The Life of Ancient Egyptians
Bounty of the Black Earth
The Egyptian landscape is scenically among the most extraordinary in the world. A relatively narrow strip of fertile valley spreads out into the Delta in the north, and to the south cuts through the endless expanse of the Sahara.
Its fertility does not depend on the amount of rainfall, which suddenly decreased from the end of the Neolithic wet phase in Upper Egypt and Nubia till it virtually came to a stop. Regular floods bring about the Nile valley's annual miracle, when nature is reborn and the fields turn green and then gradually golden with the harvest.
As early as the fifth millennium BC, the Egyptians realized the extraordinary fruitfulness of their fields and the secret behind it - the deposits of black silt borne down by the river in flood time. Hence they called the soil of the Nile valley 'black earth' (kemet), as distinct from the 'red earth' (deshret) of the desert.
In their black land they felt content and safe. They were satisfied that a host of gods, originally regional gods, kept guard over its fertility and that Khnum, the god of the First Cataract, would ensure the punctual onset and adequate height of the flooding. The regular cycle of natural events conferred a rhythm on their lives which was part of the maat, the eternal order of things.
The red land, by contrast, was to be shunned as far as possible. From the western wilderness a scorching, destructive wind, the khamsin as we now call it, would sometimes blow down on them. Then, as now, it would raise clouds of fine sand and dust, blinding men and animals alike, and sometimes drying out their fields.
No wonder they saw the desert as the domain of malignant forces disruptive of the established order and personified in the Late Period by the baneful god Seth. It was of course the peasant farmer whose links with the soil were strongest. He had learnt to cultivate it to perfection and gradually extended the area of his fields to wherever the annual floods reached. He would clear a course for as much water as he needed and steer the surplus back to its riverbed. In the passage of time the size of his harvests and his herds grew to the point where, even in predynastic times (4000--3000 BC), part of the population could turn to other employment.
This second social division of labor (following the first, that between men and women, which went far back into prehistory) continued up to the threshold of the historic period. But even then the majority of the population was still tied to agriculture and the rest of society lived on its produce.
Egypt is the 'gift of the Nile' and her harvests depend on its floodwaters. These were the fundamental pacemaker of the Egyptian farmer's life. It was the farmer, above all, who had vested interest in the calendar, an invention which - thanks to the regularity of natural events - this country was one of the earliest in the world to possess.
People knew from long experience that this was about the time for the level of the Nile to start rising. Just before this, flocks of white ibises would have appeared on the fields as they returned from the south. If they came late or not at all, farmers would see this as a bad omen foreshadowing low floods and a poor harvest. So they regarded the wise bird that knew the secret of this vital phenomenon as an embodiment of the learned god Thoth.
The Nile floods are in fact triggered by sudden monsoon downfalls on the Ethiopian plateau, the source of the Blue Nile, and to a lesser extent by those around Lake Victoria and the Ruwenzori mountains where the White Nile originates. Heavy rain and surging waters bring down the fertile soil which the overflowing Nile then slowly deposits over the fields in its calm lower reaches.
Chemical analysis explains the fertility of the Nile mud, containing as it does all the important ingredients which would otherwise have to be added to the soil by artificial manuring. Egyptian farmers prayed to the hermaphrodite god of the Nile, Hapy - portrayed as a man with women's breasts in symbolism of the apparently spontaneous fruitfulness of the river and its flood-plain - to ensure that the yearly inundation were just right: not too deep, not too shallow.
If they were too shallow, the floods would not reach the thirsty fields, but if too much water came rushing down it would sweep away the laboriously constructed dykes, tear up the fields, and even threaten low-lying villages.
According to the theory accepted until quite recently, it was the very need for centrally-managed canal construction and maintenance, and central allocation of water supplies, that played the paramount role in bringing about the rise and continuance of the ancient Egyptian state. This view ascribed the chief decision--making power to the king and his vizier, detailed supervision of the work being entrusted to officials chosen from among the nobility and scribes.
It was even proposed by the Polish archaeologist Krzyzaniak that artificial irrigation started as early as the second half of the Predynastic Period. As evidence that canals existed even before the country was unified many writers have adduced the mace-head of King Scorpion, one of the last rulers of a separate Upper Egypt, which may depict him officiating at the ceremonial opening of a new canal.
