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Agriculture in Ancient Egypt

Instructor: Molly Richards

Molly has ten years of middle school teaching experience and two master's degrees in teaching.

In 3100 BCE, two kingdoms came together to form a powerful and unified group, the Egyptian Empire. This group created an extensive irrigation system that allowed them to harness the flooding of the Nile River and create an abundance of food for their growing empire.

Agriculture in Ancient Egypt

When we think of Egypt, we might think of pyramids, mummies, hieroglyphs, and maybe even King Tut or Cleopatra. These are all things and people that make Egypt memorable and fascinating. But did you know that Egypt would not have existed without their incredible abundance of food, made possible by agricultural techniques that helped them harness the cycles of the Nile River? Yes, food is what made Egypt wealthy, long before fancy tombs and cool drawings. But how do you grow food in the desert heat with a flooding river?

The Nile River

Nile River
Nile River

The Egyptians built their powerful and successful empire along the banks of the Nile River. The Nile flows approximately 4,000 miles from Lake Victoria in East Africa and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It is the longest river in the world and provides much needed water and vegetation across the Northern part of Africa through the Sahara Desert. Three rivers flow together to create the Nile which flows South to North and empties into a delta, or a triangle shaped piece of land where a river splits and flows into an ocean.

Although the area surrounding the Nile is fertile, ancient farmers had to learn certain techniques to make the land useful and abundant. The annual flooding of the Nile left rich sediment along the banks of the river, which, when properly irrigated, allowed farmers to plant crops. This abundant food supply allowed early nomads, or people who followed food sources, to settle in one place. These early villages became two strong kingdoms, Lower Egypt to the North and Upper Egypt to the South. In 3100 BCE, King Menes united Lower and Upper Egypt into one empire. Under King Menes, Egypt began creating a strong society and economy. The early economy was based on food production, specifically wheat, barley and grain.

Seasons

The Egyptian year was divided into three seasons based on the flooding and receding of the Nile River.

Flooding Season: Akhet

Very predictably, the Nile River flooded every year. This was called inundation and occurred from June until September. During this time, the river would flood the land surrounding the banks of the river. Though this sounds like it would be terrible, Egyptians learned to build their houses away from the banks of the river. The flooding also left a rich black soil, called silt. This silt was so important to Egyptian agriculture that they called it 'The Gift of the Nile.'

Watering and Irrigation

Living in the desert with a flooding river meant that the Egyptians had a surplus of water at certain times and none at all during others. They needed to create a way to harness the water from the flooding so they could use it during the rest of the year to water their crops. They did this through the creation of an irrigation and canal system. They dug canals parallel to the river which filled with water during the flooding. They could open and close these canals to then use this water for crops later in the year. A shaduf was used to help move water from the canal to the fields. The shaduf was a long tool on a seesaw type of bottom, with a weight on one end and a bucket on the other. The bucket could be lowered into the canal and filled with water. Then the bucket could be rotated around to the area in need of water.

Shaduf, a tool used for irrigation
Shaduf

Growing Season: Peret

Remember 'The Gift of the Nile' mentioned earlier? When the flood waters began to recede in October, it left behind that rich black soil which was rich in nutrients and ideal for farming. Egyptians would spend October through February ploughing the soil either by hand or by using a light plow tied to the horns of cattle. Seeds for grain, wheat, barley, corn and other vegetables and fruit would be sown and then watered and cared for until the harvest.

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