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Agriculture & Horticulture in Ancient Egypt | Back to Index

Although there were reports of agricultural development as early as the Pleistocene period, it is clear that Egypt has enjoyed a strong agricultural economy for the past 5000 years. Modernization of the food and fiber system was given a push by Muhammad Ali in the 1800’s.

For over 5000 years the farmers of Egypt created a civilization based on the union of the land and the Nile river. It was one of the earliest civilizations and it had a profound influence on the region. Today agriculture in Egypt combines the use of traditional methods with a rich base of knowledge of the land and the environment. A professor of horticulture at Purdue University and a colleague of mine, Dr. Jules Janick (49), provides this description of agriculture in ancient Egypt.

"Ancient Egypt and 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.

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 reexcavated.

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.

The boundaries of the fields were marked with boundary stones. These had to be replaced frequently after the inundation, based on cadastral records. 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.

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 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 plow.

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.

Crops Harvested in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Farmer

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 kilometers. Taking pregreen- revolution wheat yields of about 750 kg/ha as a base, the annual amount of corn produced was approximately between 1.5 and 2.5 million tons, supposing that most of the surface was used to produce corn. About 4 to 5 million people lived in Egypt during the New Kingdom. In a bad year the annual yield was less than 300 kg per head, possibly considerably less.

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 that they could be stored in state granaries and even be exported. During Roman times it was one of the bread baskets of Rome.

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 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. Before the harvest began, surveyors, scribes, supervisors and inspectors came to measured the size of the fields and estimated the quantity of grain. These officials fixed the tax 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 labor)

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.

Important crops were emmer (Triticum dicoccum) which stopped being grown by the Roman period, barley (Hordeum hexastichon), used for baking bread and brewing beerx, the significance of which declined during the Roman 51 Period when wine replaced beer to a large extent, wheat (Triticum aestivum), an unidentified sort of cereal, flax (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 (Ricinus communis), from the fruit of which oil for many purposes (among others as a sort of money) was pressed.

Domesticated in Mesopotamia, the opium poppy (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. Jewelry and small, perhaps foreign, containers looking somewhat like poppyheads dating to the 18th dynasty have been found, but few - if any - traces of the plant itself or its products. 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 in Ancient Egypt

Gardening was much more labor 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. 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 dung to fertilize the soil. Pliny thought that growing conditions in Egypt were especially favorable to the horticulturalist. He claimed that in Egypt the leguminous plants appear as early as the third day after they are sown. Gardeners grew radishes, sesame, lentils, beans and chickpeas (Cicer arietinum), lettuce, 52 onions, leeks, dill (Anethum graveolens), grapes, melons, cucumbers and gourds. Many Egyptians had gardens adjacent to their homes where they grew small quantities of vegetables and fruit for their own consumption.

Bee-keeping in Ancient Egypt

The first official mention of honey production dates to about 2400 BCE, in official lists of apiarists; the oldest pictures of bee-keepers are found in New Kingdom tombs. The kind of hives depicted in these reliefs, woven baskets covered with clay, are still seen in the Sudan today. Cylindrical hives were made of clay.

The main centre of bee-keeping was Lower Egypt with its extensive cultivated lands, where the bee was chosen as a symbol for the country. One of Pharaoh's titles was Bee King, and the gods also were associated with the bee. The sanctuary in which Osiris was worshiped was the Mansion of the Bee. But even nomadic Upper Egyptians probably kept bees, as their use of honey in the production of green eye paint indicates. There were itinerant apiarists in the Faiyum in Ptolemaic times and possibly also beekeepers living by the Nile who loaded their hives onto boats, shipped them upriver in early spring, and then followed the flowering of the plants northwards as they were reported to do in the 19th century CE.

The Egyptians seem to have valued wild honey even more. Honey hunters, often protected by royal archers, would scour the wild wadis for bee colonies.

Honey Temples kept bees in order to satisfy the desire of the gods for honey and for the production of medicines and ointments. But demand far outran local production. Honey, like many other luxury goods was imported from Djahi or Retenu (north of Jerusalem) and possibly even further afield. Canaan, for instance, was called Land of Milk and Honey in the Hebrew tradition, and the probably fictitious Sinuhe waxed lyrical about the riches of Yaa, an unidentified Asiatic region.

