Agriculture, Farmers and Crops in Ancient Egypt

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20120217-farm trillage with oxen.jpg The ancient Egyptians were fortunate in inhabiting the fertile valley of the Nile. The river's annual flood deposited a fresh layer of silt renewing the fertility of the soil, and ensuring that, for the most part, the country was prosperous and the population sufficiently fed. [Source: ABZU, University of Chicago Oriental Institute, ]

Egyptian agriculture was tied to the annual cycles of the Nile, which flooded its banks around the same time every year and deposited new top soil. Planting began after the flood waters receded. The high water reached the First Cataract (present-day Aswan) around September and the Nile Delta around October. The fertile soil left behind and abundant water produced bumper crops, which in turned filled the royal granaries and freed people to do things other than produce food. This was the engine that made the entire Egyptian civilization prosper.

The Egyptians called the Nile Valley flood plain “ kemet” , the black land. The fertile soil was tilled with hoes and wooden plows pulled by oxen and the ember seeds were planted by singing sowers carrying baskets. Water from the hand-dug irrigation canals was collected in heavy jars and carried with a shoulder-mounted yoke to the plants that needed nourishment.

Agriculture advancements credited to the ancient Egyptians include 1) the ox-drawn plough, 2) irrigation, 3) the sickle, a curved blade used for cutting and harvesting grain, and the shadoof, a long balancing pole with a weight on one end and a bucket on the other. The ox-drawn plough — - a plough pulled by oxen — revolutionized agriculture. Modern versions of the plough are still widely used today Egyptian irrigation consisted of canals and irrigation ditches primarily used to harness Nile river’s yearly flood and bring water to distant fields. The shadoof’s bucket could easily be filled with water and raised to bring water to higher ground. [Source: Mark Millmore,]

Most Egyptians were tenant farmers. The land they worked was owned by the government.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Discovering Egypt; BBC History: Egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt; Egypt’s Golden Empire; Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt; Ancient Egypt Magazine; Egypt Exploration Society ; Amarna Project; Egyptian Study Society, Denver; The Ancient Egypt Site; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East; Egyptology Resources

Irrigation in Ancient Egypt

20120217-farming.jpg The Egyptians built a complex network of dikes and canals to move water from the flooded Nile to irrigated fields. The irrigation system was decentralized, scholars believe, because the Nile flood plain was divided into a "series of natural basins that fill up sequentially when the river overflows the levees along the main channel." There was no way for an upriver district to take water away from down river districts until the Aswan Dam was completed in the 1960s.

John Baines of the University of Oxford wrote: “Egyptian texts say little about irrigation and the provision of water. Exceptions are biographies of local leaders of the disunited First Intermediate Period (c.2125-1975 B.C.), who claimed that they built canals and supplied water to their own people when others had none. In more prosperous times such matters may have been taken for granted or not thought worth mentioning in public texts. [Source: John Baines, BBC, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, February 17, 2011 |::|]

One of the simplest kinds of water-lifting devices is called a “shadoof” . It is a seesaw-like lever with a weight on one side of the fulcrum and a rope with a bucket on the other side. The bucket is lowered into a well by tugging on the rope. When the bucket is filled water the weight on the other side of fulcrums lifts it out. These devices are most commonly used in the Nile today, where the water is fairly close to the surface.

The more sophisticated water wheel, or “sakia” , is useful moving large amounts of water. It consists of a vertical wheel with buckets around the perimeter that lifts water of out a canal or water source and dumps into an irrigation ditch. The water wheel is connected to a vertical cogged wheel, which in turn is connected to a horizontal cogged wheel that is turned by oxen or water buffalo yoked to a shaft coming from the wheel. The animals are blindfolded so they are not distracted or scared. If they get spooked they may try to run off and may break the wheel.

Technical problems posed by the large amount of silt carried down by the Nile and the ensuing rise in water levels included building higher and higher levees, dredging large amounts of slit, blocking off natural drainage channels, creating channels to release floods and building dams to control floods.

Crops in Ancient Egypt

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The Egyptians cultivated barley, emmer wheat, beans, chickpeas, flax, and other types of vegetables. They ate a low-fat, high-fiber diet with a lot of grains and consumed a variety of plant oils and fats, bread, milk, lentils, cottage cheese, cakes, onions, meat, dates, melons, milk products, figs, ostrich eggs, almonds, peas, beans, olives, pomegranates, grapes, vegetables, honey, garlic and other foods. The Egyptians ate a variety of grains, including barely and emmer-wheat. Barley was used for making beer. Emmer wheat was used to make bead. Lentils were discovered in an Egyptian tomb dating back to 2000 B.C.).

Onions originated in Egypt. Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the many-layered universe. They swore oaths on onions like a modern-time Bible. Grape seeds have been found in 3,000-year-old mummies. Purple peas were found in the tomb of King Tut. Cucumbers were known in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. They originated in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where they have been cultivated for more than 3,000 years.

Radishes were cultivated by the ancient Egyptians at least 4,000 years ago. They were eaten with onions, and garlic by workers. Egyptians believed that radishes were aphrodisiacs. Leeks were also eaten in ancient Egypt.

Melons are one the earliest crops along with wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, dates, pistachios and almonds. Melons are native to Iran, Turkey and the western Asia. They are depicted in an Egyptian tomb painting from 2400 B.C., Greek documents from the 3rd century B.C. mention them. They were described by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century A.D.

John Baines of the University of Oxford wrote: “The principal crops were cereals, emmer wheat for bread, and barley for beer. These diet staples were easily stored. Other vital plants were flax, which was used for products from rope to the finest linen cloth and was also exported, and papyrus, a swamp plant that may have been cultivated or gathered wild. Papyrus roots could be eaten, while the stems were used for making anything from boats and mats to the characteristic Egyptian writing material; this too was exported. A range of fruit and vegetables was cultivated. Meat from livestock was a minor part of the diet, but birds were hunted in the marshes and the Nile produced a great deal of fish, which was the main animal protein for most people. [Source: John Baines, BBC, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, February 17, 2011 |::|]

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “One of the most prized products of the Nile and of Egyptian agriculture was oil. Oil was customarily used as a payment to workmen employed by the state, and depending on the type, was highly prized. The most common oil (kiki) was obtained from the castor oil plant. Sesame oil from the New Kingdom was also cultivated and was highly prized during the later Hellenistic Period.” [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato,]

First Crops, Einkorn and Emmer Wheat

20120217-Farm ProduceOfTheEstates-3.JPG The earliest crops were wheat, barley, various legumes, grapes, melons, dates, pistachios and almonds. The world's first wheat, peas, cherries, olives, rye, chickpeas and rye evolved from wild plants found in Turkey and the Middle East. Scientists have found genetic evidence that the world's four major grains — wheat, rice, corn and sorghum — evolved a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.

The first domesticated crop is believed to have been einkorn wheat, a kind of nourishing grass adapted from a wild species of grass native to the Karacadag mountains near Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey first cultivated around 11,000 years ago. Scientists deduced this by examining the DNA of modern strains of einkorn wheat and found the were more similar to einkorn wheat grown in the Karacadag mountains than in other places. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 20, 1997]

Collecting seeds from wild grass is not an easy matter. If you pick the seeds before they are ripe they are too small and hard to eat. If you wait so long they fall from the stem and you have to pick them up one by one. With some grasses the period in which the seeds are feasible to collect is only a few days a year. If one wants to get a long term food supply it makes sense to collect as much as you can and take it back to your cave and store it.

Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.

Cereals were being cultivated in what is now Syria. Lebanon, Israel and Palestine around 10,000 years ago in the 8th millenniums B.C. Barley was first grown in the Jordan valley about 10,000 years ago. The earliest levels of excavations at Jericho indicate that the people that lived there collected seeds of cereal grass from rocky crags flanking the valley and planted them in the fertile alluvial soil.

Dates, Spices and Olives in Ancient Egypt

Bowl of dates from Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all consumed olives and olive oil. Olives were first cultivated in Palestine around 4000 B.C. and spread to Syria and Turkey and reached the ancient Egypt around 1500 B.C. (the Egyptian were using olive purchased from Palestine long before that). According to an old Egyptian saying "A date palm is the only creation of God that resembles man. Unlike other trees, a date palm gives more as it grows older."

In ancient times, olive oil was used in everything from oil lamps, to religious anointments, to cooking and preparing condiments and medicines. It was in great demand and traveled well and people like the Philistines grew rich trading it.

Egyptians flavored their food with sea salt, thyme, marjoram and essences of fruit and nuts, particularly almonds. Saffron was known in ancient Egypt. Stigmas have been found in Egyptian mummies and Cleopatra used in her cosmetics. The ancient Egyptians believed that licorice was an aphrodisiac. King Tut ate licorice root before engaging his queen.

Garlic was consumed by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. The Romans regarded it as a food for the lower classes. The pyramid builders ate lot of onions and garlic. One of the first recorded strikes occurred when their garlic ration was reduced. A slave, records show, could be bought for seven kilograms of garlic.

Development of Agriculture in Ancient Egypt

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The geography of Egypt is deeply important in understanding why the Egyptians centered their lives around the Nile. Both before and during the use of canal irrigation in Egypt, the Nile Valley could be separated into two parts, the River Basin or the flat alluvial (or black land soil), and the Red Land or red desert land. The River basin of the Nile was in sharp contrast to the rest of the land of Egypt and was rich with wild life and water fowl, depending on the waxing and waning cycles of the Nile. In contrast, the red desert was a flat dry area which was devoid of most life and water, regardless of any seasonal cycle.” [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato,]

20120217-farm Scene_of_work_model.JPG Agriculture began around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Considered the most important human advance after the control of fire and the creation of tools, it allowed people to settle in specific areas and freed them from hunting and gathering. According to the Bible, Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, developed agriculture and domesticated animals, “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground,” the Bible reads.

The first documented agriculture occurred 11,500 year ago in what Harvard archaeologist Ofer Ban-Yosef calls the Levantine Corridor, between Jericho in the Jordan Valley and Mureybet in the Euphrates Valley. At Mureybit, a site on the banks of the Euphrates, seeds from an uplands area — where the plants from the seeds grow naturally — were found and dated to 11,500 years ago. An abundance of seeds from plants that grew elsewhere found near human sites is offered as evidence of agriculture.

Early agriculture is most famously associated with the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that extends from southern Turkey into Iraq and Syria and finally to Israel and Lebanon. Seeds of 10,000-year-old cultivated wheat have been discovered at sites in Iraq and northern Syria. The region also produced the first domesticated sheep, goats, pigs and cattle.

Around 10,500 years ago agriculture began developing in the Middle East and China and to a lesser extent in Mexico, the Andes and Nigeria. The is also evidence that bananas and taro were cultivated in the highlands of New Guinea at least 7,000 years ago.

Inundation of the Nile

According to Minnesota State University, Mankato: “The Nile in it's natural state goes through periods of inundation and relinquishment. The inundation of the Nile-a slightly unpredictable event-was the time of greatest fertility for Egypt. As the banks rose, the water would fill the man-made canals and canal basins and would water the crops for the coming year. However, if the inundation was even twenty inches above or below normal, it could have massive consequences upon the Egyptian agricultural economy. Even with this variability, the Egyptians were able to easily grow tree crops and vegetable gardens in the lower part of the Nile Valley, while at higher elevations, usually near levees, the Nile Valley was sparsely planted.” [Source: Minnesota State University, Mankato,]

According to Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine: “From ancient times, the rise and fall of the River Nile portended periods of famine or good fortune for the peoples of Egypt. Other than wells, the River Nile is the only source of water in the country. During an idyllic year, the flooding of the Nile would begin in July, and by September its receding waters would deposit a rich, black silt in its wake for farming. Before taming the river, however, the ancient Egyptians had to overcome the river’s peculiar problem. The Nile runs along an alluvial plain, the ebb and tide of the Nile corresponding to an annual movement of the ground. When the Nile is the lowest, the ground completely dries up. When it floods, the water seeps into the dry soil and causes the ground to rise as much as a foot or two like some bloated sponge. As the inundation subsides the ground settles again to its original dry level, but never settles evenly.” [Source: Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine, July 1989,]

John Baines of the University of Oxford wrote: “The Nile's annual inundation was relatively reliable, and the floodplain and Delta were very fertile, making Egyptian agriculture the most secure and productive in the Near East. When conditions were stable, food could be stored against scarcity. The situation, however, was not always favourable. High floods could be very destructive; sometimes growth was held back through crop failure due to poor floods; sometimes there was population loss through disease and other hazards. Contrary to modern practice, only one main crop was grown per year. [Source: John Baines, BBC, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Crops could be planted after the inundation, which covered the Valley and Delta in August and September; they needed minimal watering and ripened from March to May. Management of the inundation in order to improve its coverage of the land and to regulate the period of flooding increased yields, while drainage and the accumulation of silt extended the fields. Vegetables grown in small plots needed irrigating all year from water carried by hand in pots, and from 1500 B.C. by artificial water-lifting devices. Some plants, such as date palms, whose crops ripened in the late summer, drew their water from the subsoil and needed no other watering. |::|

Nile flood plain limits

Harnessing the Nile to Create Ancient Egyptian Civilization

According to Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine: “The name Egypt means “Two Lands,” reflecting the two separate kingdoms of Upper and Lower prehistoric Egypt – Delta region in the north and a long length of sandstone and limestone in the south. In 3000 B.C., a single ruler, Menes, unified the entire land and set the stage for an impressive civilization that lasted 3,000 years. He began with the construction of basins to contain the flood water, digging canals and irrigation ditches to reclaim the marshy land. [Source: Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine, July 1989, /~/]

“From these earliest of times, so important was the cutting of a dam that the event was heralded by a royal ceremony. King Menes is credited with diverting the course of the Nile to build the city of Memphis on the site where the great river had run. By 2500 B. C., an extensive system of dikes, canals and sluices had developed. It remained in use until the Roman occupation, circa 30 B.C. – 641 A.D. For pure water, the Egyptians depended upon wells. Their prowess in divining hidden sources is shown in the “Well of Joseph,” constructed about 3000 B.C. near the Pyramids of Gizeh. Workers had to dig through 300 feet of solid rock to tap into the water.” /~/

