The first Egyptians were hunter-gatherers rather than farmers. During predynastic times, they developed the practice of agriculture in the Faiyum (a western oasis) and Delta regions, and thus were able to establish permanent settlements in these regions. Farming soon spread to other parts of Egypt—primarily in oases and along the Nile River and its tributaries, because of the water available in these places for growing crops—and with farming came more and more permanent settlements.
From the Early Dynastic Period on, the majority of Egyptians were farmers, working either for themselves or for someone else. In working a field, most
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
Page 22 | Top of Articlefarmers plowed with oxen. Men usually worked in pairs, one leading and one steadying a plow made of lightweight wood. Both men and women might work to hoe the plowed land in preparation for planting. Seeds were then scattered on the soil, after which pigs and other domestic animals were herded through the area to trample the seeds into the ground.
The main crops planted were two varieties of wheat, spelt and emmer, which were used to make bread, and barley, which was used to make beer. Other common crops included lentils, lettuce, chick-peas, and onions, while trees provided pomegranates, dates, carob, and a variety of other fruits. Grapes were grown, primarily for wine, in desert oases and in the western Delta; oil-producing plants like sesame were grown much more widely. Spices were grown throughout Egypt as well, often in a garden just outside a home's kitchen, and many people kept beehives (although wild honey was harvested as well) so that they could sweeten certain drinks and foods. In addition, flax was grown to provide linen, papyrus plants—wild or cultivated—provided writing material, and, beginning in the third century, cotton was grown as well.
When the crops were ready to be harvested, farmers gave thanks to the god Min, who was associated with agriculture as well as fertility. The crops were then harvested by hand—in the case of grain, using a wooden sickle with flint teeth. The stalks were bundled into short sheaves and taken by donkey to a threshing area. There the donkeys were made to trample the stalks, which would separate the grain from the stalks and loosen the husk of the grain. Workers then used wooden scoops to toss the grain into the air so that the chaff, or straw and husks, would blow away, leaving the grain to fall on the ground, a process called winnowing. The straw was then gathered and saved for making bricks, while the grain was sent to a central granary. Scribes would record how much grain each farmer contributed. Grain and other crops were stored for the community's use, but a portion was always sent to the capital city for the king to use to pay his workers. To ensure that farmers paid this tax, the king sent assessors to farming communities on a regular basis. However, temples—which often had their own vast fields—were sometimes exempt from paying this tax.
Once the crops had been harvested, animals were allowed to graze in the fields to consume any plant material that had been left behind. This helped ready the fields for the next growing season by clearing them of plant debris and weeds. Occasionally, however, a field was allowed to rest for a growing season in order to improve its fertility for the next one.