Farmed and Domesticated Animals in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian Farming

Sheep, goats, cattle, pigs and geese were raised from earliest times and supplied milk, wool, meat, eggs, leather, skins, horn and fat. Even the dung had its uses. There is little evidence that mutton was consumed, while domesticated pigs were eaten at least since the beginning of the 4th millennium BCE, but pork had no place in religious ceremonies. Goat meat on the other hand was acceptable even to upper class Egyptians. Goat skins served as water containers and floating devices.

The Egyptian farmers, in their early experimental phase, also tried to domesticate other animals such as hyenas, gazelles and cranes, but abandoned these attempts after the Old Kingdom. The domestic chicken didn't make its appearance until the New Kingdom, and then only in isolated places. It became more common in the Late Period. By then the Egyptians seem to have mastered artificial incubation.

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. 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.

Economics of Pharonic Egypt in Ancient Egypt

The economy of Pharonic Egypt has been called an ancient command economy, but one should always remember that such modern definitions are not as absolute as they might be today. Still, there was a specialized bureaucracy which monitored or controlled much of its activity, one of the hallmarks of planned economies. On the other hand, the officials - as state employees and not as private landowners or managers of state farms - probably did not tell farmers what to grow. But they remeasured and reassigned the land after every inundation - based on past assignments, assessed the expected crops, collected part of the produce as taxes, stored and redistributed it. Storage and redistribution were generally done on a local basis. Regional facilities provided produce in case there was a shortfall in one of the local centers. Bureaucrats were also in charge of public works which were mostly religious in character and involved at times tens of thousands of workers and administrators.

The Population in Ancient Egypt

The vast majority of the population, probably more than nine tenths during the first two millennia of Egypt's history, lived on the land in mostly autarkic village communities and, in early times at least, in a state close to serfdom. The land they worked belonged in theory to the gods, Osiris and after his demise to Horus and his earthly incarnation, the pharaoh. In practice a virtual ownership evolved, a development which culminated in the Late Period, when land could be freely bought and sold. Apart from the tenant peasants, a large section of the population worked as farm laborers on the estates of noblemen and of the temples. During the New Kingdom perhaps a third of the land was in the hands of the Amen priesthood, with a proportionally large number of workers and slaves. Administrators, priests, traders and craftsmen lived mostly in the cities 55 along the Nile, which could be supplied with victuals relatively easily and cheaply by boat.

Sources of Wealth in Ancient Egypt

Agriculture created most of Egypt's wealth. Grain, vegetables, fruit, cattle, goats, pigs and fowl were grown, and fish from the Nile were caught, and eventual surpluses, after deduction of the various taxes, were sold on the markets.

Thanks to the yearly inundations the soil remained fertile. But agricultural techniques were not very efficient. Improvements were rare, implements remained primitive and the breeding of better livestock was haphazard. Fishing appears to have existed on a very small scale. But practically all the fish consumed were caught in the Nile. Hunting, a leisure activity to the rich, and gathering played a small economic role over all, but may have been crucial to the survival of the poorest.

Manufacturing in Ancient Egypt

A large part of the manufactured goods came from the families which produced the raw materials. Labor was divided according to gender, with the processing generally left to the women. While the men grew flax, their women spun it into thread and wove the linen. A sizable proportion of the grain produced was used for beer production. The fish caught by the men had to be cleaned and dried by the women to be of much use in the hot climate of Egypt. In the towns small factories appeared, often financed by rich noblemen: bakeries, breweries, carpentry workshops and the like with a few dozen employees. In these manufactories weaving, for instance, became a largely male occupation with the introduction of upright looms during the New Kingdom.

Mining in Ancient Egypt

Most of the things mined were of little interest to anyone but a small number of rich people. Precious metals were not in general circulation until the Late Period and even then remained in the hands of few. The metals used for tools - copper, bronze and, from the Late Period onwards, iron - were expensive and the implements fashioned from them were beyond the reach of many. Poorer people continued to use stone and wooden tools for most purposes well into the bronze and even iron age.

