Documentation of the Egyptian fungi may be dated back to 4500 B.C., when ancient Egyptians produced a number of hieroglyphic depictions of plants (many of which are psychedelic) on walls and within texts throughout Egypt. Temples with countless pillars are shaped like huge mushrooms with tall stems, umbrella caps, and mushroom engravings distributed all over the country. These are shaped like Amanita sporophores, and some like Psilocybe. Others look like bracket fungi and are decorated with pictures of an incredible variety of plants (Arthur 2000). In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Papyrus of Ani (Budge 1967), mushrooms are called “the food of the gods,” or “celestial food” and “the flesh of the gods.”

Studies on fungi in Egypt started at the beginning of the 19th century on lichens (e.g. Delile 1813a, b, Nylander 1864, 1876, Müller 1880a–c, 1884, Stizenberger 1890, 1891). In the early 20th century, Sickenberger (1901) and Steiner (1893, 1916) provided information for collections of lichens from Egypt in the 19th and early 20th Century. In the Flore d’Egypte, Delile (1813a) presented a scientific study of Egyptian fungi into the early19th century (Mouchacca 2008), in which he described the gastromycete now known as Itajahya rosea (syn. Phallus roseus; Fig. 1) which he had collected in Damietta and Assiut in 1798 and 1799, respectively. It should be noted that some early works repeat previous records, sometimes ambiguously as a result of the misinterpretation of synonyms and erratic use of infraspecific ranks; further, in the case of Sickenberger, misspellings of scientific names (Seaward & Sipman 2006).

By the beginning of the 20th century, special attention was being given to phytopathogenic fungi on wild and domesticated plants of economic importance (e.g. Fletcher 1902, Reichert 1921, Fahmy 1923, Shearer 1924, Briton- Jones 1922, 1923, 1925, Bishara 1928, Melchers 1931, Sirag El-Din 1931, Abdel-Salam 1933).

Both Reichert and Melchers are considered the pioneer scientists in the documentation of Egyptian fungi. Israel Reichert (1891–1975) went to study in Germany. Here he obtained his doctorate on Die Pilzflora Ägypten in which 237 species were recognized, of which 42 were new to science. Unfortunately, none of his specimens were retained in Egypt, or if they were, there is no record of their whereabouts today. However, earlier material collected before 1914 was present in the Botanisches Museum in Berlin-Dahlem, which Reichert used when compiling his list of 1921, but it is not known if these specimens survived World War II.

In 1927 Leo E. Melchers went to Egypt at the invitation of the Egyptian Minister of Agriculture as chief mycologist for 18 months. He met a series of difficulties such as there being no records available on the occurrence, distribution, or dates of any mycological observations conducted previously by any investigator in Egypt, and no mycological reference collection existing in the country. His checklist, however, included 345 species of fungi, especially those causing plant diseases (Melchers 1931).

No studies were carried out on the soil fungi until the 1930s, yet it was to be expected that, in such a country with rich agricultural traditions, knowledge of these fungi should have attracted considerable interest. Research on Egyptian soil fungi was probably commenced by Younis Salem Sabet (1898–1977). Sabet graduated in 1921 from the High School of Agriculture (now the Faculty of Agriculture of Cairo University), and soon after was sent to England to study botany at the University of London, where he obtained a BSc (Hons) in 1925. After his return, he joined the Ministry of Agriculture in the Plant Breeding Section. In 1927 he was appointed lecturer in Botany in the faculty of Science of the newly established Egyptian University, and in 1935 published his pioneering study, which was followed by many other publications (Sabet 1936, 1938, 1939a). His exploration led to the discovery of three taxa which were described later as new to science.

Sabet took the initiative in the establishment of some scientific organisations, and served as a member and president for several years in some others. Particularly of note were the Egyptian Academy of Sciences, Egyptian Botanical Society, Egyptian Science Union, Egyptian Association for Scientific Culture, Society of Applied Microbiology, Egyptian Phytopathological Society, Society for the History of Science, and Society of Atomic Energy.

Near the end of the 1930s, new aspects of mycological research were introduced into Egypt by several investigators such as mycorrhizal fungi (Mostafa 1938, Sabet 1939b, 1940, 1945, Yousef 1946); biocontrol (Mostafa & Gayed 1953), rhizosphere (Montasir et al. 1956, Naim et al. 1957), air (Saad 1958, Zaki 1960), and stored seeds and grains (Assawah & El-Arosi 1960).

In 1956 late Magdy A. Ragab (Department of Botany, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Cairo) isolated 16 new species for the first time from soil, water and some plant hosts (Ragab 1956).

