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Eating in Egypt: A Review of Egyptian Agricultural Methods and Products
Ancient Egypt was dependent on the Nile. It is a very long stretch of water; one of the longest rivers in the world. The Nile Proper, as it is distinguished from its two main tributaries, is the joint flow of The While Nile and the Blue Nile. They merge near Khartoum and continue to flow north into Egypt. For thousands of miles, the Nile snakes down slope and across the very dry northeast African landscape, eventually fanning out on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Though they both have Mediterranean shorelines, the ecology of Egypt and that of the
are incredibly different. In Egypt's desert, the stark contrast of water and sand is easily observed from space.
Courtesy of GoogleEarth
Farmers in Egypt knew the Nile would flood each year and they depended on this, so the inundation was an expected and celebrated event. Many Egyptians, even those who did not farm, attributed the swell to tears of the goddess
. Though the amount of water could not be predicted, it could be measured somewhat in advance and Nilometers were used to estimate the swell of incoming floods (Bowman and Rogan 1999). The acceptable prediction range was wide, but too little or too much water meant disastrous consequences to farming
In emphasis of its importance to Egyptian agricultural success, the river and its flood pattern actually made up the Egyptian seasonal calendar (Jonsson 2007). September to January was Akhet, the Season of Inundation when the flood would rush water and nutrient rich silt into farmlands. Peret, the Season of the Emergence, followed. The crops grew in Peret, from January to May. Shomu is the final season from May to September. During Shomu, The Season of the Harvest, crop products would be gathered and the land left for the next flood. Farming was a full-time but not a year round vocation; when the lands were being flooded farmers worked for the pharaoh on other tasks. There were differences between this seasonal calendar and the
that established dates for festivals.
The arrangement of fields around the river was essential to their success. Farmers planned their crops around basins that river water could be guided to via a system of walls. So the shadouf was used to water land that would be planted a few feet higher. After the floodwaters covered the lands and then started to dry, farmers ploughed the area and used hammers made of wood to break up pieces of still drying soil. Then the seeds were spread and grazing animals would be lead over the earth to push the seeds down and cover them with dirt (Tantawi 1939). Though it is believed that men did a majority of the labor involved in farming, some
were land and livestock owners.
When it was time to harvest, workers used sickles to cut wheat. The curves of the sickles were usually made of wood and their cutting edges were flint, or sometimes bronze (Tantawi 1939). Other species like onions and grapes were usually collected by hand. Plant remnants would be left on the land to nourish the soil until the flood waters returned.
Menna was a literate member of the nobility in Egypt sometime in the Eighteenth Dynasty. In life he oversaw crops for an important temple and was essentially in charge of making sure the agricultural accounting was correct (Degerstedt 2005). His burial celebrated this career, and some of the best murals depicting Egyptian agricultural practices are from the walls of Menna’s tomb in Saqqara.
One of Menna's tomb murals.
Hard Work Paying Off
Egypt made excellent use of the Nile region and produced plenteous and varied crops.
What they grew
Their principle crop was emmer wheat. This was arguably the chief crop of the old world, and the species was also cultivated in the Levant (where it originated), the Aegean, the Indus Valley, the Balkans, and in other arable parts of Africa (Zohary and Hopf 1994). Emmer was used to produce the staples of the Egyptian diet for centuries. It is found in almost all pharaonic tombs, in widespread locations, and in abundance.
The ubiquitous emmer wheat.
The Egyptians also produced wine, which was a luxury for the upper classes and usually served at feasts. Wine is found in Old Kingdom tombs and appears to be mostly imported, but there is evidence of a small but enduring viniculture industry that used Egyptian-grown grapes. McGovern and Hartuny (1997) discuss wine jars with Palestinian seals found in a tomb at Abydos. Grapes are not native to Egypt. Like emmer wheat, they originated in the Levant, and Zohary and Hopf (1994) say the country’s climate is largely unsuitable for their production. They can, however, be grown easily in the Nile delta. Grapes also appear to have been cultivated for raisins. Paintings depicting Egyptians sniffing lotus blossoms floating in bowls of wine have lead some Egyptologists to wonder if the lotuses were present as a hallucinogen and not just for perfume (David 2000)!
Some vegetables were grown with regular success. Onions and garlic were widely grown, as were traditionally cooler climate species like cucumbers and lettuce (Oachs 2002). Fruits like figs and dates grew well throughout Egypt. Curiously, though wild dates are one of few native fruit species, they only start to appear as a regular tomb good in the New Kingdom period. Archaeological evidence indicates that the watermelon may have been first domesticated here. (Zohary and Hopf 1994).
Though not a plant domesticate, bees have been kept by Egyptians throughout history. Lower Egypt, where most of the honey production took place, especially valued the bee and one of their styles for the pharaoh was “Bee King.” Some of the beekeeping techniques used by ancient Egyptians are still practiced today, including using smoke to calm the hive before honey harvest (Dollinger 2009).
Honey never spoils.
Egyptians also kept domesticated animals: cattle, sheep, pigs, and fowl, among others. Upper class Egyptians would eat cattle or goat meat but never pork, which was considered a lower class food though it has a history of being eaten in Egypt for many centuries. Chickens were a late domesticate, but geese were raised for their eggs. Wild animals such as the gazelles seen in paintings were hunted but never successfully domesticated (Dollinger 2009).
What they ate
Common Egyptian citizens ate a lot of bread and drank a lot of beer, both manufactured from processed emmer wheat.