John Baines of the University of Oxford wrote: “Throughout antiquity, Egypt's standing relied on its agricultural wealth and, therefore, on the Nile. Agriculture had not been the original basis of subsistence, but evolved, together with the land itself, during the millennia after the last Ice Age ended around 10,000 B.C., expanding greatly from about 4500 B.C. onward. [Source:John Baines, BBC, Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, February 17, 2011 |::|]

By 3100 B.C. the Nile Valley and Delta had coalesced into a single entity that was the world's first large nation state. As well as providing the region's material potential, the Nile and other geographical features influenced political developments and were significant in the development of Egyptian thought. The land continued to develop and its population increased until Roman times. Important factors in this process were unity, political stability, and the expansion of the area of cultivated land. The harnessing of the Nile was crucial to growth.” |::|

“It is uncertain how early and by how much the inundation was regulated. By the Middle Kingdom (c.1975-1640 B.C.) basin irrigation, in which large sections of the floodplain were managed as single units, was well established, but it may not have been practised in the Old Kingdom (c.2575-2150 B.C.), when the great pyramids were built. The only area where there was major irrigation work before Graeco-Roman times was the Faiyum, a lakeside oasis to the west of the Nile. Here Middle Kingdom kings reclaimed land by controlling the water flow along a side river channel and directing it to irrigate extra land while lake water levels were lowered. Their scheme did not last. |::|

20120217-livestock 702px-Fetekti3.jpg

Ancient Egypt’s Agrarian Society

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: “There can be no doubt that production in ancient Egypt was first and foremost agrarian, the principal food crops being (emmer) wheat and barley, and the principal components of the Egyptian diet being bread and beer. Many of these and other crops were produced by tenant farmers, who were largely self- sufficient as far as the production of their own food was concerned. They lived in what anthropologists refer to as a peasant society (or peasant economy): a society mainly consisting of self-sufficient agrarian producers who pay part of their crops as tax to the government, or as rent to the owners of the land they cultivate. A variation of the peasant society, more specifically relevant to modern developing countries, is that of farmers who sell cash crops and subsequently are able to buy food. Such a strategy may occasionally be reflected in Egyptian sources—for example, in the Middle Kingdom Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, in which the “peasant” (sxtj), actually a hunter/gatherer from the Wadi el-Natrun oasis, intends to exchange his products (minerals, wild plants, animal skins) for grain on the market.” [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “Since ancient times, Egypt has been blessed by an environment capable of producing large surpluses as a result of the annual renewal of the rich topsoil by the Nile inundation. The extension of a system of basin irrigation during Pharaonic times and canal irrigation in Ptolemaic times allowed Egyptian cultivators to successfully alternate food crops with industrial crops such as flax for both domestic and foreign markets. The proportion of various crops in the domestic and foreign export markets over the millennia is a reflection of the needs and priorities of the underlying system of landholding over time and in different places. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“In the context of the broad patterns of settlement and demography, the village is certainly the basic unit in the agricultural regime. The Egyptian landscape underwent dramatic changes over time in settlement patterns, social culture, and hierarchies of settlements, against a backdrop of tremendous regional variation that was dependent upon local traditions and social organization. While this is not the place for discussions of settlement and demography, these are related topics that require exploration in relation to both land tenure and the urban/rural dynamics that characterize the relationship between local power structures and central power structures.”

Agrarian Production in Ancient Egypt

Ben Haring of Universiteit Leiden wrote: ““There is insufficient data to establish the amount of agrarian production (grain or otherwise) in ancient Egypt. Quantitative data are scarce and their chronological distribution is uneven. Estimates have been made, however, of the population and the total extent of fertile area during the Pharaonic and Greco-Roman periods. The figures usually quoted by Egyptologists are those arrived at by Butzer on the basis of geological surveys, as well as textual and archaeological data on ancient demography and agrarian technology. Butzer calculated a fertile area of 22,400 sq. kilometers. and a population of 2.9 million in the early Ramesside Period (about 1250 B.C.), and 27,300 sq. kilometers. with a population of 4.9 million in the Ptolemaic Period (about 150 B.C.). The underlying assumption is that 130 persons could live from the production of one square kilometer in the former, and 180 in the latter period. Their food would basically include wheat and barley, vegetables, dates, and fish, and for the well-to-do the diet would include meat and fruit. The increase in agrarian production per square kilometer in the Greco-Roman Period can be explained by improvements in agricultural technology (irrigation devices, new crops), and perhaps by a more efficient agrarian administration. [Source: Ben Haring, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, ]

20120217-farm hoe_and_plough.jpg
hoe and plow

“Some documents provide data concerning grain production per square kilometer, although there remain uncertainties about the measures employed and the quality of the fields referred to. Administrative texts from the Ramesside Period (1295 - 1069 B.C.) suggest a norm of 2,700 to 2,900 liters per hectare (l/ha) for basin land—that is, fields of the best quality, submerged by the annual rise of the Nile in antiquity. (Conversion of liters to kilos is apparently a less than reliable process: references featuring the conversion display diverging estimates, in which the equivalent of one liter of grain varies between 0.512 and 0.705 kilos). The Ramesside quota match those found in records from early twentieth-century Egypt (varying between approximately 2,000 and 2,800 l/ha for wheat, and between 2,500 and 3,400 l/ha for barley). Less productive types of land were expected to yield three-quarters or half of these amounts. It is uncertain how much of the land available for agriculture was actually sown with wheat or barley, rather than vegetables, fruit trees, fodder for animals, or flax. It is assumed, however, that most of the basin land was used for cultivating grain crops.

“Ramesside sources inform us about the organization of agrarian production insofar as it is connected with temples and government departments. The personnel of these institutions were called ihuty (iHwtj; plural: iHwtjw). According to some texts, an ihuty was responsible for the yearly production of almost 16,000 liters of grain. For this he would have to work 5.5 to 6 hectares of basin land. The most important agrarian document of this period, Papyrus Wilbour, records even larger areas as the responsibility of an individual ihuty. Together, these sources suggest that the word ihuty refers to a supervisor rather than (or as well as) a member of the actual workforce. On a higher level, the ihuty were supervised by scribes, priests, or high state and temple officials.”

Heqanakhte: A Farmer in Ancient Egypt

John Ray of Cambridge University wrote for the BBC: “The life of the farmer Heqanakhte is known from a series of short letters, found in the 1920s on the west bank at Luxor, the modern equivalent of ancient Thebes. They are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The readings here are a series of extracts from a range of his letters. Some were sent to a man called Merisu, written by his father, the same Heqanakhte. Merisu threw the letters into a tomb-shaft, where they were found 4000 years later. They are bad-tempered and judgmental, but reveal a timeless family story. [Source: John Ray, Cambridge University, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Heqanakhte lived at the end of the Eleventh Dynasty. He eked out a living through agriculture, and was a mortuary priest, which would have meant extra income for the family. Most of his sons are grown up, and apparently their mother is no longer alive. However, the father has taken a new wife, causing much resentment. A spoilt younger son, Sneferu, is the favourite. He, the father urges, should be excused unpleasant tasks and should not be accused of idling; indeed, his allowance is to be increased in view of all the criticism he has endured. To the sons, Sneferu is like anyone else, but Heqanakhte will not see this. All this is narrated against a background of whining from the father, labouring on behalf of an ungrateful family. |::|