Recently, however, the evidence for artificial irrigation has been analyzed independently by two German archaeologists, Erika Endesfelder and Wolfgang Schenkel. The first-named has noted that pyramid texts (the oldest being on walls of late 5 th-dynasty pyramids) do use the terms for 'canal', mer and henet, but only in the context of waterway traffic. Schenkel agrees that canals existed in the Old Kingdom for traffic, and possibly also for the drainage of marshes.
Royal decrees of the 6th and gilt dynasties make no mention of labor squads being seconded for the construction of irrigation canals, but simply make the distinction between two kinds of fields: those that were flooded every year, and higher-lying ones that only came under water in years of exceptionally high flood.
A part from reliefs showing gardeners watering vegetable patches as in the mastaba of Mereruka, there are no scenes in Old Kingdom tombs of artificial field-irrigation or canal- and dyke-building.
It appears indeed that no artificial irrigation was needed as a rule up until the end of the Neolithic wet phase around 2350 BC. The Nile floods functioned quite regularly, supplemented by occasional rain. It was only a series of low floods during the First Intermediate Period, when rain ceased falling in Upper Egypt too, that famine occurred and radical measures were clearly needed.
Water from this canal would have been distributed over the fields by the system of basin-irrigation to be described later. It is under the Middle Kingdom that we first come across terms for irrigation-- related works: a (canal), meryt (embankment), denyt (dyke) and others. In contrast to the earlier notion that irrigation was a centralized affair, recent findings show that it was promoted by local initiative which sometimes exacerbated parochial rivalry.
Canal-building, maintenance and water allocation were in fact managed by local consortia with no one higher than a regional prince at the head. Nor do any later documents suggest the existence of a central state institution dealing with these matters and we find no relevant titles in the biographies of nobles or priests. On the contrary, every peasant had a share of responsibility for water--management.
The Book of the Dead expressly makes it a great offence to obstruct another person in the use of water or illegally to block his supply. If the central authorities concerned themselves over the height of the Nile floods it was likely to be for fiscal reasons (since it was the basis of harvest forecasting) or religious ones. But they were of course involved in any projects of nation-wide importance.
Thus some investigators believe that a dam was built below Memphis soon after the town was founded as the capital of a united Egypt. In the course of the 3rd and 4th dynasties the area of land under cultivation grew through 'internal colonization', namely the draining of the Delta and the utilization of land previously lying untitled.
In inter-flood periods water would flow out of this lake onto the surrounding fields through a system of irrigation canals. The extension of cultivated ground in the Faiyum was completed under the first Ptolemaic kings.
The development of an irrigation canal network made possible not only improved supplies of water to fields that had enjoyed Nile flooding in earlier times but, more importantly, an increase in the arable acreage in more remote and elevated areas. While under the Old Kingdom only natural irrigation had existed, in the Middle Kingdom a distinction could be made between low-lying fields flooded by nature and higher land watered artificially.
In the New Kingdom two further categories were recognized, of 'used' and 'fresh' fields. Herodotus, who had personal knowledge of Egypt in the 5th century BC, evidently saw it during the period of copious flooding. Hence his rosy view of the farmer's life there: 'Now, of course, they reap the fruits of the earth with less effort than anywhere else in the world ... They do not have to plough the furrow or dig the soil, they can dispense with the tiresome labor in the field that other people must endure ... As soon as the river has risen of its own accord, watered the arable land and receded again, each of them sows his own plot and drives pigs on to it to tread the seed in. Then he awaits the harvest.
A textbook passage from a scribes' school, by contrast, paints the peasant's lot in much darker colors - exaggerating perhaps by way of propaganda for the happy career of the scribe: 'When [the farmer] returns to his fields he finds them in good condition. He spends eight hours plowing, and the worms are already waiting. He cats half his crop himself, the rest is taken by the hippopotamus. There are many mice in the fields, and locusts descend on them.
Even cattle devour his harvest and sparrows steal it. Then the scribe-officer arrives to count up the harvest: he has bailiffs with him who wield sticks, and black men with palm-stalks. "Give us the grain, " they say. "There is none." So they hold him by the legs and beat him, then tie him up and throw him in the ditch. His wife is bound too, and his children, and their neighbors make haste to abandon them so as to save their own grain.'
