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Ancient Egypt

Farming in ancient Egypt

The harvestThe harvest Each summer, rains further upstream caused the River Nile to overflow its banks in Egypt, laying down a fresh layer of rich, fertile earth across the floodplain on both banks of the river. To the ancient Egyptians this miraculous, yet predictable, event allowed them to grow crops and raise animals. Were it not for the River Nile, Egypt, a land where it very rarely rains, would be a parched, empty desert, with farming impossible. From about 5000 BC, farming villages sprang up along the Nile and, with such a bountiful food supply, the people prospered. Towns and cities were founded, some people became skilled craftworkers—and the great civilization of Egypt took hold.


Fertile, lush fields along the NileFertile, lush fields along the Nile

Fertile soils

The Nile flooded between July and October each year, spreading tons of mud and silt across its floodplain. A network of irrigation channels that farmers dug in the ground spread the floodwaters of the Nile across the fields of the valley. As soon as the floods retreated in October, farmers used their ploughs to turn the mud into the soil before sowing their seeds. The Egyptians called the floodplain the kemet, the "black land", after the dark colour of its fertile soil.


A farmer ploughs the newly-flooded soil.A farmer ploughs the newly-flooded soil.If the floods failed to occur, few crops grew, the animals died and many people starved. Farming was hard work, and not without its dangers. Crocodiles in the river often preyed on unwary cattle—and sometimes people too.
 



 

A tomb painting showing workers ploughingA tomb painting showing workers ploughing

Main crops

The main cereal crops were emmer, a kind of wheat used for making bread, and barley for making beer. Farmers also grew lentils, chickpeas, fruit and vegetables. Flax, used for clothing, sails, rope and oil, was also an important crop. Besides crops, the people also kept cattle, sheep, goats and geese. The animals were also used to help with work on the farm. Cattle pulled the ploughs and all livestock trod in the seeds after sowing.
 

Harvesting

The harvestThe harvestBy March, the crop was ready to harvest. Only the heads of grain were cut off, using a short-handled wooden sickle with a saw-like blade made of flakes of flint. The valuable straw was pulled up later. The ears of corn were transported in baskets to threshing floors, circular, walled enclosures in the fields. Here, livestock trod out the grain. The grain was tossed in the air so that the lighter chaff (husks) separated from the heavier grain. The grain was then taken to granaries for storage. It was later ground between heavy stones to make flour.
 

A shadufA shaduf

Shaduf

In a land where rain was rare, watering the crops was a vital task. To lift water into or out of the irrigation channels that, in turn, connected to the River Nile, a shaduf was used. This simple device first appeared in New Kingdom times. It had an arm with a a bucket at one end—the longer end—and a heavy stone counterweight at the other, shorter end. The empty bucket could be pulled down with little effort to scoop up water and empty it into smaller runnels that ran across the fields.

Farmland in the Nile Valley todayFarmland in the Nile Valley today

 

Consultant: Philip Parker

The Egyptians divided the year into three seasons: akhet (flooding), peret (planting) and shemu (harvesting).

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