seems awfully coincidental otherwise: 1215 a.d. -> changes in roman catholic church’s marriage regulations removing the sixth cousin marriage ban; a few years later in 1240 a.d. -> written proscriptions against sixth cousin marriage by the coptic church. hmmmm.

speaking of copts, i read something, somewhere that said that egyptian copts, today, prefer second-cousin marriage to first-cousin marriage, but i’ll be d*mned if i can remember where i read that. can’t find that reference, so don’t believe me! (i don’t.)

and i know what you’re gonna say: way back when egyptians married their siblings (ewwww!) just like the pharohs. actually, they probably didn’t. but that’s material for another post. this one’s way too long already anyway. (^_^)

previously: family type in egypt and corporations and collectivities and aígyptos

update 05/13: sounds to me as though, by the eleventh century a.d., copts in egypt had adopted the practice of marrying their cousins from their muslim overlords. at the very least, the coptic church at this time does not seem to have had a ban on cousin marriage.

here from “Regulating sex – A brief survey of medieval Copto-Arabic canons” in Across the Religious Divide – Women, Property, and Law in the Wider Mediterranean (ca. 1300-1800) [pgs. 29-30]:

“For Cyril [II] and Ibn Turayk, clergy are strictly forbidden from cohabiting with a woman, unless she falls under the category of one who is forbidden to him (muharrama). In his sixth canon, Cyril writes:

“‘It is not permitted to a bishop, or a priest, or deacon, or layman to live with a woman at all, unless it be a mother, or a sister, or a paternal aunt, or a maternal aunt who are forbidden to him. Whoever gainsay this, judgment for disobedience is necessary for him….’

“In the case of Cyril’s canon, it seems that no man (cleric or lay) should cohabit with a woman other than those ‘who are forbidden to him’ (tuharram ‘alayhi)….

“While there are parallels between both Cyril’s and Ibn Turayk’s canons and the Latern Council canon (which is actually a reference to a Nicene Council canon), there is also an important parallel between the Copto-Arabic canons and Islamic jurisprudential vocabulary. The Arabic words that Cyril and Ibn Turayk use to describe the category of forbidden women (Cyril uses form V’s tuharram a’layhi, and Ibn Turayk uses the plural passive participle muharramat) are borrowed from Islamic jurisprudence; the definition of this category may be understood from the Qur’anic verse found in Surat al-Nisa:

“‘Forbidden unto you are your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters, and your father’s sisters, and your mother’s sisters, and your brother’s daughters and your sister’s daughters, and your foster-mothers, and your foster-sisters, and your mothers-in-law, and your step-daughters who are under your protection (born) of your women unto whom ye have gone in — but if ye have not gone in unto them, then it is no sin for you (to marry their daughters) — and the wives of your sons who (spring) from your own loins. And (it is forbidden unto you) that ye should have two sisters together, except what hath already happened (of that nature) in the past….'”

pope cyril ii was around from 1078-1092. his canon on which women were forbidden to men does not include any cousins, and it quite parallels what is written in the koran.

governorates breakdown:

urban governorates – cairo, alexandria, suez, port said.
lower egypt (delta) governorates – beheira, kafr el-sheikh, gharbia, monufia, damietta, dakahlia, sharqia, qalyubia, ismailia.
upper egypt (nile valley) governorates – giza, faiyum, beni suef, minya, asyut, sohag, qena, aswan.
frontier (border) governorates – matruh, new valley, north sinai, south sinai, red sea.

(note: comments do not require an email. a post on egypt – just another excuse to link to this!)


  1. “were egyptians inbreeding before that?”
    Incest Laws and Absent Taboos in Roman Egypt
    “Roman census records and other papyri indicate that almost twenty percent of marriages in Roman Egypt were unions between full siblings.
    Societal preference towards extreme endogamy may have been even stronger, since Keith Hopkins estimates that only 40% of all the families recorded in the census returns had a son and daughter of simultaneous marriageable age.”


    “According to official census returns
    In the second century CE, the rates were 37% in the city of Arsinoe”


  2. @hbd chick “when egyptians married their siblings (ewwww!) ” Yeh, I know. Can’t break the old prejudice can we? Looks like it worked out all right for a whole lot of them for a long time. I looked at and just as you would predict from what you said, the bottom fell out of Egyptian fertiltiy in about 1960. It was leveling off by 2005 (where gapminder’s gap starts) and right on schedule age at first marriage was starting to rise. Usually it doesn’t start to rise until fertility has fallen below replacement. So there is a bit of a puzzle.


  3. @linton – “I looked at and just as you would predict from what you said, the bottom fell out of Egyptian fertiltiy in about 1960.”

    cool graphics! i’m gonna have to check out that site some more. (^_^)


    1. @ hbd chick “cool graphics” I really love Gapminder. I guess you would say it is a five demensional graph with two of the dimensions selectable among a bunch of kinds of data. Age at first marrage against birth rate per woman played out over time is of couse my favorite.


  4. What’s with the focus on egyptian marital tendencies? What about the data on incestual marraiges from europeans, south americans, asians?

    You’re citing resources from the 12th century and trying to make it applicable to modern-day egypt?

    Do you know any egyptians?? Do you realize there are coptic egyptians, and then the muslim variety? How would your data apply to those two separate, and VERY distinctly different groups?

    Oh, and please no fiirty-wink emoticons, or faux femme fatale innuendos when and if you respond–it’s annoying, and makes you seem cheap.


  5. @marian – “What’s with the focus on egyptian marital tendencies? What about the data on incestual marraiges from europeans, south americans, asians?”

    please see links to mating patterns posts in left-hand column at the bottom of the page.

    sorry, i don’t have the time to answer your other questions just today. i’ll try to get to them tomorrow (sunday)!


  6. @marian – “You’re citing resources from the 12th century and trying to make it applicable to modern-day egypt?”

    yes. well, the blog is about human biodiversity, which means it’s also about evolution, so the mating patterns of twelfth century egyptians may very well have relevance to egyptians today.

    i also have written extensively on the mating patterns of europeans in the early medieval period (for example, see here — see also the “mating patterns in europe series” below ↓ in left-hand column).

    @marian – “Do you know any egyptians??”

    i’m not aquainted with any at the moment, no, but i used to be. a number of years ago, i had a friend who lived in egypt for several years (she taught english there), and when she moved back to the u.s., she hung out with some immigrant egyptians. i got to know some them through her. they were all copts.

    @marian – “Do you realize there are coptic egyptians, and then the muslim variety?”

    yes. see comment above. i also mentioned copts in the post.

    @marian – “How would your data apply to those two separate, and VERY distinctly different groups?”

    at some point during my research, i came across a reference which said that, while muslim egyptians had a strong tendency towards marrying first cousins, coptic egyptians had a tendency towards marrying second cousins. unfortunately, i don’t know where i read that. i need to track down that reference again.


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