In tilling his land the peasant made do with a small range of simple tools, many of which are used in almost identical form by the fellah of today. First and foremost was the indispensable hoe for loosening the soil, its broad, thin sharp-edged blade of hard wood set at an acute angle to the long wooden shaft to which it was bound with plant-fiber cord.
The oldest sign of its existence is a plough-shaped hieroglyph of the 2nd dynasty. The plough consisted of a fairly long blade of hard wood fastened at its lower end to a pair of wooden stilts slaved out toward their upper end, on which the plowman would lean to drive the blade into the soil to the required depth and guide it along the furrow. A long pole extended from the lower end of the stilts to the yoke over the necks of the draught animals.
For cutting the corn farmers originally used an almost straight or slightly curved wooden sickle with a longitudinal groove in which a row of flint blades were set close together. These were gradually superseded by copper and then, from the Middle Kingdom on, bronze sickles.
For wood-cutting, ground stone axes were used, the heads being tied to J-shaped handles. Other agricultural implements included wooden shovels for tossing grain, wooden pitchforks for loading the sheaves, wooden rakes for collecting the cut cars, plant-fiber nets and bags, leather or canvas sacks for transporting both sheaves and grain, large wooden tubs for measuring grain and cords for field-surveying.
The cereals the Egyptians cultivated were three kinds of wheat (einkorn, emmer and spelt) and several of barley, notably the six-rowed variety. They devoted ample acreage to flax, their main source of textile fiber. For a second crop, or in garden plots, a wide variety of vegetables were grown, including onions, garlic, leek, Egyptian lettuce, radishes, cabbage, asparagus, cucumbers, lentils, peas, beans and many spices. Valuable vegetable oils were extracted from sesame, flax and castor-oil seeds. The floods meant a period of rest for the farmer, unless the pharaoh called him up into army service or public works.
At the height of the floods, usually in mid-August, each farmer would row around his land closing the vents in the surrounding dykes. Then when the Nile subsided the water would slowly run off, deposit all the enriching mud it had brought with it and soak down deep into the soil. After about a month-and-a-half he would come again to release the water, now turned brackish through evaporation.
Once the water had completely seeped away and the ground was firm enough to walk over, the farmer and his family would start hoeing it up again or deep--plowing it at intervals. Then it was ready for sowing. The scribe in charge of the granaries would measure out the quantity of grain allotted to each farmer and keep a written record. Then the vizier, through his officials and the town and village headmen, would give the order for sowing to commence.
The ceremony symbolized at the same time the ritual burial of the god Osiris, who had died at the hand of his brother Seth but came to life again thanks to his wife (and sister) Isis. Grain, the symbol of Osiris' body, appears to have no life till it sprouts anew. Hence, in the harvest festivals, the generous praise for Isis, to whom credit was due for the revival of the grain. This popular belief was reflected in the little flat clay figures of the prostrate Osiris which were 'sown'; the appearance of green corn was seen as an analogue to Osiris' resurrection.
So now the farmer could start sowing. With his grain in a leather bag slung across his left shoulder, or in a basket held in his left hand, he would scatter it in wide swathes over the prepared ground. Lest it stay on the surface to be pecked up by birds, he would invite a herdsman to come onto the field with his flock of sheep or goats so that they could tread the grain in with their hooves.
Sometimes the sun's heat had drawn off all the moisture before then. This was particularly liable to happen on elevated sites beyond the flood's reach, or in years when the floods were poor anyway. Unlike the Delta and central Egypt, where there would be an occasional brisk shower, usually in November or December, the rest of the valley in Upper Egypt and Nubia had never experienced a proper downfall since the Neolithic wet phase. So there was nothing for it but to fetch additional water from the river or the irrigation canals.
The first mechanical device for conducting water to high-lying fields from the canals dates from the Persian Period (after 525 BC). This was the tanbur or Archimedes' screw, a helix that could be revolved inside a sloping cylinder. This provided a many times larger, faster and more continuous flow of water, but as the corn between his fingertips and pronounces it ripe.
Harvest-time means mobilizing the village's entire labor force, women and children included. From the New Kingdom onwards slaves and violators of royal decrees will have been roped in too, and in an emergency even army units might be detailed to lend a hand.
The start of the harvest involved celebrations in honor of the fertility god Min. These were opened by the king himself, who reaped the first ears of grain with a sickle. Diodorus tells us that even in his day, the 1st century AD, peasants maintained the old tradition of setting up stocks with the first corn harvested, beating their breasts and calling upon the goddess Isis.
