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Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egyptian agriculture and horticulture: irrigation, ploughing and planting, harvest, crops
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Agriculture and horticulture in ancient Egypt

Agriculture

Greetings, oh Nile, who springs from the earth and gives Egypt nourishment.

Irrigation

    Natural river irrigation shaped the early landscape of ancient Egypt. Drainage was not required for the Valley to become livable. It may have constituted a problem in the lower lying parts of the Delta which were often marshy. With the natural flooding and draining of the floodplain, the annual inundation permitted a single crop-season over two-thirds of the alluvial ground.

Irrigation canal from tomb picture;Source: V.Easy Canal, tomb of Senedjem
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    Organized by regional authorities, every Egyptian had to move about thirty cubic metres of soil in about ten days every year. With this relatively small investment of labour, they kept the system in working order. Once the main canals, many of them natural, were in place, they just had to be dredged yearly to prevent their clogging up; the levees had to be raised, and smaller ditches had to be re-excavated.
When the Nile is overflowing, it floods the Delta and the lands called Libyan and Arabian, for a distance of a journey of two days from both banks in places, and sometimes, sometimes less. I could not learn anything about its nature, neither from the priests or from anyone else. I was curious to learn why the Nile is flooding for a hundred days from the summer solstice; and when this time is passed, sinks again, and the river is low during the whole winter until the summer solstice again.
Herodotus, Histories 2,19

    The building of dams at right angles to the flow of the Nile, separating the Nile Valley into basins, precedes the Old Kingdom. Dikes were built along the banks of the river and the basins which covered between 400 and 1700 hectares, were carefully levelled. The river water was diverted into canals on either side of the Nile.
    At the time of the highest flooding (towards the end of September) most of the Nile Valley was covered with water, only villages and cities, built on higher ground and connected by dams, were above water. When the water level reached the mouths of the canals, the dams separating the canals from the river were opened and the basins and canals flooded. When the highest water level was reached, one to two metres above the ground, the canals were stopped and the water left standing until it evaporated or was drained off during the next two months. The waterlogged earth did not need much further irrigation, but higher lying fields did:
10     For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it [i.e. Canaan], is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs:
Deuteronomy, 11
    Whatever wateredst it with thy foot may mean, this passage seems to indicate strongly that even cornfields were irrigated while the corn [11] was growing.

Boundary stone     The boundaries of the fields were marked with boundary stones. These had to be replaced frequently after the inundation, based on cadastral records. An oath of the kind "I swear by the great god that is in heaven that the right boundary stone has been set up" was sworn at their erection.

    The building of dams and canals was done at local or regional levels, and while in the past many held irrigation to be the prime cause for the emergence of a central government, most think nowadays that the involvement of the national government in the irrigation was probably minimal: the opening and closing of the canal sluices to Lake Moeris in the Fayum in order to regulate the flow of the river must have been a task for the central authorities.

    The importance of irrigation, of the uninterrupted and fairly shared flow of water, is stressed in the affirmations the ba (the 'soul') makes before the gods of the Realm of the Dead
33. I have not obstructed water when it should run.
34. I have not cut a cutting in a canal of rating water.
From the negative confessions
Book of the Dead, Chapter 125
    The distribution of water between the periods of flooding was everybody's own business. Until the shadouf came into use in the 16th century BCE heavy earthen buckets were used. The rights to water were as important as the land it was intended to irrigate. During the Late Period at least these rights could be sold like any commodity:
You have satisfied my heart [with the] money for this third of "water day" (of) the water of the children of Hr-tb [(?)] the [(?)] "[water] day(s)" which belong to me therein. It belongs to you. It is your own water [together with its timber, its field,] its land, its part of each plot from today on [until] all eternity.
2nd year of Inaros, 6th century
After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site
G. Vittmann ed., Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Verkaufsurkunden => Wasserrechte => O. Manawir IFAO 5446

