The geography of Egypt is deeply important in understanding why the Egyptians centered their lives around the Nile. Both before and during the use of canal irrigation in Egypt, the Nile Valley could be separated into two parts, the River Basin or the flat alluvial (or black land soil), and the Red Land or red desert land. The River basin of the Nile was in sharp contrast to the rest of the land of Egypt and was rich with wild life and water fowl, depending on the waxing and waning cycles of the Nile. In contrast, the red desert was a flat dry area which was devoid of most life and water, regardless of any seasonal cycle.
The Nile in it's natural state goes through periods of inundation and relinquishment. The inundation of the Nile-a slightly unpredictable event- was the time of greatest fertility for Egypt. As the banks rose, the water would fill the man-made canals and canal basins and would water the crops for the coming year. However, if the inundation was even twenty inches above or below normal, it could have massive consequences upon the Egyptian agricultural economy. Even with this variability, the Egyptians were able to easily grow tree crops and vegetable gardens in the lower part of the Nile Valley, while at higher elevations, usually near levees, the Nile Valley was sparsely planted.
Agricultural crops were not the mainstay of the ancient Egyptian diet. Rather, the Nile supplied a constant influx of fish which were cultivated year around. In addition to fish, water fowl and cattle were also kept by the Egyptians. Flocks of geese were raised from the earliest times and supplied eggs, meat and fat. However, the domestic fowl didn't make its appearance until Ramesside times, and then in only very isolated places. The Egyptian farmers, in their early experimental phase, also tried to domesticate other animals such as hyenas, gazelles and cranes but gave up after the Old Kingdom. Cattle were also part of the staple diet of the Egyptians, suggesting that grazing land was available for the Egyptians during the times when the Nile receded. However, during the inundation, cattle were brought to the higher levels of the flood plain area and were often fed the grains harvested from the previous year.
The Egyptian diet was by no means limited to tree crops and vegetables, nor was it limited to an animal or fish diet. The Egyptians cultivated barley, emmer wheat, beans, chickpeas, flax, and other types of vegetables. In addition, the cultivation of grains was not entirely for consumption. One of the most prized products of the Nile and of Egyptian agriculture was oil. Oil was customarily used as a payment to workmen employed by the state, and depending on the type, was highly prized. The most common oil (kiki) was obtained from the castor oil plant. Sesame oil from the New Kingdom was also cultivated and was highly prized during the later Hellenistic Period.
Ancient Egyptian Farming and Tools
Ancient Egyptians believed that after death a judge would ask them three questions before admitting them to eternal life. They would have to swear that they had not murdered, robbed, or built a dam during their time on earth. This does not mean that the Egyptians were opposed to irrigation. On the contrary, they did everything they could to take advantage of Egypt's limited water supply. That's why no individual was allowed to build a dam; the government strictly regulated every drop of water.
The very first Egyptian farmers waited for the natural overflow of the Nile to water their crops. However, as early as 5000 BCE they had begun to figure out ways to control the great river. In doing this, they invented the world’s first irrigation systems. They began by digging canals to direct the Nile flood water to distant fields. (One of the first official positions in the Egyptian government was that of “Canal Digger”.) Later, they constructed reservoirs to contain and save the water for use during the dry season. The first reservoir in Egypt, and the first in the world, was at Fayum, a low-lying area of the desert. During flood season the Fayum became a lake. The Egyptians built about 20 miles of dikes around Fayum. When the gates in the dikes were opened, the water flowed through canals and irrigated the fields. The tops of the dams were leveled and used as roads. During the flood season the dams were broken so that the river could pour into the canals.
The ancient farmers also invented a device for moving water from the canal to the fields. Some crops had to be watered continually and since the 16th century BCE the Shaduf came into use. This was a long pole balanced on a horizontal wooden beam. At one end of the pole was a weight and on the other was a bucket. The weight made it easier to raise less than three liters of water for irrigation or drinking.