“The old man also thinks his bride is being ill-treated; he accuses the family of molesting her and spreading malicious rumours. People are at breakpoint-the sons and most of the family on one side, and Heqanakhte, the bride and possibly Heqanakhte's formidable mother on the other. A crisis is at hand. |::|

“The outcome of this fraught situation is unknown, but Egypt at most periods has been the home of blood feuds, which can work their way down over centuries. One person who took a pessimistic view of Heqanakhte's affairs was the crime-writer Agatha Christie, who turned the contents of the letters into a murder mystery, Death Comes As The End (1945). Merisu and his brothers, if they could have predicted this, may have felt it was perfect, if belated, justice.” |::|

Famine in Ancient Egypt

Relief showing starving Bedouins from Unas causeway

Laurent Coulon of the University of Lyon wrote: “In ancient Egypt, food crises were most often occasioned by bad harvests following low or destructive inundations. Food crises developed into famines when administrative officials— state or local—were unable to organize storage and redistribution systems. Food deprivation, aggravated by hunger-related diseases, led to increased mortality, migrations, and social collapse. In texts and representations, the famine motif is used as an expression of chaos, emphasizing the political and theological role of the king (or nomarch or god) as “dispenser of food.” [Source: Laurent Coulon, University of Lyon, France,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

“In pre-modern times, food production in Egypt was heavily dependent on cultivation of the Nile Valley lands, watered and fertilized by the annual flood. Because the inundation level was irregular, food crises recurred fairly frequently, ranging from food shortages to famine, a term which, strictly speaking, should be reserved for “critical shortage of essential foodstuffs, leading through hunger to a substantially increased mortality rate in a community or region, and involving a collapse of the social, political and moral order”. The correspondence between Hekanakht, a landowner who lived during the early 12th Dynasty, and his dependents gives an account of the serious difficulties encountered by various strata of society at a time when the Nile only partially flooded the cultivated lands. Epigraphic and literary sources give numerous mentions of successive years of low flood, exemplified by the biblical episode in which Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream of seven lean cows and seven dried stalks of wheat. At the beginning of the First Intermediate Period, Ankhtify’s autobiography recounts a dark period when, except in his nome, “all of Upper Egypt was dying of hunger and people were eating their children.” Paleopathologic studies also provide cases of nutritional stress and high mortality at various times, but it is only for the Greco-Roman Period that we possess the papyrological documentation for a historical overview of famines in ancient Egypt; the study of such documentation shows—not surprisingly—the coincidence of famines with plague epidemics.

“Famines were also capable of prompting migrations of population. Ankhtifi’s autobiography mentions that “the whole country has become like locusts going upstream and downstream.” Migrations probably played a significant role in the birth of Egyptian civilization during the Holocene Period, when drastic climatic changes and increasing aridity may have forced inhabitants of the Western and Eastern Deserts to settle on the banks of the Nile.

“The consequences of low or destructive inundations depended to a large degree on the ability of administrative officials—state or local—to anticipate subsistence crises: sufficient storage of surpluses from one year to the next and an efficient redistribution system could counter bad harvests. Conversely, famine clearly correlates with mismanagement of the state administration—for example, during the 20thDynasty, when the workmen of Deir el- Medina were compelled to go on strike to obtain their salaries. The prosperity of the Egyptian state was nevertheless famous throughout the Near East, and New Kingdom pharaohs used grain supplies as diplomatic gifts when their allies, especially the Hittites, were facing starvation; on the other hand, the Egyptian army commonly induced famine artificially, through destruction of harvests and cattle, to subdue foreign enemies.

“The Egyptians viewed food deprivation as a liminal experience, approaching chaos. Because the experience of chaos was included as a kind of “rite of passage” in the funerary ritual, the deceased were therefore required to suffer hunger and thirst before being regenerated by funerary offerings. The evocation of the elite suffering famine is also an essential feature of the social anarchy described in texts such as The Prophecy of Neferty and The Admonitions of Ipuwer. Conversely, representations occasionally emphasize the opulence of the Egyptians from the Nile Valley by contrasting them with the starving nomadic tribes, as we see, for example, in 5th-Dynasty reliefs depicting emaciated Bedouin and in the 12th-Dynasty relief of a cowherd in a tomb of Meir. “Nourishing the land” and “giving bread to the hungry” are the basic definitions of the role of the king and high officials; the evocation of famine in hieroglyphic texts is embedded in this ideological discourse. Recent studies suggest that the repeated evocation of famines in First Intermediate Period texts reflects the employment of a new rhetoric of the nomarch as “dispenser of food,” featuring realistic descriptions rather than the standard clichés . To use these texts as evidence of climatic changes is therefore misleading, the more so as this self-presentation of the nomarch is still attested during the Middle Kingdom. Divine intervention against famine is also a frequent motif of Late Period texts, among the most famous of which is the so-called “Famine Stela” at Sehel, a Ptolemaic inscription celebrating the prosperity granted to the region by the god Khnum after a seven-year famine during the reign of Djoser.”

Estates in Old Kingdom (2649–2150 B.C.) Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno García of Université Charles-de-Gaulle wrote: “Estates (also referred to as “domains”) formed the basis of institutional agriculture in Old Kingdom Egypt. Estates were primarily administered by the temples or by state agricultural centers scattered throughout the country, but were also granted to high officials as remuneration for their services. Sources from the third millennium B.C. show that estates constituted production networks where agricultural goods were produced, stored, and kept available for agents of the king who were traveling on state business. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno García, Université Charles-de-Gaulle, France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

official supervising estate activities

Estates were one of the main sources of income for the Egyptian state during the Old Kingdom. Most preserved sources concern the estates of institutions such as temples or the administrative centers known as Hwt (plural: Hwwt), or of certain state officials, including some members of the royal family. As estates were scattered all over the country, they constituted the links in a network of royal warehouses, production centers, and agricultural holdings that facilitated the production and storage of agricultural goods that were kept at the disposal of institutions or of the royal administration when needed.

“There is an important difference between Old Kingdom estates and their counterparts in later, better-documented periods: whereas texts like the Ramesside Wilbour Papyrus evoke thousands of estates directly controlled by the temples (the most important economic centers of the country from the New Kingdom on), third-millennium inscriptions show that royal centers founded by the king and administered by state-appointed officials controlled many estates and were, along with the temples, prominent places of institutional agricultural production.

“The most ancient sources concerning estates and their integration into the economic structure of the Egyptian state date from as early as the pre-unification period. Labels from the tombs of the late-Predynastic kings at Abydos appear to mention localities and estates that produced goods for, or sent goods to, the royal mortuary complexes. Hundreds of inscribed vessels from the 3rd-Dynasty pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara contain brief references to the officials and centers responsible for delivering offerings to Djoser’s funerary monuments and to those of his predecessors. These texts inform us that the Hwt (administrative center) and especially the Hwt- aAt (literally “great Hwt”—administrative center, probably larger than the Hwt), were the most important royal production units in the country. The existence of networks of this sort, in which royal estates produced goods collected at administrative centers and subsequently redistributed to other localities or officials, has recently come to light at Elephantine: hundreds of seal inscriptions, mainly dating to the 3rd Dynasty, record the delivery of goods from Abydos, the most important supra-regional administrative center in southern Egypt, to the local representatives and officials of the king in service at Elephantine. Slightly later sources, from the beginning of the 4th Dynasty, also evoke an economic and production geography in which royal administrative centers like the Hwt and Hwt-aAt governed smaller localities, estates, and fields, as was the case according to Metjen’s inscriptions: many titles borne by this official show that the Hwt and Hwt-aAt were the heads of territorial and economic units, sometimes referred to as pr (houses/estates; plural: prw), that encompassed many localities (njwt; plural: njwwt) located mainly in Lower Egypt.