Ploughing and planting

Sowing
Tomb KV 11, 20th dynasty
From Napoleon's Descriptions de l'Egypte, Vol.2
Ploughing cows,Source: Phoenix Art Museum
Model of a plough,
which is fastened
to the horns of the cows.
(Source: Phoenix Art Museum)
Now at the time of ploughing his elder brother said unto him, "Let us make ready for ourselves a goodly yoke of oxen for ploughing, for the land has come out from the water, it is fit for ploughing. Moreover, do thou come to the field with corn, for we will begin the ploughing in the morrow morning."
W.M.F.Petrie, Anpu and Bata
    In most countries heavy ploughs have to be used to turn over the soil, so that the growing plants get enough nutrients, but in Egypt the Nile flood deposited the nutrients on top, and the ploughing served just to break up the top soil before sowing or for covering the seed afterwards.
    The Egyptian plough was lightly built and tied to the horns of the cattle. Cows were generally used for ploughing, which caused their milk production to decrease during ploughing time. A helper, often a child, led the animals, sometimes urging them on with a stick. When draft animals were unavailable, humans would pull the plough or one might try to borrow some cows as did Sarapion when he wrote to his most esteemed Antonius Minor sometime in the second century CE:
I write to you now, therefore, most esteemed friend, first to salute you and my lord Ammonianus and all your kin, and then to ask you by all means to lend me through Morion's men three full-grown cows, fine and large in body, since I am about to plow land that has lain fallow. It is for this that I have need of them. In order that you may accomplish this for me with dispatch, I beg you to let me know their price, and I will send it to you from here.
APIS record: michigan.apis.1742 [14]

Farmhands digging; (German Museum, Munich, Source: V. Easy) Labourers hoeing, followed by a sower. The seed is covered by more hoers
Tomb of Khaemhat, Luxor
Source: V.Easy

    Hoeing was another way of loosening the soil. Because the handles of the hoes were very short (a feature of these tools even today in southern countries), this was back-breaking work.
 
    The sower walked back and forth over the still moist field, a bag in one hand and spreading the seed with the other, or having a two handled woven basket tied around his neck, both his hands free for sowing. Sometimes a plough covered the seeds with earth. Driving hogs or sheep over the field served the same purpose.
It is certain however that now they gather in fruit from the earth with less labour than any other men and also with less than the other Egyptians; for they have no labour in breaking up furrows with a plough nor in hoeing nor in any other of those labours which other men have about a crop; but when the river has come up of itself and watered their fields and after watering has left them again, then each man sows his own field and turns into it swine, and when he has trodden the seed into the ground by means of the swine, after that he waits for the harvest, and when he has threshed the corn by means of the swine, then he gathers it in.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

 

Corn harvest
Harvesting
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
 
Transporting grain
Carrying the corn
Tomb of Menna
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

Harvest

Granaries at Akhetaten; Source Kemp, Barry: Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization     The total amount of grain harvested depended on the surface covered by the flooding Nile, which was between perhaps 20,000 and 34,000 square kilometres. Taking pre-green-revolution wheat yields of about 750 kg/ha [1] as a base, the annual amount of grain [11] produced was approximately between 1.5 and 2.5 million tons, supposing that most of the surface was used to produce grain. About 4 to 5 million people lived in Egypt during the New Kingdom [3] and the gross annual grain yield would have been about 500 kg per person. In a bad year the annual yield was less than 200 kg per head, at times considerably less.

Granaries at Akhetaten
Source: Kemp, Barry, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization

    Occurrences of corn dearth were frequent. Some estimate that there would have been sufficient grain only every third year. This may be a bit pessimistic. At any rate, Egypt seems to have had grain surpluses often enough, so that they could be stored in state granaries and even be exported. During Roman times the country was one of the bread baskets of Rome.
In Egypt, we find barley cut at the end of six months, and wheat at the end of seven, from the time of sowing.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book XVIII, chap. 10
    The harvest generally took place shortly before the beginning of the next flooding, about in May or June, at times in April. The whole population took part and on big estates journeying harvesting teams were employed. These itinerant reapers began the season in the southern part of the country and followed the ripening crops downriver.
    The Egyptians seemingly knew ergot (THf.tj) which does not proliferate well under the dry Egyptian weather conditions and was probably never the health danger it was to be in the rye eating countries of northern Europe during the late Middle Ages.
    The administration was involved in everything the farmer did, from the assignment of the land to the collecting of the taxes:
Made by the overseer of fields, experienced in his office,
The offspring of a scribe of Egypt,
The overseer of grains who controls the measure,
Who sets the harvest-dues for his lord,
Who registers the islands of new land,
In the great name of his majesty,
Who records the markers on the borders of fields,
Who acts for the king in his listing of taxes,
Who makes the land-register of Egypt,
The scribe who determines the offerings for all the gods,
Who gives land-leases to the people,
The overseer of grains, [provider] of food,
Who supplies the granary with grains.....
The Instruction of Amenemope
New Kingdom
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II, pp. 448f
Granary, Source: La vie quotidienne en Egypte by Pierre Montet,  Hebrew translation, Am Hassefer Publishers, Tel Aviv 1969     Before the harvest began, surveyors, scribes, supervisors and inspectors came to measured the size of the fields and estimated the quantity of grain [6].

