Egypt began its historic period c. 3200 bce. By a convention derived from Manetho this era is divided into 31 dynasties which are currently grouped into several phases: the Thinite or Archaic period (Dynasties 1–2, c. 3200–2700) is the formative stage of pharaonic civilization. The Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3–4, c. 2700–2159) sees the establishment of a highly centralized state which peaked in the Fourth Dynasty with the builders of the Giza pyramids. Foreign relations, peaceful and otherwise, were maintained with Nubia to the south, Libya, and Asia, but there was no attempt to establish an empire. Culturally, this age is distinguished by work of the highest quality in architecture, sculpture, and painting. The fabric of government collapsed at the end of the Sixth Dynasty to create the First Intermediate period (Dynasties 7–mid-11, c. 2159–2040), an age of political dissolution and cultural decline. The country was reunited by Montuhotep II c. 2040 to create the Middle Kingdom (mid-Dynasty 11–12, c. 2040–1786). The major new initiative of this period was the integration into the Egyptian state of Lower Nubia as far as the Second Cataract. This development was paralleled by significant involvement in Asia, but this stopped short of imperial control. As in the Old Kingdom, there is ample evidence of high-quality work in the visual arts, but this epoch is distinguished culturally above all as the classic age of Egyptian language and literature. The Middle Kingdom disintegrated in the Thirteenth Dynasty to inaugurate the Second Intermediate period, the most important event of which was the establishment of Asiatic control by the Hyksos over most of Egypt, an episode which conferred major military and cultural benefits as well as providing the impetus for expansion into Asia during the New Kingdom (Dynasties 18–20, c. 1575–1087). This great age of Egyptian militarism created in the Eighteenth Dynasty an empire which stretched from the Euphrates to beyond the Fourth Cataract in Nubia, and the resources generated made possible a great flowering of achievement in the visual arts, in particular great temples such as those of Karnak and Luxor and the mortuary temples of Western Thebes (2) as well as the brilliantly decorated tombs in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. The decline in Egypt's imperial position at the end of the dynasty was reversed by Seti I and Ramesses II in the early Nineteenth Dynasty, but they never succeeded in recovering all the lost territory in Asia. The later New Kingdom is largely characterized by gradual decline generated by internal divisions, economic difficulties, and foreign aggression. The Late Dynastic period (Dynasties 21–31, c. 1087–332) is marked by long periods of foreign occupation by Libyans, Nubians, and Persians punctuated by short, if sometimes brilliant, periods of national resurgence. It terminates with the occupation by Alexander (3) the Great in 332.
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