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Ancient Egyptian agriculture facts for kids

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Maler der Grabkammer des Sennudem 001
Burial chamber of Sennedjem: plowing farmer 1200 BC
Agricultural Scenes, Tomb of Nakht MET DT306954
Agricultural Scenes, Tomb of Nakht
Preparation of soil N1431 mp3h8606
Preparation of soil N1431 mp3h8606

Ancient Egyptian agriculture was probably the first to be practiced on a large scale. They grew staple food crops. These included grains such as emmer (a variety of wheat) and barley. The earliest evidence of irrigation in the Nile area is about 3100 BC.

The civilization of ancient Egypt was indebted to the Nile River and its dependable seasonal flooding. The river's predictability and the 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 inventive idea's 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 for clothing and papyrus.

Orchards and vegetable gardens were also common. Unlike other crops these were grown away from the areas flooded by the Nile river each year.

Agriculture was the basis of the ancient Egyptian economy. It gave work and food for its people. It was a source of wealth for Egypt's elite. Egypt was the breadbasket (main provider of food) for much of the ancient world.


1805 Cary Map of Egypt - Geographicus - Egypt-cary-1805
1805 map showing the Nile valley and Delta in detail

The geography of ancient Egypt was unlike that in other parts of the Mediterranean region, which had rainy winters and hot dry summers. The fertile Nile valley is about 760 miles long and about 14 miles wide. The rest of Egypt is desert.

In Egypt most of farming was done near the Nile river valley and the Nile Delta. Egypt had little rainfall and the land had to be irrigated from the Nile, either when it was flooding or normal.

The Nile began to rise in the summer and go down again in late fall. The growing season was during the winter months. It was called Sha-et (the growing season). The second season was called P' ru-et (the dry season). This is the hot dry season when the grain was harvested and stored.

Model of a Man Plowing MET 36.5 view 3
Model of a man plowing - circa 1981 –1885 B.C

The third season, She (sea) was the months during which the Nile flooded. Each season was about four months long.

This system allowed one crop a year. A shorter agricultural season meant more workers available for construction of buildings like temples and other royal buildings. Workers were also used for year-round irrigation projects. Water was usually carried manually on men's shoulders using yokes.

Irrigation systems

Ceremonial mace-head of King Scorpion
Ceremonial mace-head of King Scorpion

To make best use of the waters of the Nile river, the Egyptians developed systems of irrigation. Irrigation allowed the Egyptians to use the Nile's waters for a variety of purposes. Notably, irrigation granted them greater control over their agricultural practices.

Flood waters were diverted away from certain areas, such as cities and gardens, to keep them from flooding. Irrigation was also used to provide drinking water to Egyptians. Despite the fact that irrigation was crucial to their agricultural success, there were no statewide regulations on water control. Rather, irrigation was the responsibility of local farmers.

However, the earliest and most famous reference to irrigation in Egyptian archaeology has been found on the mace head of the Scorpion King, which has been roughly dated to about 3100 BC. The mace head depicts the king cutting into a ditch that is part of a grid of basin irrigation. The association of the high ranking king with irrigation highlights the importance of irrigation and agriculture to their society.

Food crops

Ripe barley MET 1985.328.24 EGDP010144
Ripe barley circa 1353 –1336 B.C, New Kingdom, Amarna Period

The Egyptians grew a variety of crops for eating, 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, 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 part of Egyptian artwork, suggesting that their growth was also a major focus of agricultural efforts as the civilization's agricultural technology developed.

Kom Ombo village from Ancient Egypt

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, 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.

Industrial and fiber crops

Flachsstroh Garn Vlies und Seil
Example of uses of flax in modern day

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 plants in a constructed wetland (5546615515)
Papyrus plants

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.


Grain harvest

The harvest season was called Shemu. The reapers cut the grain with wooden sickles that had sharp flints. The cattle trampled over the cut grain. They tossed grain into the air so the breeze blew the useless chaff away. It was hard and slow.

Families hired workers to do the job. Everyone took part in harvest. Farmers had to barter. Many of them harvested crops to trade for the things and animals they needed to plant more crops.

Ancient Egyptians had tools like winnowing scoops, mattocks, flint bladed sickles and plows for harvesting of the crops. All of the tools were simple and made by hand. The Egyptian plow had a small blade on it but did not cut the soil.

Religion and agriculture

Egyptian harvest
Egyptian harvest

In ancient Egypt religion was a highly important aspect of daily life. Many of the Egyptians' religious observances were centered on their observations of the environment, the Nile and agriculture. They used religion as a way to explain natural phenomena, such as the cyclical flooding of the Nile and agricultural yields.

Although the Nile was directly responsible for either good or bad fortune experienced by the Egyptians, they did not worship the Nile itself. Rather, they thanked specific gods for any good fortune. They did not have a name for the river and simply referred to it as "River". The term "Nile" is not of Egyptian origin.

Worship and Gazes Upon Osiris
Worship and Gazes Upon Osiris

The Egyptians represented their abundance of crops with the creation of the god called Hapi. He was depicted as an overweight figure who made offerings of water and other products of abundance to pharaohs. A temple was never built specifically for Hapi, but he was worshiped by making sacrifices and the singing of hymns.

The god Osiris was also closely associated with the Nile and the fertility of the land. During festivals mud figures of Osiris were planted with barley.

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