Granary model
Source: Pierre Montet, La vie quotidienne en Egypte

    These officials fixed the tax, amounting to about 7½% to 15% of the yield,[12] the peasant had to give up to the royal treasury or the representative of one of the gods, among whom Amen had the vastest and best properties.
    Scribes trying to impress their pupils with the harshness of a peasant's daily struggle for survival, may have slightly exaggerated the methods used by tax-collectors, but Egyptian officials were not noted for sparing the rod (nor have peasants ever shown an alacrity to part with the fruit of their labour):
Now the scribe lands on the shore. He surveys the harvest. Attendants are behind him with staffs, Nubians with clubs. One says (to the peasant): "Give grain."
"There is none."
He is beaten savagely. He is bound, thrown in the well, submerged head down.
The Instruction of Amenemope
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II, p.
    Low inundations were the main reason for bad harvests and they affected the whole of the country. But there were no end of causes for low yields, from the failure of the local administration to care for the upkeep of canals and dykes, to the destruction of the harvest by pests and raids of thieves.
    Corn that was not destined for immediate consumption was stored in communal granaries, which served as a kind of bank.

 

Crops

    Important crops were emmer (bd.t, Lat. Triticum dicoccum) which stopped being grown by the Roman period, barley (jt, Lat. Hordeum hexastichon), used for baking bread and brewing beer, the significance of which declined during the Roman Period when wine replaced beer to a large extent, wheat (zw.t, possibly Lat. Triticum aestivum), pekha (pxA), an unidentified sort of cereal, flax (mHj, Lat. Linum usitatissimum) for the production of cloth and ropes, the naturally occurring papyrus reeds (which became extinct in Egypt and were recently reintroduced), used for paper, boats, ropes, mats and many other things and the castor oil plant (dgm, Lat. Ricinus communis), from the fruit of which oil for many purposes (among others as a sort of money) was pressed.
The Egyptians who live near the marshes use an oil made from the castor-berry, which they call kiki. This plant grows wild in Greece, here they sow it on the banks of the river and lakes. It produces abundant badly smelling fruit. After gathering the fruit some bruise and press it, while others boil it after roasting, and collect the juice that comes from it. This is thick and used as lamp oil, and smells strongly.
Herodotus, Histories 2,94

    Domesticated in Mesopotamia, the opium poppy (Spn (?), Papaver somniferum L.) may have been grown on a commercial scale near Thebes during the New Kingdom, and opium thebaicum was possibly traded by Phoenicians to southern Europe, the Levant and North Africa [4]. Jewellery and small, perhaps foreign, containers looking somewhat like poppy-heads dating to the 18th dynasty have been found, but few - if any - traces of the plant itself or its products.
Shadouf,A.B.Edwards: A thousand miles up the Nile     Oil was extracted from poppy seeds in the Fayum during the third century BCE. Some scholars think that the production of opium for medicinal purposes was introduced into Egypt only in Roman times.

Horticulture


Shadouf
Source: A.B.Edwards: A thousand miles up the Nile

    Gardening was much more labour intensive than agriculture. Gardens, orchards, and vineyards were often on high ground and quite a distance from the Nile. They had to be irrigated by hand with the water drawn from wells or the river.
The gardener carries a yoke,
His shoulders are bent as with age;
There's a swelling on his neck
And it festers,
irrigators In the morning he waters vegetables,
The evening he spends with the herbs,
While at noon he has foiled in the orchard.
He works himself to death
More than all other professions.
-Satire of the Trades
-M.Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature Vol.1 p.187
    Moreover, in the absence of the depositions of silt with which the Nile revitalized the inundated areas, the soil of the higher lying ground needed fertilizing. During the Roman era at least, farmers at Karanis in the Faiyum kept pigeons in dovecotes and used their droppings to fertilize the soil [13][10].
    Pliny thought that growing conditions in Egypt were especially favourable to the horticulturalist. He claimed that in Egypt the leguminous plants appear as early as the third day after they are sown. [8]
    Gardeners grew radishes [7], sesame (jk), lentils [9] (arSn), beans (prj) and chickpeas (Hr.w-bik, Lat. Cicer arietinum), lettuce (ab.w), onions (HD.w), leeks (jAq.t), dill (jms.t, Anethum graveolens), grapes (jArr.wt), melons, cucumbers (bd.t or sSp.t ?) and gourds (bd.t).
    Many Egyptians had gardens adjacent to their homes where they grew small quantities of vegetables and fruit for their own consumption.