Gems too remained in the possession of a wealthy minority and the stone quarried for temples and tombs served the same class of people and profited only the craftsmen involved in building. Natron needed for the embalming process, was mined in the Wadi Natrun. Embalming was too expensive for all but a few.

Commerce and banking in Ancient Egypt

Most of the produce was consumed by the producers themselves. What was left after landlords and tax-collectors had taken their share, could be sold by barter on the free market either directly to consumers or to professional traders. Little is known about these merchants. It is generally assumed that they were, at least until the Late Period, for the most part agents of the crown or the great estates. Some of the wheat harvested and belonging to private owners was stored in state warehouses. So was much of the grain collected as taxes. Written withdrawal orders by owners of lots of grain were used as a kind of currency. These grain banks continued to serve growers and traders even after the introduction of coined money. Under the Ptolemies a central bank at Alexandria recorded all accounts of the granary banks dotting the country. Payments were transferred from account to account similar to the modern giro system. Credit entries were recorded with the owners name being in the genitive or possessive case and debit entries in the dative case. Since the second half of the first millennium BCE gold, silver, and copper in specie were used mostly in dealings with foreigners, be they mercenaries or merchants. High interest rates did not encourage commerce and during the first millennium BCE they may well have put Egyptian merchants at a disadvantage vis-á-vis foreign traders who were funded from abroad. During the Saite Period monthly interest rates could reach 10%.

Energy in Ancient Egypt

The main energy source of ancient times was muscle power provided to a large extent by humans. The harnessing of animals was inefficient. The yoke resting on the animals' shoulders was unknown, and the shafts of the ploughs were fastened to the horns of the cows.

Vehicles with light spoked wheels came into use during the New Kingdom and served mostly for warfare and sport. Horses were introduced during the Second Intermediary Period and never achieved economic importance. Anything tansported by land, even in arid desert regions, was either carried by humans or donkeys, or dragged on wooden sledges.

Wind energy was exploited only by ships and even there quite inefficiently: The square sails used enabled only sailing before the wind. The Egyptians were fortunate in that the Nile flowed from south to north. The prevailing winds were northerly and sufficed to blow the ships upriver. They were let to drift downriver with furled sails. But often a destination could only be reached through rowing which required large crews.

Fire was needed for cooking and baking food, smelting and casting metal, burning pottery and very rarely for making 58 bricks. For the working of metals high temperatures had to be achieved and this was done quite possibly with charcoal. No coal was available in ancient times and wood was not very plentiful. One suspects that ordinary fires were fed with any dry vegetable or animal matter that was at hand. The heat of the sun on the other hand was put to very good use in the production of mud bricks, which were the perfect building material in a practically rainless country like Egypt.

Warfare in Ancient Egypt

Military ventures can be a source of income - as long as one is successful. Egypt was fortunate in this respect until the Late Period, when it came under the domination of foreign powers. What began with relatively benign occupations by the Libyans, Kushites, Assyrians and Persians, became oppressive under the Roman Empire, which exploited its provinces ruthlessly. The attempts of Cleopatra VII to retain independence were unsuccessful and the country fell prey to Octavian. For as long as Rome ruled the Mediterranean, Egypt was little more than its bread basket.

Unlike the much vaunted empire of the New Kingdom, which was mostly a string of subject states in Lower Retenu run by local potentates, the real and lasting conquests lay in the south, in Nubia and Kush. Nubia at least was directly ruled and exploited by the Egyptians. Its importance as supplier of gold, slaves and luxury goods is underlined by the appointment of vice-roys. No other region conquered by Egypt was as closely integrated economically and culturally and retained this affinity for centuries after Egypt's power had declined in the first millennium BCE.

Bravery in battle was rewarded with appointments, decorations in the form of golden necklaces and bracelets, and gifts of land and slaves, part of the booty plundered 59 from vanquished enemies. Tribute was imposed on defeated nations and the 'exchange' of gifts between the pharaohs and the kings of client states was generally in Egypt's favor.

