Ancient Egyptian Agriculture

Agricultural system

The civilization of ancient Egypt was indebted to the Nile River and its dependable seasonal flooding. The river's predictability and fertile soil allowed the Egyptians to build an empire on the basis of great agricultural wealth. Egyptians are credited as being one of the first groups of people to practice agriculture on a large scale. This was possible because of the ingenuity of the Egyptians as they developed basin irrigation. Their farming practices allowed them to grow staple food crops, especially grains such as wheat and barley, and industrial crops, such as flax and papyrus. They excelled in horticulture. Orchards and gardens were developed in addition to field planting in the floodplains. This horticulture generally took place further from the floodplain of the Nile, and as a result, they required much more work. The perennial irrigation required by gardens forced growers to manually carry water from either a well or the Nile to water their garden crops. Additionally, while the Nile brought silt which naturally fertilized the valley, gardens had to be fertilized by pigeon manure. These gardens and orchards were generally used to grow vegetables, vines and fruit trees. The Egyptians grew a variety of crops for consumption, including grains, vegetables and fruits. However, their diets revolved around several staple crops, especially cereals and barley. Other major grains grown included einkorn wheat and emmer wheat, grown to make bread. Other staples for the majority of the population included beans, lentils, and later chickpeas and fava beans. Root crops, such as onions, garlic and radishes were grown, along with salad crops, such as lettuce and parsley. Fruits were a common motif of Egyptian artwork, suggesting that their growth was also a major focus of agricultural efforts as the civilization's agricultural technology developed. Unlike cereals and pulses, fruit required more demanding and complex agricultural techniques, including the use of irrigation systems, cloning, propagation and training. While the first fruits cultivated by the Egyptians were likely indigenous, such as the palm date and sorghum, more fruits were introduced as other cultural influences were introduced. Grapes and watermelon were found throughout predynastic Egyptian sites, as were the sycamore fig, dom palm and Christ's thorn. The carob, olive, apple and pomegranate were introduced to Egyptians during the New Kingdom. Later, during the Greco-Roman period peaches and pears were also introduced. Egyptians relied on agriculture for more than just the production of food. They were creative in their use of plants, using them for medicine, as part of their religious practices, and in the production of clothing. Herbs perhaps had the most varied purposes; they were used in cooking, medicine, as cosmetics and in the process of embalming. Over 2000 different species of flowering or aromatic plants have been found in tombs. Papyrus was an extremely versatile crop that grew wild and was also cultivated. The roots of the plant were eaten as food, but it was primarily used as an industrial crop. The stem of the plant was used to make boats, mats, and paper. Flax was another important industrial crop that had several uses. Its primary use was in the production of rope, and for linen which was the Egyptians' principal material for making their clothing. Henna was grown for the production of dye.