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Ancient Egyptian plants: Grasses
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    Grasses were (and of course still are) of huge economic importance. There appears to have existed grain production in the eastern Sahara before it became desertified (6th millennium BCE), but a sedentary way of life developed only after a phase of pastoralism.[7] In ancient Egypt the cereals emmer, barley and wheat were grown in large quantities, feeding the whole population and, during the Roman occupation, the city of Rome as well. Another type of grass, reeds, provided a cheap means for creating effective transportation in the form of rafts. The pith of the papyrus plant was made into a kind of paper, and was used throughout the Roman empire. Grasses were also the raw material for baskets, mattings, sandals, ropes, even cheap wigs, and served as food, such as the nut-grass tubers.[6]
    Egypt, unlike its Mid-Eastern neighbours where sheep and goats were the main source of milk and meat, was a cattle country.[8] It did not have the wide grasslands eastern Africa has, but land with enough irrigation for grass to grow could be set aside for pasture. Unlike Bata in the Tale of the Two Brothers who just
... walked behind his cattle, and they would say to him: "The grass is good in such-and-such a place." And he heard all they said and took them to the place of good grass that they desired.
The Two Brothers [13]
real-life herders had to discover the best pasturage themselves, drive sometimes unwilling animals there, cross river arms infested with crocodiles and sleep at night close to their charges in order to prevent them from being stolen.
    Large tracts of the Nile delta, too wet to be put under the plough, were covered with reeds and grasses, affording many cosy nooks city dwellers found refuge in:
There we live among the grasses ///////// grass, alone by my country-house...
    As is the case with many other Egyptian terms for plants and animals, we generally have an idea what they refer to—often only thanks to the determinative used—but frequently we cannot identify them. The jAr.w, a cypress grass, is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts and other sources in the context of matting:
The tent of Unas is woven from jAr.w
Pyramid Texts, spell 210 [12]
    Esparto or Halfa grass [4], sometimes used as a translation for Egyptian anb,[5] was used in basketry,[1] for rope making,[2], and matting.[3]
    It appears to have been worthwhile transporting grass for quite a distance, if the bill of lading of the eloquent peasant is an indication. In the following quotation it is interesting to note how Miriam Lichtheim was careful not to hazard guesses as to the exact identity of the produce:
This peasant went down to Egypt. He had loaded his donkeys with rushes, rdmt-grass, natron, salt, sticks of ///, staves from Cattle-Country, leopard skins, wolf skins, nsA-plants, anw-stones, tnm-plants, Xprwr-plants, sAhwt, sAskwt , miswt-plants, anw-stones, abAw-stones, ibsA-plants, inbi-plants, pigeons, narw-birds, wgs-birds, wbn-plants, tbsw-plants, gngnt, earth-hair, and inst; in sum, all the good products of Salt-Field.
The rdm.t was often woven into matting. rdm.t is generally thought to be cypress grass,[9] though some (e.g. Devauchelle) think it is a palm and the Zettelarchiv defines it as a 'fruit'. The sleeping mats brought, according to The admonitions of Ipuwer, as offerings by the oasis-dwellers were made of rdm.t.
    Neither did scribes, certainly better off than peasants–eloquent or otherwise–despise the humble grass. In the Papyrus Lansing a grateful former pupil promises his teacher to repay him by building a mansion for him:
The barns are full of barley and emmer, wheat, [cumin (?)], dates, hrw-bik, gmnn, beans, lentils, coriander, peas, seed-grain, adn, flax, herbs, reeds, rushes, ybr, iStpn, dung for the winter, alfa grass, reeds, rdmt-grass, produced by the basketful.

Katheryn A. Bard, Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, Routledge 1999
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol.1, University of California Press 1973
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol.2, University of California Press 1980
Ian Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 2003
B. G. Trigger, B. J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: A Social History, Cambridge University Press 1983
Andrew Hunt Gordon, Calvin W. Schwabe, The Quick and the Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt, Brill 2004
[1] Lucas, p.129
[2] Lucas, p.134
[3] Lucas, p.136
[5] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae
[6] Shaw, p.24
[7] Trigger & Kemp, pp.15ff.
[8] Gordon & Schwabe, pp. 31ff.
[9] Wb 2, 469.2
[10] Lichtheim vol.2, 1980, p.172
[11] Lichtheim vol.1, 1973, p.170
[12] After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
D. Topmann ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Unas-Pyramide => Sargkammer => Ostgiebel => PT 210
[13] Lichtheim vol.2, 1980, p.204


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Esparto grass[4] Esparto grass

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© September 2007