“Therefore estates seem to have been firmly controlled by royal institutions and appear to have constituted the basic production units of the royal economy. The taxation and conscription of village inhabitants probably formed the other main source of income for the Pharaonic treasury, as the Gebelein papyri, from the end of the 4th Dynasty, show.

Estates composed a vital element in the economic and fiscal organization of the Egyptian state during the Old Kingdom. It should be emphasized that most estates depended on a network of royal centers (mainly Hwt) directly administered by royal officials—a feature that characterizes the Old Kingdom—whereas in later periods of Egyptian history the temples became the main holders of estates, which were therefore subject to a more indirect and fragile control by the king.”

Temple Estates in Ancient Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno García of Université Charles-de-Gaulle wrote: “Alongside the estates of the crown, temples too possessed important estates that provided the agricultural produce needed for offerings or for the support of personnel in charge of the cult. The Royal Annals mention estates granted by the king to cults and temples scattered throughout the country. The beneficiaries of these donations usually included the workers who cultivated the fields, as well as the storage and processing centers (pr-Sna) linked to the fields. The early- 5th-Dynasty inscriptions in the tomb of Nykaankh at Tihna el-Gebel provide insight into the organization of the economic activities of a provincial temple. The local sanctuary, dedicated to Hathor, had been granted a field of 0.5 hectares by 4th-Dynasty king Menkaura, a donation that was confirmed by Sahura at the beginning of the 5th Dynasty. Nykaankh and his family performed the required rituals and were accordingly paid with the produce of that field. [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno García, Université Charles-de-Gaulle, France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

Isis Temple

“Sources from the 6th Dynasty show that temples were important economic centers and that their estates were usually exploited by the local elite, who thus became integrated into the economic, social, and political networks controlled by the palace. Royal donations to local temples continued throughout the Old Kingdom, as is recorded in the recently discovered Royal Annals of the 6th Dynasty. At the same time, the pharaohs built royal chapels in the local sanctuaries and provided them with the economic means necessary for their construction: Iy-Mery of el-Hawawish in Upper Egypt, for example, proclaimed in his autobiographical inscription that he never took away the grain that was in his charge, except for that which constituted the payments relating to the works on the Hwt-kA chapel of Pepy at Akhmim. Titles and inscriptions concerning the royal Hwt-kA, and even their architectural remains at Tell Basta, reveal that they were present in many provinces of both Upper and Lower Egypt, very often inside the enclosure of an existing temple. Their construction suggests that the king intervened in the internal affairs of the temples and could control their economic activities, as is further evidenced by the decrees from Coptos.

“The most detailed sources concerning the foundation, organization, and exploitation of a temple domain are the royal decrees from the temple of Min at Coptos, dating from the 6th Dynasty. Two of these decrees refer to the organization of a new domain granted to the local god: first, the location was chosen from a piece of land comprising some fields that were inundated on an annual basis; then, a storage and processing center was created in order to administer the domain, organize its work force, and raise taxes; finally, the domain was divided into plots and placed under the supervision of an administrative council comprising local governors, the high priest of the temple, and some officials.

“The role of the local governors consisted of assembling the work force necessary to cultivate the fields. Other clauses of decrees D and G specified that the estates enjoyed temporary tax exemptions. Such estates formed the economic basis of the provincial temples, and the recent discovery of 6th- Dynasty clay tablets at Balat, in Dakhla Oasis, shows that this kind of economic organization existed even at a remote locality in the Western Desert, hundreds of kilometers from the Nile Valley.

“As for temples in proximity to the capital, two important archives found at the Abusir funerary complexes of 5th-Dynasty pharaohs Neferirkara and Raneferef cast some light on temple resources. It seems that the temples’ main sources of income were other temples, especially that of Ptah at Memphis, as well as several royal institutions. Some fragmentary papyri suggest that these temples also possessed their own estates, but the role played by the royal residence (Xnw) and the royal house (pr-nzwt) appears far more important in the provisioning of temples near Memphis. In fact, the Royal Annals and the administrative papyri from the Old Kingdom show that the transfer of resources from the royal sphere to the temples was a well- established practice during the Old Kingdom. The titles borne by the officials of el- Hawawish also suggest that the crown transferred some estates to the local temple of Min. These measures do not imply, however, that the crown was losing resources and power for the benefit of the temples. The occasional tax exemptions granted to temples were temporary and revocable, and inscriptions like that of 6th-Dynasty official Harkhuf of Elephantine proclaim that both the temples and the royal estates formed networks where food and products were stored and kept at the disposal of the royal agents. The decrees of Coptos also enumerate the officials and the royal departments that usually requisitioned workers and taxes from the temples.”

Estates and Local Officials in Ancient Egypt

Juan Carlos Moreno García of Université Charles-de-Gaulle wrote: “A third kind of domain was formed by the landed possessions held by royal officials as remuneration for their services. Little is known about the standard estates allotted to each category of official (the categories having been based on an individual’s rank, function, and status). [Source: Juan Carlos Moreno García, Université Charles-de-Gaulle, France, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2008, ]

“Some agents of the king boasted in their autobiographical inscriptions of the (presumably exceptional) estates granted to them by the king to reward them for their outstanding services: Metjen (4th Dynasty) was rewarded with fields of variable dimensions for his activities as governor of several royal administrative centers (Hwt and Hwt-aAt) in Lower Egypt; Sabni of Elephantine (6th Dynasty) was nominated as xntj-S (an honorific court title) of a royal pyramid and was granted a field of about eleven hectares after a successful mission in Nubia; and Ibi of Deir el-Gabrawy (6th Dynasty) received a field of about fifty hectares linked to a Hwt. It seems doubtful whether the descendants of an official could have inherited the estates granted in this way. Members of the royal family (especially the royal sons) were possibly an exception, as their property was administered by a special administrative branch: the Overseer of the Provinces of Upper Egypt Kapuptah (5th Dynasty), for example, was also Overseer of the Property of the Royal Sons in the Provinces of Upper Egypt (jmj-r jxt msw nzwt m zpAwt Smaw), whereas Ankhshepseskaf (5th Dynasty) was Overseer of the Estates of the Royal Sons (jmj-r prw msw nzwt), a title also borne by his contemporary, the vizier Senedjemib-Inti; and prince Nykaura, a son of pharaoh Khafra, distributed his many estates among his wife and children while he was alive, although it is not certain that his instructions were also valid after his death. Some royal decrees, as well as the papyri from the royal funerary complexes of Neferirkara and Raneferef, show that the nomination of an official as xntj-S of a royal pyramid was an important source of income that included both offerings and agricultural estates. But access to these coveted honors was restricted, as the decrees in the Raneferef archive proclaim.

