** ancient civilizations -- Egypt agriculture










Ancient Egyptian Agriculture


Figure 1.--This is a portion of the New Kingdom tomb paintings in the tomb of Menna who died in the reign of Amenhotep/Amenophis III, the father of Akhenaten and Tutankamen of Dynasty XVIII. Scribes in the upper pannel estimate the crop yield to assess the harvest. In the bottom pannel the tax is being collected. Notice the small figures in the top pannel. We are not sure who they are, but they are probably children. We are not positive because size in Egypting paintings can be used to connotate status as well as age.

Egypt, like all the great early civilizations, was an agricultural society. The wealth of Egypt and the richness of the civilization which it spawned was based fundamentally on agriculture. Egyptian agriculture was organized around the annual Nile flood. For 3 months out of the year the fields along the Nile were flooded and fertilized by rich silt brought by the flow of the river. The Nile water, rich silt, and semi-troical climate resulted in highly productive harvests that served as the basis for Egyptian civilization over several millenia. The average Egyptian lived and worked in his village and knew little of the wider world. Egypt was a closed society in which a son followed his father's calling. Generations of of Egypt's toiling masses over millenia worked in the fields. Even in the New Kingdom the only opportunities offring advancement outside of the laboring caste was the army. [Aldred, p. 23.] Egyptian peasants were iliterate and attended no schools. The whole family toiled in the field. The younger children were assigned tasks such as protecting the crop from birds or gleaning the stubble aftr harvest. Some Egyptians owned their own land, many toiled as tennants on the estates of the great temples or nobility. Officials would assess the yield for taxation. Later after the harvest officals would arrive to collect the tax as a share of the harvest to fill the state graneries. [Aldred, p. 22.]

Basis of Wealth

Egypt, like all the great early civilizations, was an agricultural society. The wealth of Egypt and the richness of the civilization which it spawned was based fundamentally on agriculture.

Nile Floods

Egypt in many ways is synomamous wit the Nile River. Egypt as the other great ancient civilizations developed in river valleys. This was of course the advantages to agriculture in such vallys eased the transition from hunter gathering to more settled agricultural societies which could generate the wealth needed for civilization. Precipitation is mininimal, almost not non-existent in Egypt. The Nile River from time immemorial has been virtually the only source of water for agriculture and animal husbandry. Egyptian agriculture was organized around the annual Nile flood. For 3 months out of the year the fields along the Nile were flooded and fertilized by rich silt brought by the flow of the river. The Nile water, rich silt, and semi-troical climate resulted in highly productive harvests that served as the basis for Egyptian civilization over several millenia.

Land Ownership

Land in ancient Egypt was divided into three principal categories, depending upon proximity to the to the Nile Tiver and its precious water. The lowest land on both sides of the Nile was known as the floodplain because it was covered by the Nile during the annual spring flooding or inundation. This was of course the most productive land both because of the water, but also the fertilization with silt. Almost all of Egypt's agricultural output was harvested in the floodpalin. Agriculture in the floodpalin could be sustained through irrigation as the Nile receeded, but there were limits as beyond a certain level, irrigation required too muxh labor to justify. Beyond the floodplain was the low desert. The Nile waters did not reach this region, even though it was often very close to the river. The low dessert was used for a variety of purposes. Egyptians hunted here and buried their dead. There was some limited vegitation and bedouins might graze heard animals like goats. Beyond the low desert was the high desert. Thise area could be located at some distance from the Nile. Few people lived here, but the Egyptians did exploit the mineral resources. Oases in the desert might produce dates and grapes and provided water and suatance for caravans crossing the desert. [Harris]

Crops

Ancient Egyptians cultivated several different important food crops. This included grains, vegetables, and fruits. The common people survived primarily on a few staple crops, especially cereals and barley. Other major grains grown included einkorn wheat and emmer wheat, grown to make bread. Other staples for the common Egyptian included beans, lentils, and later chickpeas and fava beans. Root crops included onions, garlic and radishes. There were also salad including lettuce and parsley.

Seasons

There were three seasons in ancient Egypt, each tied with the Nile and agriculture. The agriculatural season was quite different to that experienced with agriculture conducted in temperate countries. The cycle was not dependant on changes in temperature controlling the growing season. Crops in Egyot could theoretically be grown year round. The key factor is the availability of water provided by the Nile. Aketo was the annual inundation or flooding of the Nile. It regularly occurred from July through December on our modern calandar. During this period the corvee was often demanded by state officials. Some of the farmers tended the irrigation canals to ensure the life-giving Nile waters were directed to areas that they did not normally reach. Peleto was the season when the Nile water receeded. This was the relatively cool season and it was when planting took place after which the crop was cultivated. It extended from December through March. Syumuu wss the dry or harvest season which normally occurred from March to July. This was the busiest time of the year. [Harris] It wasa also the time of year when taxes were collected (figure 1).

