You are here: History > Ancient Egypt > Farming in ancient Egypt

Farming in ancient Egypt

Between March and June, the cereal crop is ready to harvest. Farmworkers cut off the ears (which contain the grain) using...Read More >>Between March and June, the cereal crop is ready to harvest. Farmworkers cut off the ears (which contain the grain) using sickles, leaving the lower stalks to be pulled up later. The ears are carried in baskets to circular threshing-floors where cattle trample over the crop to separate the grain from the stalks. Now the workers winnow the grain, tossing it into the air so that the pieces of chaff, the husks, are blown away. The grain is then taken away for storage or grinding into flour. 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 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 with his team of oxen.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.
 
 

In this tomb painting, workers plough the fields, harvest the crops and thresh the grain under the direction of an overseer.

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

While some people harvest the crop of emmer wheat and barley, others bring the sheaves to the threshing floor.By 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.
 

Using a 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.
Cultivated land in the Nile Valley today: an aerial view of farmland near Luxor (Thebes). The Nile is in the distance in the top...Read More >>Cultivated land in the Nile Valley today: an aerial view of farmland near Luxor (Thebes). The Nile is in the distance in the top left of the photo; the Sahara Desert is on the right.
 

Consultant: Philip Parker

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

WHY IS THE SEA SALTY?


Find the answer