Harvest scenes are depicted on the walls of many tombs, nowhere more fully than in the 15th-dynasty tomb of Menna at Sheikh Abd el-Quma. We shall now take these as a guide.
Before the sickles plunged into the standing corn the assessor-scribes led by the 'Overseer of Fields' turned up to check the position of the boundary-stones and measure the size of the field with a calibrated surveying cord. From these data they worked out the probable yield, which would be compared with the actual yield after the threshing was done. This was clearly done to prevent any part of the harvest being 'mislaid'.
The harvesters usually worked in a straight row, advancing steadily to the rhythm of one of the songs documented for example in the tombs of Ty (5th dynasty) or Mereruka (6th dynasty) at Saqqara. The song-leader was accompanied by a flautist and the harvesters probably chanted in response. (We can hear Egyptian laborers singing today in the same fashion during the tedious work of removing sand from archaeological sites.)
Grasping a bunch of stalks in his left hand the harvester would slice them through 9 at a level just above his knees, then toss the cars aside to be picked up by the helpers. These would pile the eared stalks alternately end to end, so that a compact sheaf forfned that required no binding - the Ty relief shows this very clearly.
The sheaves were in turn loaded into nets or baskets to be taken on donkey back for threshing. The threshing-floor was sometimes out on the field, sometimes next to the farmhouse. It was a circular arena of trodden clay ringed with a low clay wall. The sheaves would be loosened, the cars thrown on to the ground and cattle or donkeys driven into the enclosure to thresh out the grain with their trampling, while the men stood outside in a circle urging the animals on with cries or prodding them with sticks.
The grain released in this way was still mixed with chaff, straw and other impurities. Cleaning was done on a breezy day on some well-swept piece of flat ground. It was usually a job for young girls, who tossed the corn into the air with short-handled wooden shovels. The wind carried off the lighter chaff and so on while the heavier grain fell back on the ground. This winnowing could also be done by shaking the grain in sieves - usually a man's task. Once again the scribes now came 3 on the scene to measure the volume of grain in standard wooden tubs. Finally it was sacked up and carried, by manpower or donkey power, to the granaries.
The oldest type of granary, known from Archaic times, was a round-based cone with a domed top. It was made of seasoned wood, often plaster-lined, or of mud bricks. The largest ones had steps leading up to the filling hole, or else a ladder was laid against them.
All grain earmarked for the next sowing was stored in granaries of a different, trapezoidal shape so that there was no danger of it being ground in error. Among Middle Kingdom models we find another, four-cornered design of granary, standing in a row against one side of a house courtyard. One such granary is shown with a flat roof and five filling-holes through which women are pouring sacks of grain while a scribe, seated nearby, keeps a tally and a guard looks on, stick in hand.
At times when central authority was weakening, especially after the Third Intermediate Period, several royal or temple priests, army veterans and others were able to acquire land, initially to cover their own needs for the rest of their lives. This land could however be passed on by inheritance and in the course of time it came to be regarded as transferable and then as saleable, the state no longer having enough authority to re-annex it to the state farming enterprises.
The Egyptians had a high regard for flowers and trees and devoted great care to planting, tending and protecting them. To sit in hot weather under the canopy of a tree was a favorite recipe for relaxing body and mind.
It was popularly thought that trees were the abode of supernatural beings or much-loved gods. The Books of the Dead linked this tree with the rising sun and with the sky goddess Nut, or at other times with Isis or Hathor.
Even humble village houses had little gardens next to them. Where buildings were close together the owners might have to be content with a few trees or flower-beds, or simply grow flowers and small shrubs in clay pots or wooden troughs in the courtyard.
When the heavy trusses of golden fruit appeared among the crown of fronds, men would clamber up the trunk with knives between their teeth to cut down the strings of dates. There is a painting on the wall of Rekhmire's tomb that shows this being done. Here one man is shown plucking the fruit with both hands and another is carrying it away in pans hung on a yoke. In the royal gardens they even employed tame monkeys for this job.
An important oil-bearing tree was the baq, probably synonymous with the horseradish tree. Apart from cultivated kinds, many valuable trees grew wild, including acacias, tamarisks, mimosas, willows, palms and lemon trees. Most of the native broad-leaved trees yielded only inferior timber that was too knotty, brittle or prone to split for use other than for stanchions, roof-beams and some domestic furniture - chests and coffins.
When Egypt gained control of these lands in the early New Kingdom she developed tree-felling there on such a scale that it helped to denude the entire coastal region.
Few gardens were without grapevines, which were also grown in separate vineyards. Many Old Kingdom, and even more New Kingdom, tomb murals show bunches of grapes being gathered in baskets and brought to the wine-press. This was a square vat lined with smooth mortar. The grapes were thrown in and the juice trodden out by groups of barefoot men hanging on to ropes suspended from a wooden frame so that they should not lose their balance and tumble into the pressings as they inhaled the heavy vapor.
After this the must was filtered through cloth into fermentation vats and left for a time, heat sometimes being applied to speed up the fermentation. Finally the mature wine was again filtered through canvas and improved by the addition of spices or honey, then conveyed throughout the country in wine amphorae whose frequent appearance in archaeological sites shows how popular the drink was, especially from the New Kingdom on and even more so in Roman days. Masses of them were found during the excavation of the Ramesseum storerooms, in the tombs of Theban dignitaries, at Abydos, Tell el-Amarna and other places. Inscriptions on some amphorae give the vintage year, type and quality of grape, locality and owner of the vineyard etc.
The ancient Egyptians were familiar with many wild shrubs and herbs and used them as drugs, for making dyes and wickerwork - mats, baskets, bed matting, osier stands, sandals and so forth. Many kinds of flowers were tied into bouquets for the living or the dead - cornflowers, poppies, chrysanthemums, mandrakes, mallows, irises, larkspurs, jasmine, ivy and above all papyrus reeds and lotus lilies.
The dense growths of papyrus and lotus in fens and marshes were a typical feature 113 of the Egyptian landscape. Papyrus, particularly common in the Delta, became the heraldic plant of Lower Egypt while the lotus, found all along the Nile, was the symbol of Upper Egypt. The close union of the two parts of the country is proclaimed in reliefs round the plinths of colossal statues of the king, which show the Nile god Hapy tying up bunches of papyrus and lotus together.
Papyrus thickets were also favorite hunting grounds. In the branches of the Nile in the Delta maze little muddy islands developed which continually changed shape or shifted. In mythology the papyrus came accordingly to symbolize the earth arising from the primeval ocean and hence, by a shift of meaning, youth and happiness.
Amulets in the shape of papyrus bundles were popularly worn as a protection for the living, and were credited with magic power to confer eternal youth and everlasting joy on the dead as well. Papyrus bouquets stood for victory and for joy.
The Egyptians certainly appreciated the black earth that had yielded them so much benefit, and they took care to husband it. New villages were most commonly sited on the very edge of the fertile areas, where the desert sand began, or on flat islands of sand alluvium. In this way the Egyptians minimized the encroachment of damp into their houses, while ensuring that not a scrap of unable soil was wasted.
The Egyptian peasant's habit of working half-naked in the blazing sun, wearing only his short kilt, shows how immune his skin had become to sunburn, and apparently they were not accustomed to cover their heads to avert sunstroke. They stood up equally well to fierce winds, and were resistant to common colds from the alternation of daytime and night-time temperatures. Their diet, based on bread, green stuff and milk products, was balanced and biologically sound, containing plenty of vitamins and minerals with little animal fat or harmful ingredients.
We know from their portraits that they enjoyed slender, wiry frames and athletic physique. A peasant might also fall foul of one of the several kinds of scorpion that hid under the stones. Their stings also have a neuro-toxic effect, like that of the cobra in the larger species, more like a bee's in the smaller ones. Since neither preventive nor curative medicine of any value was available, people resorted to charms, spells, magic knives and - in the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods - to magic steles on which the god Horns is shown battling victoriously with snakes and scorpions.
Perhaps this was why venomous snakes were sometimes embalmed as mummies. In truth most patients could only hope to survive if the snake had already voided some of its poison in biting an earlier victim.
Who are we?
Tour Egypt aims to offer the ultimate Egyptian adventure and intimate knowledge about the country. We offer this unique experience in two ways, the first one is by organizing a tour and coming to Egypt for a visit, whether alone or in a group, and living it firsthand. The second way to experience Egypt is from the comfort of your own home: online.