“The granting of estates as remuneration or reward to the officials of the kingdom was so widespread that an iconographic motif arose in private tombs depicting processions of offering bearers accompanied by place-names that supposedly represented the estates possessed by the tomb owner. However, these place-names seem to have been for the most part fictitious, used mainly as a decorative device emulating the ideal landscape governed by the king, a landscape represented in the funerary monuments of the king himself: the precisely symmetrical depiction of estates on the walls of the tombs (even in cases where the offering bearers bore no name), the absence of any information about virtually all these alleged place-names (even in the tombs of the heirs of the original owners), and the representation of exactly the same number of estates in both Upper and Lower Egypt suggest that this iconographic motif was not intended to depict the estates actually granted to an official.”

Land Tenure in Ancient Egypt

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “Land tenure describes the regime by means of which land is owned or possessed, whether by landholders, private owners, tenants, sub-lessees, or squatters. It embraces individual or group rights to occupy and/or use the land, the social relationships that may be identified among the rural population, and the converging influences of the local and central power structures. Features in the portrait of ancient Egyptian land tenure that may be traced over time in response to changing configurations of government include state and institutional landownership, private smallholdings, compulsory labor (corvée), cleruchies, leasing, and tenancy. Such documents as Papyrus Harris I, the Wilbour Papyrus, Papyrus Reinhardt, and the Ptolemaic Zenon and Menches archives provide evidence of various regimes of landholding, the status of the landholders, their relationship to the land, and the way in which the harvest was divided among cultivators, landowners, and the state. Ptolemaic leases and conveyances of land represent the perspective of individual landowners and tenants. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The division of Egypt into two distinct agricultural zones, the 700-km-long Nile Valley and the Delta, as well as the Fayum depression and the oases of the Western Desert, produced regional differences that caused considerable variation in the organization of agriculture and the character of land tenure throughout antiquity. The village-based peasant society worked the land under a multiplicity of land tenure regimes, from private smallholdings to large estates employing compulsory (corvée) labor or tenant farmers under the management of the elite, temples, or the Crown. However cultivation was organized, it was predicated on the idea that the successful exploitation of land was the source of extraordinary power and wealth and that reciprocity, the basis of feudalism, was the key to prosperity.

“Consistent features in the mosaic of land tenure were state and institutional landowners, private smallholders, corvée labor, and cleruchs, the importance of any single feature varying over time and from place to place in response to changing degrees of state control. Leasing and tenancy are also elements that pervade all periods with varying terms as revealed by surviving leases. The importance of smallholding is to be emphasized since even large estates consisted of small plots as the basic agricultural unit in a system characterized by competing claims for the harvest. However, the exact nature of private smallholding in Pharaonic Egypt is still under discussion as is clear from studies that explore local identity and solidarity in all periods, subject to regional variation; the conflict between strong assertions of central control in the capital and equally powerful assertions of regional individuality and independence in the rural countryside; and the dislocation of the villager and his representatives from the local elites. Land tenure was also affected by local variation in the natural ecology of the Nile Valley. Moreover, variations in the height of the Nile over the medium and long term directly affected the amount of land that could be farmed, the size of the population that could be supported, and the type of crops that could be sown.

“The alternation of periods of unity and fragmentation in the control of the land was a major determinant of the varieties of land tenure that came to characterize the ancient Egyptian economy. The disruption in the balance between strong central control and local assertions of independence that resulted in periods of general political fragmentation or “native revolts” had a powerful effect upon the agrarian regime, economy, and society.

“The state’s collection of revenues from cultivated land under various land tenure regimes is also an element of continuity since the resources of the land constituted the primary tax-base for the state. Cultivators of all types had to cope with the payment of harvest dues owing to the state under all economic conditions, from famine to prosperity. These revenues fall under the terms Smw and SAyt and perhaps other terms occurring in economic and administrative texts in reference to dues owing to the state from the fields of the rural countryside.”

Land Tenure in the Predynastic Period and Old Kingdom (3100-2150 B.C.)

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “Landholding initially occurred within the confines of the village economy and likely produced no more than a subsistence existence. There was, however, in the Predynastic Period a network of trade bases, settlements, and administrative centers that contributed to government control over limited areas, facilitated trade, and shaped the spatial organization of the landscape. With the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt c. 3100 B.C. and the establishment of a national capital at Memphis, and its concomitant infrastructure for the administration of agricultural production, large royal estates came into being. Royal institutions known as the Hwt (a kind of royal farm) and the Hwt aAt (great Hwt) became centers of royal power and institutional agriculture in the countryside serving several purposes, including the warehousing of agricultural goods, as well as their administration and defense. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Private ownership in the Old Kingdom traces back to land-grants to members of the king’s immediate family and eventually to more distant relatives, as well as officials. The desire to secure the personal disposal of landed property for families was eventually achieved by the establishment of permanent mortuary endowments, in which family members carried out the responsibilities of the cult in exchange for a share in the revenue of the lands that comprised the endowment. These offices became hereditary and brought with them the right to a share in the foundation’s property.

“Old Kingdom tomb biographies of the elite provide the earliest detailed knowledge of landholding. The autobiography of Metjen, controller of vast Delta estates under Third Dynasty king Djoser, provides the earliest example of private landholding. While Metjen’s power base was the Delta, he also enjoyed authority over two Upper Egyptian nomes, controlling landholdings and the wealth derived from them as an official of the king. This valuable property consisted of 266 arouras (1 aroura = 0.66 acre) plus a small vineyard, an estate in keeping with the grandeur of his Saqqara tomb. Metjen’s titles, including HoA-aHt, are testimony to the prominence of the institutional aHt-land at this early date and of the royal agricultural centers, the Hwt and the Hwt aAt, in the rural areas, as well as to the establishment of other agricultural units or types of royal settlement known as grgt and aHt. Moreover, Metjen was the chief of wab-priests and, as such, participated in the improvement of the cultivable land. Elite officials such as Metjen cultivated their large properties through the agency of supervised compulsory (corvée) laborers called mrwt. Metjen bore personal responsibility for the operations and productivity of the lands entrusted to him and the flow of revenues from the land to the authorities who had a claim upon them.

“Temples took on a more conspicuous role in the rural landscape during the Fifth Dynasty, just as the role of provincial governors or nomarchs (HAtj-a) was also on the ascendant. According to an inscription at his early Fifth Dynasty tomb at Tehneh in Middle Egypt, Nikaankh, Keeper of the King’s Property and Steward of the Great Domain, had control of the royal agricultural centers in his province. He was made Chief Priest of the Temple of Hathor, Lady of Ra-Inet by king Userkaf, with responsibility for temple income. Nikaankh was entitled to bequeath the two arouras in endowments he had received in the reign of Menkaura for cult service to his sons who succeeded him in his offices in the cult of Hathor, and a private mortuary cult, provided they continued their service faithfully and the property was kept intact.

“According to the royal annals of the Palermo Stone, kings frequently granted provincial temples donations of land, from royal pastures and riparian land, together with workers and processing centers. These donations, especially when large, were significant events in any pharaoh’s reign. Especially noteworthy was the donation to the god Ra of at least 1704 arouras and 87 cubits (459.7 hectares) in the Fifth Dynasty—an extremely generous, in fact unsurpassed, donation for the times. Most frequently, the donations were located in Lower Egypt, where there was great potential for agricultural development.

