Agriculture in Ancient Egypt & Mesopotamia

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  • 0:02 Growing Civilizations
  • 0:56 The Gift of the Nile
  • 2:59 Between the Rivers
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Both the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians used rivers to develop impressive agricultural systems. However, each culture used rivers differently and, as a result, often had a very different relationship with the waters that nourished their fields.

Growing Civilizations

The lands of Egypt and Mesopotamia were home to two of the earliest civilizations, or complex societies, to develop, and much of the reason that they were able to do so was because of the rivers in each. In fact, rivers were so important in Mesopotamia that the word itself means 'land between the rivers.' Egyptians, as well as the Sumerians who lived in early Mesopotamia, were able to harness the power of these rivers in order to make their civilizations particularly powerful.

In fact, it is no coincidence that these two great civilizations started near rivers. Put yourself in the shoes of someone looking to start an ancient civilization. Your people have just now decided to settle down and build a city. What are their needs? Obviously, rivers provide water, but people also need to eat, and rivers can be used to grow large amounts of food.

The Gift of the Nile

If you were to look at a picture of Egypt from space, you would see a long, slithering line of green working from deep within Africa through the country before opening its mouth on the Mediterranean. This line of green is the Nile River, the world's longest river and the very reason that Egypt exists. The Nile is so important to Egypt that a Greek historian, named Herodotus, said, 'All of Egypt is the gift of the Nile.' But what could make a river so special?

Most obviously, the river brought water to the desert. Egypt is covered almost entirely by the Sahara Desert, the world's largest desert, which means that Egypt is very dry. However, with the Nile, the ancient Egyptians had easy access to all the water they could need. Also, even in Egypt today, the Nile has many species of fish for Egyptians to eat.

However, a civilization, such as Egypt, could not expect to feed itself on fish caught from the Nile, or else there would soon be not enough fish for everyone to eat. Instead, the Nile also made it possible for crops to grow, meaning that the Egyptians could plant and then harvest enough food for everyone in the empire to have plenty to eat. Of course, with the crops providing food for the whole population, it was very important to make sure as much food was planted as possible. However, when people were not needed to farm the land, they had time to work on other projects, like building the Pyramids.

Of course, the water did the Egyptians little good if they weren't able to get it from the river to the crops. After all, Egypt was a desert, and therefore it did not rain very often. However, the Nile had a habit of flooding every year and leaving a thick layer of mud behind. This mud was especially rich soil, full of nutrients to help plants grow stronger. While the areas that were prone to flooding, known as flood plains, were not ideal places to build a house, they were the perfect place to plant crops. In fact, the flood was so important that the Egyptians invented special tools, called nilometers to predict the yearly flood.

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