Some historians believed that the Egyptians were also the first people to use a plow. Early tomb paintings show a bow-shaped stick that was dragged along the ground. Later, human beings were harnessed to the plow. One wall painting showed four people pulling and one directing the tool. By 2000 BCE, the oxen had taken over the heavy work. The harness was first slipped over the animal’s horn; eventually a neck collar was invented that did not interfere with the animal’s breathing.
Hoeing was another way of loosening the soil. Because the handles of the hoes were very short (a feature of these tools even in southern countries), this was backbreaking work. The sower walked ahead of the team, a two-handled woven basket tied around his neck, his hands free for sowing. The plough covered the seeds with earth. Driving hogs or sheep over the field might serve the same purpose. Herodotus once said,
“It is certain however that now they gather in fruit from the earth with less labor than any other men and also with less than the other Egyptians; for they have no labor in breaking up furrows with a plough nor in the hoeing nor in any other of those labors 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 gathered it in” (Herodotus, histories 11).
Harvest time was a time of intense labor. People worked from sunrise to sunset, taking occasional breaks for drinking and eating. If they were working for somebody else, an overseer would see to it they did not dawdle. The payment for the harvest season’s work was generally the amount of grain a worker could reap in one day.
To harvest wheat, wooden flint sickles were used and the wheat was left on the ground. Thus, the reapers did not have to bend over low. Women followed them gathering the sheaves into baskets. The local poor, mostly women and children, trying to pick up all the grain missed by the others and begging the reapers for alms, followed these in their turn.
People or donkeys were used to transport the grain to the threshing floor, but mostly it was carried by two men in a sack, fastened to a wooden frame and connected to five meter-long carrying poles. The threshing floor was carefully cleaned and sheaves were raked into a thick carpet. Men wielding whips, treading the kernel out of the husks, drove cattle or sheep over the floor. Emmer, the first sort of wheat widely grown in Egypt, was more difficult to dehusk than the later wheat varieties. The straw was swept away with brooms and the wheat winnowed by throwing it into the air with a wooden scoop and letting the wind carry off the lighter chaff. The grain silos were in walled enclosures, carefully plaster-coated on the inside and whitewashed on the outside. In order to store the grain, the worker had to climb stairs to a small window near the top of the cone, carrying baskets. Through a little door at the bottom the grain could be taken out.
Scribes measured the harvest and recorded it on their tablets. A surveyor measured the field with a measuring rope in order to calculate the quantity of grain owed as taxes. Egyptian scribes were good at calculating area and subsequent taxes, even if their way was of calculating was somewhat cumbersome.
Completion of the harvest was a time for thanking the snake goddess Ranuta. Sheaves of wheat, fowls, cucumbers and watermelons, loaves of bread and fruits were offered to her. Pharaoh himself thanked the fertility god Min with a sheaf of wheat in front of great crowds during the festivities in the first month of Shemu, the season of harvest. Local gods all over Egypt were not forgotten. At Asyut, the first of the wheat gathered was sacrificed to the local god, Wapwait.
It appears likely that most of Egypt’s adult population spent some time farming. Although there were full time farmers, during and immediately following inundation most men were drafted through corv’ee (forced labor by the government as taxation) to increase the personnel available for dredging irrigation canals, surveying land boundaries, and preparing the ground for planting. Avoidance of corv’ee carried stiff penalties for the individual and sometimes his family. Noblemen and scribes, the literate upper class, were the only people consistently excluded from the corv’ee. Most noblemen were automatically involved in the agricultural system, however, because they owned farms and supervised royal or temple agricultural land.
Nubia and Egypt
Nubia was a region south of Egypt, which was divided by the Nile nearest the 2nd Cataract. The products of Nubia and Kush added greatly to the wealth of Egypt, particularly by providing gold, ivory, ebony, cattle, gums and semi-precious stones. Cattle were one of the major contributions made by Nubia suggesting that grasslands were more extensive in the time of the Old Kingdom. In addition, the Nile Delta below Memphis has always been one of great fertility, flanked on its eastern and western borders by wide meadowlands where goats, sheep and cattle were raised. The fertility of Nubia and it's products enriched both Egyptian and Nubian cultures which lived along the Nile.