Ancient Egyptian Agriculture
Catherine C. Harris
While agriculture is important throughout the world, for the people of Egypt it has always been a matter of working closely with the seasons and understanding their change. Throughout history, Egypt has celebrated the relationship between the land they farm and the Nile.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, a majestic body of water that flows with the very life of Egypt in its currents. The shape of the Nile is that of a Lotus flower, the ancient Egyptian symbol for regeneration of life. Rainfall is almost non-existent in Egypt, and the Nile has always been the source of water for crops and animals.
The land of ancient Egypt was divided into sections with varying proximity to the Nile. The lower land on either side of the Nile is known as the floodplain. This is the most fertile land in Egypt and most of the crops were grown here. Farming in ancient times occurred on the highest ground in this zone. The land was rich and fertile, dark black in color.
A little higher, above the floodplains was the low desert. The Nile did not water this area of land. Egyptians used this portion of land to hunt and bury their dead. It was scant with any kind of vegetation, which made it perfect for such activities.
Even higher still, was the high desert area. The area was most likely used for travel of large caravans in search of stones to cultivate. Mineral resources were sought after in this region, but there was little inhabitation. What inhabitation that did exist in the high desert was there for the strict purpose of producing dates and grapes to insure a link to remote areas. These were little pieces of paradise in the desert, often called oases.
The tools used in ancient Egypt agriculture included: plows, sickles, hoes, forks, scoops, baskets, shaduf, skiffs, and sieves. The farmers also used cattle, oxen, donkey, and goats to aid in the cultivation of their fields. The hoe most often used was made of two separate pieces fitted together and bound with rope. The first piece was a handle and the second a blade. Hoes were used to mix water and dirt in brick making, to break up dirt clods, and to manage the growing crops. Sickles were often made of glazed wood that was sharpened to cut. A shaduf is a mechanical irrigation device used to bring water from the canals to the fields. Skiffs were made of papyrus and were used for travel on the Nile, as well as fishing.
In the cultivation of grain, there were eight steps that the ancient farmer knew as well as he knew his own land. The cultivated land was ploughed with a wooden axe. Ploughing may have been done with the aid of an animal, or exclusively by human strength. Sowing was done by hand, with the help of goats that walked over the newly sown fields to push the seeds out of the reach of bird looking for a quick meal. Once the grain was ready for harvesting, the fields would come to life with the harvesting. The harvesting of the grain was done with sickles. The grain was then bundled and carried, on the back of donkeys, to a safe and dry place to avoid spoilage. The grain was then put through the process known as threshing. It was spread in a contained area and trampled on by the hooves of donkeys. In the Middle Kingdom of Egypt, often cows were used in this process. This process aided in the beginning of separating the grain from the chaff. The next step is often depicted in the tomb paintings of ancient Egyptians. Often done by women, wooden forks were used to eliminate the light chaff and straw from the grain. Next, they would use sieves made from reeds and palm leaves to separate the longer chaff and weeds from the grain. The final step was to secure the crop of grain in bins until consumption.
The ancient Egyptians were thorough in their cultivation of grain, as it was their main staple. Barley and emmer were used to make bread and beer. Excessive grain was exported to neighboring countries. This exportation of grain allowed the Egyptian treasury to accumulate income.
The main vegetables grown in ancient Egypt were onions, leeks, beans, lentils, garlic, radish, cabbage, cucumbers, and lettuce. The fruit grown consisted of dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, and melons. Due to the wonderful variety of flowers grown in ancient Egypt, bees were able to pollinate and produce honey. Women cultivated and processed honey to be used in desserts. Flax was grown and processed to make linen. Papyrus was converted into in to sandals, skiffs, paper, and mats.
Animals were raised for; food, hides, milk, and dung (used in cooking fires). Oxen increased agricultural productivity. Others animals were domesticated and used by farmers of ancient Egypt. They raised cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, ducks, goats, and oxen. Around 1600 B.C., horses and donkeys were introduced to Egypt from Asia. Camels were unknown during the time of the pharaohs, as they were introduced at a much later time.
For centuries the Nile flooded the valley, and the Egyptians established a routine in dealing with the seasons. The flooding period was called Aketo. This lasted from July to December, using the current calendar months. During this time the farmlands were under water. The farmers used their irrigation canals to run water to the lands not reached by the Nile. Animals were moved during this time to a safer place, to avoid drowning. The outflow period was known as Peleto. This was the coolest season, and it ran from December to March. Seeds were sown during this time and crops cultivated. From March to July they experienced a dry season known as the Syumuu. This was a busy time of bringing in and storing the crops. The yearly flooding was known as the "gift of the Nile," for without it the people of ancient Egypt would have perished.
The average rise in the Nile at flood time was twenty-seven feet. The monsoon rains from Ethiopia were predictable, but often the amount of the rise was not so predictable. If the Nile rose lower than the expected twenty-seven feet, there was famine and loss of crops and lives. If the Nile rose higher than the expected twenty-seven feet, there was damage to villages and a loss of livestock and human life. The flooding was predictable in its coming, but often caused chaos when it was too much or too little. The annual flooding of the Nile continued in to modern times.The completion of the high damn in 1988, at Aswan, has made the flooding controllable. The construction of the Aswan dam started in 1902, and has been built taller through the history of Egypt, to its current height.
In ancient Egypt, most people were involved in some fashion in the agricultural process. It was so interwoven in to the very society and economy that no one was spared the work of farming, excluding those noblemen and scribes that were not suited for the work. However, even then, the noblemen were included in the economic part of agriculture, as they often owned the land being farmed and supervised the tending of such.
There were full time farmers. They often worked the land of wealthy landowners and were paid in food, clothes, and shelter. Some families rented land from the landowners, and they gave the owners a portion of their crops as payment. Still, others were forced by the government of Ancient Egypt to dredge canals, survey land, and prepare the ground as a form of taxation. This was called being drafted through corvee. Anyone that tried to avoid the corvee was dealt with harshly, as was his family.
The Egyptians were the first culture to establish gardens of an ornamental nature. The first recorded garden dates around 2200 B.C. The gardens included pools for fish, fig and pomegranate trees, grapevine covered trellises, and beds of flowers. The pharaohs and government officials used them as oases of privacy and cool and shady retreats from the hot desert sun. They were also found at many religious and sacred sites.
Today, agriculture is still an integral part of Egyptian society and culture. They have continued to use traditional methods handed down through the centuries. Many still use the ancient methods of irrigation, organic manure, and crop rotation. Egypt is an agricultural country with as much beauty as practicality. The wealth derived from agriculture in Egypt can be weighed in more than just coins. The history of agriculture in Egypt has made them rich in knowledge. The courage of past generations has become the courage and wisdom of present and future generations in Egypt. Egypt is a shining example that pride, skill and determination are the foundations of a successful nation.
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