“In the royal pyramid cities, smallholders called xntjw-S were often able to develop their holdings into profitable estates. These smallholders had roles in the cult and served the estate of the funerary institution, enjoying access to endowment land and royal exemption from the corvée or any unlawful seizure. The exemption decree enacted by Pepy I on behalf of the pyramid town of Seneferu at Dahshur restricted the cultivation of fields belonging to a pyramid town to the xntjw-S of that town. The mrwt of any elite party or official were forbidden to cultivate those holdings. This protected the status of the xntjw-S as small farmers with an elevated standing among the peasantry.

“Changes to the agricultural landscape at the end of the Old Kingdom derived in part from the increasing power struggle between the central government and the provincial nobility. The Hwt went into decline at the end of the second millennium B.C. as new concepts of the spAt (district, nome) and njwt (city, town) came into play. When the reorganization of the state was achieved with the Eleventh Dynasty, a new system replaced the old network of the Hwt.”

Land Tenure in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1640 B.C.)

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “When pharaohs from a Theban line of princes stabilized the country from north to south, they ended the political, social, and economic fragmentation of the First Intermediate Period and reunited Upper and Lower Egypt in a regime that allowed the orderly management of the land and its resources. The Eleventh Dynasty was followed by the Middle Kingdom, a new period of cultural flowering in which a “middle class” came into increasing importance in the land tenure regime. According to Papyrus Brooklyn 35.1446, by the Middle Kingdom, royal agricultural units (wart) administered lands described as xbsw, “plowlands,” likely cultivated by corvée labor organized into work teams through conscription. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Temples controlled vast holdings of aHt-lands for cultivation under wab-priests responsible for the payment of taxes as described in the Instructions for Merikara and documented in the Lahun archives. These priests, along with xrpw (agents/administrators), were intermediaries between the peasant producers and the temple administration, paying large quantities of grain as income to the temples. The agricultural model we detect in the Lahun archives, in which temples administered cultivable land, greatly resembles that of the Old Kingdom.

“During the Middle Kingdom, smallholders cultivated Sdw- fields and were relatively independent. The correspondence of the Twelfth Dynasty kA- priest (mortuary priest) and farmer Hekanakht regarding the operation of the family’s farm properties, south of Thebes, is crucial here. Although family-run, Hekanakht’s farm properties were dispersed over a number of villages rather than centrally located. The farms were a joint, extended-family enterprise: the father and sons made decisions on both the crop and required labor. Family members were assisted in the operations by wage- laborers who became the family’s dependents. Capital from the work of weavers and a herd of thirty-five cattle supplemented the farm income. The letters give the impression of an autonomous economic life, free of interference by any outside system or authority, even though Hekanakht certainly functioned within the constraints of an economic system that he shrewdly manipulated to his best possible advantage.

“Hekanakht, the kA-priest turned entrepreneur, acquired his landholdings through inheritance, purchase, in payment of a debt, and/or as remuneration for services rendered. It is likely that some of his property was endowment land since, as a kA-priest, his labor would have been rewarded with a land grant that provided the right to use the land in perpetuity. The regular payment of taxes on his land guaranteed Hekanakht’s freedom to cultivate it exactly as he wished. The occurrence of the word odb, “to rent,” in Letter I, 3 - 9 is evidence of Hekanakht’s leasing of land through the payment of a share of the crop or various commodities (copper, cloth, barley). Well-capitalized family farms such as those of Hekanakht provided an efficient form of agriculture.

“The Twelfth Dynasty tomb inscription of Hapdjefa (I) of Assiut, a high priest of Wepwawet and of Anubis, and a nomarch (HAtj-a) in the reign of Senusret I, provides crucial data on income from landed property. It very clearly demarcates between lands and their income that Hapdjefa possessed by virtue of his official roles, and income, consisting of lands, tenants, and cattle, he inherited as a private individual from his paternal estate. The latter properties were alienable, while the former were not. As nomarch, Hapdjefa inherited from his predecessors lands, as well as the temple offerings that went with the office and would be inherited by the next nomarch. As high priest, Hapdjefa was paid in kind for his services, but these payments occurred only during his tenure. He had no right to alienate any of the properties of the cult or to benefit from them or their income during his lifetime. What he did with his patriarchal inheritance was, however, up to him as we learn from a series of ten contracts that relate to the establishment of a pious foundation on behalf of his cult statues.”

Land Tenure in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.)

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “New Kingdom pharaohs regularly rewarded high achievers land in recognition of their service to the state. According to the inscriptions from his tomb at Elkab, the crew commander Ahmose son of Abana received extensive estates, including one comprising 60 arouras in Hadja, as “favors” of the king. Five arouras of land were located in his hometown of Elkab as was customary in the case of veterans being rewarded for service to king and country. In addition, Ahmose received both male and female slaves (Hm, Hmt), some of whom may have worked his land. Since by the end of Ahmose’s life, his estates would likely have been widely dispersed geographically, and the family probably preferred to reside comfortably in town, slaves or local cultivators would have worked distant holdings as individual income- producing units. Shares (psSt) in the cleruch’s holding would be inherited, generation to generation, and this would reinforce the relationship between the state and the heirs in a land tenure pattern that would shape the New Kingdom economy. As veterans entered into the agricultural economy as landholders, the stage was set for an increased involvement of the military in landholding that would reach its fullest expression in the Ptolemaic cleruchy. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“The Wilbour Papyrus is our most valuable and extensive Pharaonic document for regimes of land tenure. It details the assessment of both private smallholdings and large, collectively cultivated domains in Middle Egypt, administered by temples and secular institutions in year four of Ramesses V. The importance of the Wilbour Papyrus is that it elucidates the administration of cultivable land by temples and secular institutions in cooperation with the state, while raising important questions about the relationship between temples, the state, and the cultivators that are still not easily answered.

“While the precise purpose and context of the Wilbour Papyrus is still unclear, the document may have been an archive copy of the field survey ordered by the aA n St, “Chief Taxing Master,” responsible for temple finance. The limited extent of the agricultural holdings recorded in Wilbour (approximately 17,324 arouras = 4674 hectares) led one scholar to speculate that it was the jpw-register of Amun —that is, the (comprehensive) land survey document of the House of Amun. The abundance of towns and villages in the measurement lines of both Text A and Text B, identifying the locations of plots, reflects the underlying hierarchies of towns and villages as the fundamental units of agricultural organization. The lack of specificity in the location of the plots of smallholders perhaps argues in favor of the smallholdings representing individual right of access to land and the right to profit by its exploitation rather than “ownership” per se.

“Smallholders of all occupations cultivated heritable plots, most often three or five arouras in size, on institutional “apportioning domains,” a plot of five arouras supporting a family of some eight persons. These private possessors paid dues on a tiny portion of their fields at a nominal fixed rate. Whether this extremely small amount represents a tax (Smw) or a management fee to the temple on whose land the plot was situated is difficult to say.”