Workers

The average Egyptian lived and worked in his village and knew little of the wider world.

Hereditary Caste System

E gypt was a closed society in which a son followed his father's calling. Generations of of Egypt's toiling masses over millenia worked in the fields. Even in the New Kingdom the only opportunities offring advancement outside of the laboring caste was the army. [Aldred, p. 23.] Egyptian peasants were iliterate and attended no schools.


Figure 2.--This is a detail from the tomb painting above. We are not precisely sure who each of the individuals in the painting are. The individuals holding on to the standard-sized rope are surely the scribes measuring the potential harvest. The smaller figure at left may be the son of the scribe, learning his father's work. Notice that he carries the same stick or rular as his father. I am not sure just what he is carrying. The other adult figure may be a farmer, notice that he is not touching the rope. The two other smaller figures may be his sons. Surely the boy he is patting is his son. The older boy is dressed just like his father. The younger boy is naked.

Children

The whole family toiled to support the family. Children as soon as they could walk were given chores. Boys were taught by their fathers how to tend the fields. They were also assigned to care for farm animals. The younger children were assigned tasks such as protecting the crop from birds or gleaning the stubble after harvest. The men were primarily involved with field work. Women worked in the fields, but also had household duties. Girls both helped their mothers and worked in the fields. [Springer] But it is impotant to note that everyone in the family worked except the very younges todlers. Marxist influened educators have prooted the idea that capitalism and industrialization created child labor. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the dawn if time, young children were part of the work force. This wa vnecessary because for most families until the industrail era, agriculture and manufacturing was so inefficent that the labor of all was needed to support families. Rather than causing child labor, it is only with capitalism and industialization that child labor was ended.

Clothing

The basic garments worn by men was a loincloth or a shenti. A shenti was a kilt-like piece of linen fabric tied around the waist and kept in place by a girdle. While poor Egyptians had a simple shenti, the wealthy had shentis pleated and decorated with gold thread. Common Egyptians, both men and boys, wore essentailly the same garment, but very plain ones. There was no real difference between the shenti worn by men and boys, although common boys might often not wear anything at all. The illustration here appaers to show three boys (figure 2). Two wear shenti. The smaller boy is naked. Note that the two older boys are dressed similarly even though they are of different social castes.

Land Ownership

Most Egyptians were agricultural laborers. They toiled as tennants on land owned by the state, nobility, or religious cults. Here of course there was a fine destinction between the state and th religious cults as well as the nobility. Estates owned by th nobility and religious cults meant that the revenue did not flow to pharaoh. Great estates wer owned by the important temples or nobility. This is important as in Egypt there were eras in which central authority broke down because of the rising power of the feudal nobility. Some view the religious reforms of Akhenaten as an attempt to wresstle control of great estates from the priests. Most Egyptians were full time farmers, although the annual flood period freed them to provide labor service to the state. Some workers were paid in food, clothes, and shelter. Other Egyoptians rented land from the landowners. These tennants received a portion of their crops as payment.

Corvee

Besides paying taxes in the form of a share of the harvest, agricultural workers were also subject to a corveee. This was primarily demanded during the Nile floods when little agricultural work was possible. These workers could be assigned a variety of tasks. They could build and maintain irrigation canals. The canals would silt up and thus required constant dregging. There were other tasks assicuated with agricukture as well as making mud bricjs and guarring stones for grander cinstruction projects. Transporting building materials was another major task. Workers who attempted to avoid the corvee could be punished severely and the punishment could also apply to the family. [Harris]

Taxation

Officials would assess the yield for taxation (figure 1). Later after the harvest officals would arrive to collect the tax as a share of the harvest to fill the state graneries. [Aldred, p. 22.] The Egyptians were expert tax collectors. Notice here that they are measuring the crop before it was harvested. Once a crop was harvested, part of it could be hidden. Before it was harvested, the full extent of the crop was impossible to hide.

Sources

Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt--A New Study (McGraw-Hill: New York, 1968), 272p.

Harris, Catherine C. "Ancient Egyptian Agriculture," Tour Egypt Monthly (July 1, 2001).

Springer, Ilene. "A Kid in Ancient Egypt," Tour Egypt Monthly (December 1, 2000).

Stewart, Doug. "Eternal Egypt," Smithsonian, date missing, pp. 74-84.






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Created: May 6, 2003
Last updated: 4:49 PM 4/19/2019