However, the credit for initiating real research concerned with Egyptian fungi must be given to Abdel-Al H. Moubasher (Botany Department, Faculty of Science, Assiut University; Fig. 2). In the early 1960s, with colleagues and students, he broadened the scope of mycological research in Egypt by conducting many studies on fungi. These included aspects such as: cellulose-decomposition, thermophily, osmophily, seed and grain mycobiota, phylloplane fungi, mycotoxins, and aquatic fungi. Moubasher, with his colleagues and students, have published more than 150 scientific papers to date, and in 1993 he published his major contribution to mycology in the Arabic World, the lavishly illustrated Soil fungi of Qatar and other Arab Countries (Moubasher 1993). He also invited outside specialists to run courses from the 1980s and trained many PhDs students. Specialists included Colin Booth and David Hawksworth in the 1980s.

El-Abyad & Abu-Taleb (1993) summarized the habitat diversity of Egyptian fungi, and in 1997 the late Samy M. El-Abyad (Botany Department, Faculty of Science, Cairo University; Fig. 2) presented his pioneering attempt to update the checklist of Egyptian fungi: 1 246 species were recorded of which 173 were referred to Mastigomycotina, 41 to Zygomycotina, 222 to Ascomycotina, 143 to Basidiomycotina, and 667 to Deuteromycotina. Different ecological and taxonomic groups were not separated cited in the checklist, such as protozoan fungal analogues (Myxomycota, Plasmodiophoromycota), lichens, yeasts, aquatic and marine fungi, entomopathogenic fungi, nematophagous fungi, and mycorrhizal fungi. A large numbers of taxa, either reported in routine isolations or as novel taxa, are completely absent from this list. This may be due to his inability to trace the majority of references, which is actually the main reason why updated information documenting the fungi of Egypt was needed today. Amongst records lacking in the El-Abyad (1997) checklist are seven Podaxis species (Melchers 1931), Chaetomium gelasinosporum and C. uniporum (Aue & Müller 1967), C. mareoticum (Besada & Yusef 1969), Zygopleurage faiyumensis (Lundqvist 1969), Podospora aegyptiaca (Lundqvist 1970), Thermoascus aegyptiacus (Udagawa & Ueda 1983), and Gelasinospora hippopotama (Krug et al. 1994).

In addition to the previous efforts of Reichert (1921), Melchers (1931), El-Abyad & Abu-Taleb (1993), and El- Abyad (1997), several other studies have added to the documentation of Egyptian fungi: Moubasher (1993), Lado (1994), Mouchacca (1995, 1999, 2001a, b, 2003a, b, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009a, b; Fig. 2), Moustafa & Abdel-Azeem (2005a, b, 2006, 2010), Moustafa (2006), and Seaward & Sipman (2006).

The late Abdel Razak Abo-Sedah organized the Second African Regional Mycological Congress, in Cairo in 1992, under the auspices of the IMA Committee for the Development of Mycology in Africa. Then in 1993 he founded the Regional Center for Mycology and Biotechnology (RCMB) in Al-Azhar University, Cairo. The major tasks of this centre were the establishment of a fungal culture collection, the application of fungi in public health, agriculture, environment and industry, and supporting researchers as well as research projects. The centre actively participated in organizing further African regional and international conferences and meetings in Cairo in 1994, Vancouver in 1994, Zimbabwe in 1995, Cairo in 1996 on “Regulations of fungal activities”, and again in Cairo in 1999 on “Fungi and the Environment”. The center had collaborative agreements with the former International Mycological Institute (IMI) in the UK, and collaborative activities with Egyptian universities as well as with others in the UK, South Africa, Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Austria. The centre also initiated and published The African Journal of Mycology and Biotechnology from 1993 to 2001, which contained numerous contributions by Egyptian authors, and also a mycological newsletter in Arabic.

From the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2007, the Biodiversity Monitoring and Assessment Project (BioMap) had as its primary objective to develop and strengthen biodiversity research, monitoring and assessment across Egypt. In this project an extensive e-database was established to map the distribution of species across Egypt, and document up to 50 % of the Egyptian fungi ().

As mentioned above, the information concerning the fungi of Egypt is still incomplete and cannot be fully documented without an updated checklist of all taxa reported for the country. The present contribution assesses the diversity of fungi in Egypt. In addition, major groups of fungi are discussed briefly to highlight the extent of their diversity, followed by examples of habitats that are unique and deserve greater attention. These data show that the present contribution is a preliminary one concerning the diversity of Egyptian fungi, and therefore this summation is intended to enhance our knowledge of, and stimulate research into, the fungi of Egypt.