The ancients divided the area that stretched between Beni Suef and Qena into 15 nomes or provinces, each with its own capital. Provincial governors and notables built their tombs on the desert edge. Abydos, located close to modern Sohag, was once the predominant religious centre in the region as well as one of the country’s most sacred sites: Egypt’s earliest 1st dynasty rulers were interred there and it flourished well into the Christian era.
The New Kingdom Pharaoh Akhenaten tried to break the power of the Theban priesthood by moving his capital to a new city, Akhetaten (near modern Mallawi), one of the few places along the Nile not already associated with a deity.
Christianity arrived early in Upper Egypt. Sectarian splits in Alexandria and the popularity of the monastic tradition established by St Anthony in the Eastern Desert encouraged priests to settle in the provinces. The many churches and monasteries that continue to function in the area are a testament to the strength of the Christian tradition: this area has the largest Coptic communities outside Cairo.
Dependant on agriculture, much of the area remained a backwater throughout the Christian and Islamic periods, although Qena and Asyut flourished as trading hubs: Qena was the jumping-off point for the Red Sea port of Safaga, while Asyut linked the Nile with the Western Desert and the Darb al-Arba’een caravan route.
Today much of the region remains poor. Agriculture is still the mainstay of the economy, but cannot absorb the population growth. The lack of any real industrial base south of Cairo has caused severe economic hardship, particularly for young people who drift in increasing numbers into the towns and cities in search of work. Resentment at their lack of hope, compounded by the loss of remittances from Iraq, where many people from this region had found work in the 1980s, exploded into violence in the 1990s. Religious militants exploited the situation and directed the violence towards the government in a bid to create an Islamic state. The security forces responded by dishing out some heavy-handed tactics, the violence eventually petered out but the causes of the unrest – poverty and thwarted hopes – remain.