Egypt, Ancient. More than 3,000 years before the Christian Era, a highly developed civilization existed in Egypt. The country at that time consisted of little more than the valley and delta of the Nile River. It was one of the great powers of the ancient Middle East, retaining its dominant position for more than 2,000 years---many times longer than did other strong kingdoms that rose in that part of the world.
When Egyptian antiquities, preserved by the dry climate and isolation of their desert locations, first became known to outsiders in modern times, it was believed that the world's earliest civilization had evolved in Egypt. As scholars learned more of ancient history, they found that some important early developments apparently had originated in neighboring lands, such as Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Palestine. However, Egyptian achievements in many fields of activity stand as milestones in the history of civilization.
Scholarly interest in ancient Egypt dates from Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of 1798. The French conquerors were astonished and awed by the pyramids, the Sphinx, and other relics of the distant past. Study of the ancient ruins and artifacts began at once, inaugurating the field of research known as Egyptology. The Rosetta Stone, carrying the same inscription in two forms of Egyptian writing and in Greek, supplied the key to Egypt's written history.
Excavation of tombs and temples produced paintings, sculptures, inscriptions, and artifacts that gave a detailed picture of life in ancient Egypt. Among archeologists known for their work in Egypt are Sir Flinders Petrie, who excavated very early sites and established a chronology, and Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Pharaoh (King) Tutankhamen. An outstanding American Egyptologist was James Breasted, who founded the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
Most of Egypt's ancient history is expressed in terms of numbered dynasties (ruling houses). The three periods of greatest development are called the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom.