The civilization of ancient Egypt was indebted to the Nile River and its dependable seasonal flooding. The river’s predictability and fertile soil allowed the Egyptians to build an empire on the basis of great agricultural wealth. Egyptians are credited as being one of the first groups of people to practice agriculture on a large scale. This was possible because of the ingenuity of the Egyptians as they developed basin irrigation. Their farming practices allowed them to grow staple food crops, especially grains such as wheat and barley, and industrial crops, such as flax and papyrus.
The Nile and field planting
The Nile’s watershed
Further information: Geography of Egypt
The civilization of ancient Egypt developed in the arid climate of northern Africa. This region is distinguished by the Arabian and Libyan deserts, and the River Nile. The Nile is the longest river in the world, flowing northward from Lake Victoria and eventually emptying into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile has two main tributaries: the Blue Nile which originates in Ethiopia, and the White Nile that flows from Rwanda. While the White Nile is considered to be longer and easier to traverse, the Blue Nile actually carries about two-thirds of the water volume of the river. The names of the tributaries derive from the color of the water that they carry. The tributaries come together in Khartoum and branches again when it reaches Egypt, forming the Nile delta.
The Egyptians took advantage of the natural cyclical flooding pattern of the Nile. Because this flooding happened fairly predictably, the Egyptians were able to develop their agricultural practices around it. The water levels of the river would rise in August and September, leaving the floodplain and delta submerged by 1.5 meters of water at the peak of the flooding. This yearly flooding of the river is known as inundation. As the floodwaters receded in October, farmers were left with well-watered and fertile soil in which to plant their crops. The soil left behind by the flooding is known as silt and was brought from Ethiopian Highlands by the Nile. Planting took place in October once the flooding was over, and crops were left to grow with minimal care until they ripened between the months of March and May. While the flooding of the Nile was much more predictable and calm than other rivers, such as the Tigris and Euphrates, it was not always perfect. High floodwaters were destructive and could destroy canals that were made for irrigation. Lack of flooding created a potentially greater issue because it left Egyptians suffering from famine.
To make the best use of the waters of the Nile river, the Egyptians developed systems of irrigation. Irrigation allowed the Egyptians to use the Nile’s waters for a variety of purposes. Notably, irrigation granted them greater control over their agricultural practices. Floodwaters were diverted away from certain areas, such as cities and gardens, to keep them from flooding. Irrigation was also used to provide drinking water to Egyptians. Despite the fact that irrigation was crucial to their agricultural success, there were no statewide regulations on water control. Rather, irrigation was the responsibility of local farmers. However, the earliest and most famous reference to irrigation in Egyptian archaeology has been found on the mace head of the Scorpion King, which has been roughly dated to about 3100 BC. The mace head depicts the king cutting into a ditch that is part of a grid of basin irrigation. The association of the high ranking king with irrigation highlights the importance of irrigation and agriculture to their society.
Egyptians developed and utilized a form of water management known as basin irrigation. This practice allowed them to control the rise and fall of the river to best suit their agricultural needs. A crisscross network of earthen walls was formed in a field of crops that would be flooded by the river. When the floods came, the water would be trapped in the basins formed by the walls. This grid would hold water longer than it would have naturally stayed, allowing the earth to become fully saturated for later planting. Once the soil was fully watered, the floodwater that remained in the basin would simply be drained to another basin that was in need of more water.
Main article: Gardens of ancient Egypt
Orchards and gardens were also developed in addition to field planting in the floodplains. This horticulture generally took place further from the floodplain of the Nile, and as a result, they required much more work. The perennial irrigation required by gardens forced growers to manually carry water from either a well or the Nile to water their garden crops. Additionally, while the Nile brought silt which naturally fertilized the valley, gardens had to be fertilized by pigeon manure. These gardens and orchards were generally used to grow vegetables, vines and fruit trees.
See also: Ancient Egyptian cuisine
The Egyptians grew a variety of crops for consumption, including grains, vegetables and fruits. However, their diets revolved around several staple crops, especially cereals and barley. Other major grains grown included einkorn wheat and emmer wheat, grown to make bread. Other staples for the majority of the population included beans, lentils, and later chickpeas and fava beans. Root crops, such as onions, garlic and radishes were grown, along with salad crops, such as lettuce and parsley.
Fruits were a common motif of Egyptian artwork, suggesting that their growth was also a major focus of agricultural efforts as the civilization’s agricultural technology developed. Unlike cereals and pulses, fruit required more demanding and complex agricultural techniques, including the use of irrigation systems, cloning, propagation and training. While the first fruits cultivated by the Egyptians were likely indigenous, such as the palm date and sorghum, more fruits were introduced as other cultural influences were introduced. Grapes and watermelon were found throughout predynastic Egyptian sites, as were the sycamore fig, dom palm and Christ’s thorn. The carob, olive, apple and pomegranate were introduced to Egyptians during the New Kingdom. Later, during the Greco-Roman period peaches and pears were also introduced.
Industrial and fiber crops
Egyptians relied on agriculture for more than just the production of food. They were creative in their use of plants, using them for medicine, as part of their religious practices, and in the production of clothing. Herbs perhaps had the most varied purposes; they were used in cooking, medicine, as cosmetics and in the process of embalming. Over 2000 different species of flowering or aromatic plants have been found in tombs. Papyrus was an extremely versatile crop that grew wild and was also cultivated. The roots of the plant were eaten as food, but it was primarily used as an industrial crop. The stem of the plant was used to make boats, mats, and paper. Flax was another important industrial crop that had several uses. Its primary use was in the production of rope, and for linen which was the Egyptians’ principal material for making their clothing. Henna was grown for the production of dye.
Agriculture in Ancient Egypt
In 3100 BCE, two kingdoms came together to form a powerful and unified group, the Egyptian Empire. This group created an extensive irrigation system that allowed them to harness the flooding of the Nile River and create an abundance of food for their growing empire.
Egypt would not have existed without their incredible abundance of food, made possible by agricultural techniques that helped them harness the cycles of the Nile River? Yes, food is what made Egypt wealthy, long before fancy tombs and cool drawings. But how do you grow food in the desert heat with a flooding river?
The Nile River
The Egyptians built their powerful and successful empire along the banks of the Nile River. The Nile flows approximately 4,000 miles from Lake Victoria in East Africa and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It is the longest river in the world and provides much needed water and vegetation across the Northern part of Africa through the Sahara Desert. Three rivers flow together to create the Nile which flows South to North and empties into a delta, or a triangle shaped piece of land where a river splits and flows into an ocean.
Although the area surrounding the Nile is fertile, ancient farmers had to learn certain techniques to make the land useful and abundant. The annual flooding of the Nile left rich sediment along the banks of the river, which, when properly irrigated, allowed farmers to plant crops. This abundant food supply allowed early nomads, or people who followed food sources, to settle in one place. These early villages became two strong kingdoms, Lower Egypt to the North and Upper Egypt to the South. In 3100 BCE, King Menes united Lower and Upper Egypt into one empire. Under King Menes, Egypt began creating a strong society and economy. The early economy was based on food production, specifically wheat, barley and grain.
The Egyptian year was divided into three seasons based on the flooding and receding of the Nile River.
Flooding Season: Akhet
Very predictably, the Nile River flooded every year. This was called inundation and occurred from June until September. During this time, the river would flood the land surrounding the banks of the river. Though this sounds like it would be terrible, Egyptians learned to build their houses away from the banks of the river. The flooding also left a rich black soil, called silt. This silt was so important to Egyptian agriculture that they called it ‘The Gift of the Nile.’
Watering and Irrigation
Living in the desert with a flooding river meant that the Egyptians had a surplus of water at certain times and none at all during others. They needed to create a way to harness the water from the flooding so they could use it during the rest of the year to water their crops. They did this through the creation of an irrigation and canal system. They dug canals parallel to the river which filled with water during the flooding. They could open and close these canals to then use this water for crops later in the year. A shaduf was used to help move water from the canal to the fields. The shaduf was a long tool on a seesaw type of bottom, with a weight on one end and a bucket on the other. The bucket could be lowered into the canal and filled with water. Then the bucket could be rotated around to the area in need of water.
Agriculture depicted on Kemetic temple walls
Shaduf, a tool used for irrigation
Farming and Other tools