Temples and Land Tenure in New Kingdom Egypt

Sally Katary of Laurentian University wrote: “While real estate was granted to individuals by the state, individuals also turned property over to the management of temple estates by means of funerary endowments. The endowment of Si- mut, called Kyky, scribe and inspector of cattle in the stalls of Amun in the reign of Ramesses II, exemplifies the custom of the donation of personal property to temples by individuals who entered into contracts with temples for the deity’s protection. Si-mut’s act of endowment comprises a long inscription covering three walls of his Theban tomb and summarizes a legal contract. Not having any children or siblings to care for him in his old age and organize his funeral and mortuary cult, Si-mut donated all his worldly goods to the temple of Mut, likely in return for a pension that would enable him to live out the remainder of his days comfortably, secure in the knowledge that his obsequies would be carried out by the temple. Unfortunately, the lower part of the inscription that contains details concerning the endowment is poorly preserved. Nevertheless, it was by such benefactions that temples gained control over even more property, and more distant relations of the donor were excluded from any possibility of inheriting from the estate. [Source: Sally Katary, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, ]

“Papyrus Harris I attests the preponderant role of the temples as distinct economic entities in their own right, with authority over cultivation and landholding. This royal document enumerates the land- wealth of the temples of Amun, Ra, Ptah, and smaller less well-known temples: a total of 1,071,780 arouras, comprising some 13 to 18 percent of the available cultivable land. It is very likely that the temple holdings enumerated here were donations made by Ramesses III, with priority going to his own mortuary temple at Medinet Habu.

“Papyrus Harris I supports the idea that temples were an integral part of the state, yet not a branch or department of the state administration, providing legitimacy to the government in exchange for which the king granted them all necessities and then some. The separate but interlinked bureaucracies of temples and government assured the temples control of their own production but made it possible for the government freely to remit part of its own wealth to the temples. Temples commanded the labor of large numbers of royal subjects to till the land in various arrangements the temples themselves controlled. The cultivators of temple lands were themselves taxed by the state to provide for the temples, thus completing the circle that, in theory at least, connected temples, populace, and the state in a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Ancient Egyptian Cotton Reveals Secrets about Domesticated Crop Evolution

On 2012, scientists from the University of Warwick studying 1,600-year-old cotton from the banks of the Nile said they found what they believe is the first evidence that punctuated evolution has occurred in a major crop group within the relatively short history of plant domestication. The findings offer an insight into the dynamics of agriculture in the ancient world and could also help today's domestic crops face challenges such as climate change and water scarcity. [Source: University of Warwick, Science Daily, April 2, 2012

Science Daily reported: “The researchers, led by Dr Robin Allaby from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, examined the remains of ancient cotton at Qasr Ibrim in Egypt's Upper Nile using high throughput sequencing technologies. This is the first time such technology has been used on ancient plants and also the first time the technique has been applied to archaeological samples in such hot countries.

For archaeologists, the results also shed light on agricultural development in the ancient world. There has long been uncertainty as to whether ancient Egyptians had imported domesticated cotton from the Indian subcontinent, as had happened with other crops, or whether they were growing a native African variety which had been domesticated locally. The study's findings that the Qasr Ibrim seeds were of the G. herbaceum variety, native to Africa, rather than G.arboreum, which is native to the Indian subcontinent, represents the first molecular-based identification of archaeobotanical cotton to a species level.

“Dr Allaby said the findings confirm there was an indigenous domestication of cotton in Africa which was separate from the domestication of cotton in India. "The presence of cotton textiles on Egyptian and Nubian sites has been well documented but there has always been uncertainty among archaeologists as to the origin of these. "It's not possible to identify some cotton varieties just by looking at them, so we were asked to delve into the DNA. "We identified the African variety--G. herbaceum, which suggest that domesticated cotton was not a cultural import--it was a technology that had grown up independently."”

Agriculture in Ancient of Sudan-Nubia

According to “Agriculture along the narrow strip of the Nile valley provided Nubians with their necessary food supply. Therefore most of the Nubian populations were farmers. Each year the Nile flooded Upper Nubia providing silt for the agricultural lands. The Kushites used the Shaduf (a traditional device operated manually for raising water from a lower depression that is connected to a source of water, to a higher depression where the water is distributed to farther depressions to irrigate the field/s) for watering their farms.1 Sometime in the late Meroitic period, they transfered to the use of Saquia (a water wheel), which was brought to Nubia from Southwest Asia. [Source: Ancientfoods,, May 13, 2011]

“There are numerous hafirs (a depression dug on flat ground to collect rain water) discovered in Nubia including many at Musawwarat es Sufra.3 However hafirs would not have provided enough water for watering the farms. The only Kushite dam used for water storage was found at Shaq el Ahmar.4

A concern for food might have triggered the Kushite control for other regions like the Buttana in the east, where sorghum was easily grown depending on rain. As a matter of fact, it is evident from the haffirs dug there in the Meroitic period that Kush had certainly practiced considerable powers over the Buttana during that period.

One non-dietary crop that is widely grown in Nubia was cotton. It was used for domestic cloth making and was possibly transported to other kingdoms. Cotton cloth was found abundantly at Kushite graves, including the cemeteries at Kerma.

Nomads wondered the semi-arid regions on both sides of the Nile with their flocks in search of good pastures. The Kushites were in continues warfare with these hostile nomads. However both the nomads and the farmers have in many cases benefited from each other; an exchange of animal and agricultural products was probably a usual practice. Also, the Nubian farmers allowed the nomads to herd their flocks on harvested farms in return for the dung of the animals which fertilized the farms.8

A wall painting at Kerma dating to 1600 B.C. depicts a well in profile with a robe pulling a buck of water. Hafirs have been discovered in various locations in Nubia. At every excavated Nubian settlement, hafirs were present. At Kawa and Musawwarat es Sufra there were large numbers of hafirs. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the Kushite main source of water was from wells. Wells would be shallow if the settlements were by the Nile, and would be deep if they were on regions far from the river.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato,; Mark Millmore,; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

The site is located about 40 kilometers from Abu Simbel and 70 kilometers from the modern Sudanese border on the east bank of what is now Lake Nasser. They also studied South American samples from sites in Peru and Brazil aged between 800 and nearly 4,000 years old. The results showed that even over the relatively short timescale of a millennia and a half, the Egyptian cotton, identified as G. herbaceum, showed evidence of significant genomic reorganisation when the ancient and the modern variety were compared. However closely-related G.Barbadense from the sites in South America showed genomic stability between the two samples, even though these were separated by more than 2,000 miles in distance and 3,000 years in time.

This divergent picture points towards punctuated evolution--long periods of evolutionary stability interspersed by bursts of rapid change--having occurred in the cotton family. Dr Allaby said: "We think of evolution as a very slow process, but as we analyse more genome information we can see that there's been a huge amount of large-scale proactive change during recent history. Our results for the cotton from Egypt indicate that there has been the potential for more adaptive evolution going on in domesticated plant species than was appreciated up until now. Plants that are local to their particular area will develop genes which allow them to better tolerate the stresses they find in the environment around them. It's possible that cotton at the Qasr Ibrim site has adapted in response to extreme environmental stress, such as not enough water. This insight into how domesticated crops evolved when faced with environmental stress is of value for modern agriculture in the face of current challenges like climate change and water scarcity."

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