Conclusion

    On the whole the ancient Egyptians seem to have been accomplished farmers, and they were certainly lucky with their system of irrigation which prevented the salinization of the soil which other cultures relying on artificial irrigation suffered from. Diodorus Siculus, a Roman historian writing during the first century BCE, had a high opinion of the agricultural expertise of the Egyptians [5].

 


Footnotes:
[1] Wheat yields in China and India for instance were between ½ and 1 ton per hectare during the 1950's. Half a century later they have risen to between 2 and 3.5 tons per hectare.
Heqanakhte, a Middle Kingdom priest, wrote in one of his letters:
This is not a bad yield, as 4/4 fields (i.e. 10 arouras) will yield 100 sacks of Lower Egyptian barley.
1st letter of Heqanakhte
After a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
From the New Kingdom there are records of yields of between 5 and 10 sacks (200 kg to 400 kg) of corn per aroura (ca. 2800 m²) - about ¾ to 1½ tons per hectare - according to the quality and location of the field.
[5] The peasants lease plots of land, in so far as they are fertile, for a small sum from the king, the priests and the soldiery, and spend all their time working the fields. Being used to agricultural work since childhood they have much more experience than the farmers among other peoples. They know the condition of the soil, the flow of the water, the correct time of sowing and reaping, and the further treatment of the harvest very precisely. This they learn partly from the observations of their forebears, partly through their own perception.
Diodorus Siculus Historical Library Vol 1, Chapter 74,
After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm
[7] Raphanus sativus is still grown in Egypt for oil extraction. In antiquity is was of great importance:
In Egypt the radish is held in very high esteem, on account of the abundance of oil that is extracted from the seed. Indeed, the people of that country sow this plant in preference to any other, whenever they can get the opportunity, the profits derived from it being larger than those obtained from the cultivation of corn, and the imposts levied upon it considerably less: there is no grain known that yields a larger quantity of oil.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX
[8] Pliny, Natural History, Book XVIII, chap.10
[9] Pliny, Natural History, Book XVIII, chap.31: There are two kinds of lentil grown in Egypt; one of which is rounder and blacker than the other, which has a peculiar shape of its own.
[11] corn: mostly wheat (emmer), some barley
[12] Ben Haring, "Economy", in E. Frood and W. Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles, http://repositories.cdlib.org/nelc/uee/1028
[13] In the 37th year of the reign of Augustus Plenios, son of Pamonthes at Karanis paid a tax of 3 drachmas, 1 obol on his pigeonhouse (Lichtheim 1957, p.49)
[14] http://wwwapp.cc.columbia.edu/ldpd/app/apis/item?mode=item&key=michigan.apis.1742, accessed 9th May 2009
 
Bibliography:
Diodorus Siculus Historical Library, transl. Julius Friedrich Wurm
A. B. Edwards: A thousand miles up the Nile
Ben Haring, "Economy", in E. Frood and W. Wendrich (eds.), UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles, http://repositories.cdlib.org/nelc/uee/1028
Herodotus, Histories II
Kemp, Barry, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, University of California Press 1973-1980
Miriam Lichtheim, 1957, Demotic Ostraca from Medinet Habu, University of Chicago Press
Pierre Montet, La vie quotidienne en Egypte
W. M. Flinders Petrie, ed. Egyptian Tales, Translated from the Papyri, Second Series, 18th to 19th dynasty
Pliny, Natural History (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)

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- The grain harvestThe grain harvest
The farmer and his toolsThe farmer and his tools
Allotment of crown landsAllotment of crown lands to soldiers and their rents in Ptolemaic times
Graeco-Roman tax-collector's receiptsGraeco-Roman tax-collector's receipts
Legal records concerning landLegal records concerning land
 
-Index of Topics
-Main Index
The people of ancient Egypt[3] The people of ancient Egypt
 
Links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.
 
Opium throughout history[4] Opium throughout history
The tomb N 38[6] The tomb N 38 of Djeserkareseneb: view 23
Karanis: The Rural Economy[10] Karanis: The Rural Economy
poppy and opiumThe poppy and opium among other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean and in India
Farming at KaranisFarming at Karanis
Food Production in EgyptFood Production in Egypt
A study of the Moeris ReservoirA study of the Moeris Reservoir, the Ha-Uar dam and the canal connecting the Nile River and Lake Moeris (around 2900 B.C. to 230 B.C.)
The tomb of MennaThe tomb of Menna
Ancient Egyptian AgricultureAncient Egyptian Agriculture and the Origins of Horticulture by Jules Janick, Purdue University
Ancient Egyptian Agriculture Translation of this page into Belorussian

 

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