Slavery in Ancient Egypt

The practice of slavery was practically ubiquitous in ancient times. In Egypt it was seemingly less harsh and widespread than in other societies. Still, some branches of the economy like mining depended to some extent on the labor and expendability of slaves, above all during the New Kingdom, when warfare and trade greatly increased the number of enslaved foreigners.

Taxation in Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt is considered by some to have been the most heavily taxed nation and to have collapsed under the weight of the levies imposed on the populace. But, with a few minor interruptions, its society existed peacefully and basically unchanged for more than two millennia. The state relied on revenues in the forms of labor and taxes paid in kind.

A major part of the levies imposed on the people was used to stabilize society. A bureaucratic administration, at first native and in the Late Period increasingly foreign, enforced order throughout the country during most of its history. Three millennia of mainly quiet development point to the success of this policy: Grain was stored which could be distributed in times of famine. Corvée workers were fed from these stores during the months of inundation when work in the fields was impossible. Artisans constructing public buildings found employment, paid by the royal treasury. Even the offerings at the temples were at least partially used to feed the poor. Of course, different classes of people benefited to different degrees, but care was taken not to leave too many people with nothing to lose, a lesson the Spartans and the Romans for instance never learned. While famines affected the poor much more than the rich, in normal times there was not that much difference as regards health, survival of ones children or even longevity.

In a society where precious metals were not considered a special means of exchange and were mostly in the hands of the pharaohs and the temples, wealth was synonymous with possession of land. Theoretically all the land belonged to the pharaoh who could dispose of it at will. Large tracts were given to the military, above all during times of unrest when the kings needed their support and were unable to recompense them in any other way. Officials were also beneficiaries of such royal munificence. But most of the land came to be owned outright by the temples and the peasantry.

A considerable amount of wealth was invested in the building of tombs and the services following burial, which were supposed to go on for ever. The gods had to be propitiated by offerings and rituals celebrated by great numbers of priests. To maintain this clerical establishment large parts of Egypt were donated to the temples. By the New Kingdom they appear to have owned as much as a third of the arable land and were exempt from paying taxes. Even the people in their employment were protected by law against impressments. This concentration of wealth may have contributed to the decline of the state under the 20th dynasty.

Ancient Trade Routes in Ancient Egypt

“Rediscover Ancient Egypt with Tehuti Research Foundation”

Superficially, Ancient Egypt seems isolated and distinct from the rest of the world, isolated by the deserts that hem in the narrow valley of the Nile. Yet the Egyptians were in constant contact with other countries. The needs of a civilized society, such as the Ancient Egyptians, are not fully satisfied with the produce of its homeland. Thus, trade routes were developed to faraway places. The Nile was navigable throughout the length of Egypt. The Red Sea gave access to Africa and the Far East. The Mediterranean Sea gave them access to countries in Europe and even to northern Europe and the Americas. Travel in ancient days was much more extensive and common than is generally imagined.

Egypt was connected with the lands to the south by three main routes:

The Forty Days’ Road links Asyut in the Nile Valley to El Fasher in the Dar-Fur Province of Sudan, a journey of 1,082 miles (1,721 km). It was the shortest and safest distance to travel into western Africa. From El Fasher, another route led west through Dar-Fur, toward Lake Chad, ending in the area of Kano (northern Nigeria), at the upper reaches of the Niger River Basin. It began at Sunt (Aswan), and went to El Fasher in Dar-Fur, by way of the oases of Selima and Bir Natrum. Sunt (Elephantine) Road also branched off to Semna West, where the caravans and expeditions transferred to ships in order to continue the journey to beyond the trading post established at Kerma, above the Third Cataract. During the time of the New Kingdom (1550-1070 BCE), this highway was in continuous use all the way throughout the Roman Era, as many inscriptions on the Rock of Offerings at Sunt(Elephantine) testify.

There were also several trade routes to the Red Sea from the Nile Valley, which allowed trade with Asian countries. Some of these ports along the Red Sea were: Suakin, Massawa, and Zeila. The whole African continent was known to the people of Egypt, as confirmed by Herodotus, who reported that Necho, King of Egypt, c. 600 BCE, sent an Egyptian ship with Phoenician sailors to circumnavigate Africa, and that they returned safely and reported of their endeavor.

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