From start to finish, baking is an arduous task. Emmer, like all wheats, must be processed before it can be made into bread. Sometime after being harvested, the wheat would be gathered for threshing. Prior to the New Kingdom period archaeologists believe that animals were made to walk around on the stalks of wheat to break individual pieces off the stem, sort of like removing a kernel of corn from the cob. In and after the New Kingdom this was done by hand. Processing from that point is similar. When emmer wheat is threshed, the spikelets (these are like kernels of corn, to use the earlier analogy) break off the stem individually. The edible grain is covered by chaff (which is similar to but tougher than the skin on a dried bean). To remove the chaff, workers would grind the spikelets in a stone basin using a wooden pestle and a small amount of water. The chaff would be removed and the grain would then be milled into flour (Oachs 2002). Most of this would be made into plain bread, but wealthier Egyptians are known to have enjoyed fancier pastries. Not everyone made the bread they ate, but everyone ate bread, from the lowliest worker to the godly Pharaoh. Bread was a regular offering to temples and it was commonly buried with people. As a food so present in regular and ritual life for the ancient Egyptians, we can speculate that it was important to them.
Beer, the other Egyptian staple, is more mysterious. There are a few possible large-scale breweries in Egypt, including one in Hierakonpolis in the south and another in el-Amarna near the center of the country. Because the archaeological evidence for what is identified as bread making and what is suspected to be beer production is very similar, Delwin Samuel says nothing is likely to survive that can be "unequivocally linked to brewing. Bread and beer were staples of the ancient Egyptians, so it's a matter of inference” (Lock 2004). Samuel has extensively studied the ceramic evidence of baking and brewing in the area and has tried to recreate breads and beer in ancient Egyptian fashion. In both cases her assessment was that the products were sweeter than their modern counterparts. (Wu 1996). Chemical analysis suggests that Egyptians did not use hops to produce their beer, which would explain the sweeter flavor. It is believed they instead cooked a mixture of malted emmer wheat and then combined it with another mixture that had not been cooked. Then the liquid was strained and allowed to ferment (Wu 1996). However it was prepared and whatever it tasted like, it was a beverage consumed daily by Egyptians (Morell 2001).
Onions were served in vinegar as a sort of salad eaten regularly by most citizens. Lower class citizens ate Nile fish such as catfish and perch—the upper class did not—and hunted small birds like quail to supplement a mostly grain-based diet (Carnegie Museum of Natural History 1990). Meat was less frequent for common citizens but enjoyed with some regularity by the rich, as the latter had time to go hunting for it. The remains of some laborers have revealed that they were anemic and many did not eat meat regularly (Morrell 2001). Eggs were a fairly common part of the Egyptian diet. Treats included sweet fruits like dates and figs, and honeyed pastries and fruit studded breads were enjoyed by the wealthy as often as possible.
Dreaded holiday gift or delicious treat for the privileged few?
What does this all mean, really?
The long period of survival (not stability, but survival!) of what we consider classic Egypt is likely due in part to the state’s excellent management of the Nile. As Allen (1997) says,
“In Egypt, state formation occurred much more rapidly after the adoption of farming than in many other parts of the ancient Near East. Furthermore, the Egyptian state lasted longer and was more stable than most Empires established elsewhere.”
The population of Egypt had to live near the river to survive, and if someone decided to leave they'd have to take quite a trip to get to a new habitable place. The pressure keeping people around the Nile forced them to work cooperatively. Egypt's development from scattered, occasionally warring polities that took care of themselves into a unified entity of tremendous power took far less time that similar developments in other places (Allen 1997). Why exactly the state of Egypt adopted agriculture is unknown. Prior to unification, people in Lower and Upper Egypt were doing quite well for themselves as hunter gatherers (mostly the latter) along the Nile. Archaeologists see the benefits of agriculture adoption as being greatest for the state, something not recognized at the time. After the introduction of farming from the Levant, perhaps farmers realized that rather than depend on seasonable, gathered foods that could not be stored, surpluses of reliable food like cereals were a better idea. By the time Egypt was a unified state the agriculture systems along the Nile were established and the benefit to the state was enormous: grain itself, taxes from the farmers who grew their own grain, and a workforce for the times of the year when those people weren’t farming.
The efficiency of this system allowed for expansion and cultural growth. The Egypt we marvel at today would be very different without the regular food supply its agricultural systems granted. Surpluses allowed for the evolution of a remarkable style of art and the survival of a priest and ruling classes that did no farming of their own. Food goods produced exclusively for sacrifice or trade or to support artisans who were making nonfood goods (such as
) cemented Egyptian identity at home and spread it abroad. Egypt’s strength was legendary, but the sources of that strength were seeds.
Allen, Robert C.
1997 Agriculture and the Origins of the State in Ancient Egypt.
Explorations in Economic History
Bowman, Alan and Eugene Rogan
1999 Agriculture in Egypt from Pharaonic to Modern Times. In
Agriculture in Egypt from Pharaonic to Modern Times
, edited by Alan Bowman and Eugene Rogan, pp 1—32. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Degerstedt, Erin M.
2004 The Tomb of Menna. Electronic document,
, accessed November 16, 2010.
Division of Education
1990 Life in Ancient Egypt. The Carniege Museum of Natural History, Pittsburg, PA.
2009 Ancient Egypt: Bee-keeping. Electronic document,
, accessed November 15, 2010.
Jonsson, K. M.
2007 Ancient Egyptian Seasons. Electronic document,
, accessed November 17, 2010.
2004 ORIGINAL MICROBREWS.
Volume 166 Issue 14.
2001 THE PYRAMID BUILDERS.
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, accessed November 16, 2010.
Guide to the Fouad I Agricultural Museum. Cairo.
1996 Ancient Bread Rises in Gourmet Status.
Volume 150, Issue 4.
Zohary, Daniel and Maria Hopf
1994 Domestication of Plants in the Old World. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
All images serve as links to their sources EXCEPT the GoogleEarth view of Egypt (cited in caption) and the emmer wheat (public domain).
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