The Importance of Agriculture and Irrigation Technology: A Study of Ancient Egypt

The Importance of Agriculture and Irrigation Technology: A Study of Ancient Egypt The continent of Africa is an often overlooked and underrated area of study. In contrast to the prevailing view of Africa as a hub of poor, undeveloped countries, it is home to a number of fascinating, advanced societies. Ancient civilization in particular is one of the most fascinating subjects of study, especially concerning the well-known civilization of ancient Egypt. As one of the earliest civilizations, ancient Egypt is renowned for being one of the forerunners of human life as we know it today.

The many sophisticated achievements of Egypt could not have developed and survived to this day if it were not for the rise of a complex society and advanced technology. Of the many innovative technologies employed by ancient Egyptians, the introduction of irrigation techniques is one of the most significant as it enabled agriculture in the dry, hot lands of Egypt. Agriculture, in turn, is what brought about this complex society.

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The advent of agriculture and the subsequent irrigation techniques greatly contributed to the rise of Egypt as one of the most prominent and most influential civilizations of the ancient era.

Why study ancient Egypt? Before we consider the ways in which agriculture and its associated technology influenced Egypt and brought about a civilized society, we must first understand the importance of Egypt and the study of its culture. Some critics argue that Egypt is not as significant as popular culture leads us to believe it to be.

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Nonetheless, in Introduction to the History of African Civilization, C. Magbaily Fyle explains that the significance of the history of ancient Egypt lies in the fact that it is “often the first civilization to invent many of the basic elements of human life others have improved upon and which the rest of the world takes for granted today.” He then goes on to cite the many innovations attributed to the Egyptians, including writing in the form of hieroglyphics, the stone-working technology used to build the massive stone tombs of the pyramids, the first form of paper made from papyrus, the 365 day calendar, the use of a decimal system, and highly developed medical feats. These numerous achievements, among many others, “established Ancient Egypt as a major contributor to human progress at a time when the rest of the world was largely unfamiliar with developments of this nature.” 2 In ancient times, Egypt was significantly more advanced than its neighbors in a number of areas, ands its inventions have persisted to this very day. Egypt is also of great importance to archaeologists and historians due to the monumental evidence the Egyptians left behind of ancient life. Indeed, “no ancient society left more pictographic, epigraphic, and monumental evidence of humans contending with life.” However, Egypt’s significance is not simply confined to historical records; the entire human race at large is indebted to this ancient culture. As one of the earliest manifestations of civilization, ancient Egypt is marked by the binding together of individuals and institutions by a common way of life, and this complex organization is marked by both interdependence and the encouragement of self-expression, revealing “an unbroken line from Egypt to us, a line which implies our material, intellectual, and spiritual debt to this ancient culture.” 4 Without Egypt’s contributions to human progress, life as we know it today would be very different indeed.

Despite the prominent image of Egypt as a home to exotic, gold-clad pharaohs and high priestesses, this was not always so. Rather, Egypt’s origins are far less glamorous. Its inhabitants began life as a collection of hunters and gatherers, foraging for roots and berries as a means of sustenance. It is this “transition from the food gathering economy of hunters, fishers, trappers, and grubbers for roots and pluckers of berries to the food-producing economy of farming and herding cattle” that heralded the beginnings of true civilization. Foraging was a viable method of production for centuries and enabled individuals to procure plants and animals to feed themselves. However, hunting and gathering did not allow for a successful Egyptian state and complex society because it did not result in either a labor surplus or a production surplus. Both surpluses were essential in the formation of state because, as Robert C. Allen explains, “the Egyptian state was essentially an institution for exploiting farmers.” 6 Agriculture, on the other hand, made it possible for the state to use its people to its advantage. Cultivating crops as opposed to gathering berries and roots and hunting wild game meant that food was far less perishable, a positive characteristic with tremendous social implications. The significantly more enhanced storability of cultivated crops such as grain “made early farmers more exploitable than their foraging predecessors had been. One could feed an army, or the servants in a palace, or the workers on a construction site with grain shipped from other parts of the river valley.” 7 The transition from foraging to agriculture affected all aspects of social and economic life in Egypt.

The benefits reaped by farming contributed to the creation of a ruling class that reigned supreme, using the lower-class Egyptians to fulfill their own needs. The food produced by farmers no longer fed only the farmer and his family; its grasp extended all over Egypt in trade, feeding armies, servants, and workers alike. What’s more, farming resulted in a significantly higher level of production overall. Not only did the people of Egypt have plenty of food to feed themselves and their families, they actually had surpluses “that could be traded for other commodities.”8 This is not mere conjecture on the basis of shreds of archaeological evidence, but almost certain fact: “In Upper Egypt, for instance, the adoption of farming meant the establishment of permanent villages and the appearance of pottery.” 9 Thus, the advent of agriculture is what, in essence, “started the ball of civilization rolling. […] Never again need there be any shortage of food, since man had the power to grow it, and grain was a food that could be stored easily in a dry climate like that of Egypt without deteriorating.”10 With the transformation in the mode of production from foraging to agriculture, food was plentiful, and the ability to exploit farmers for the greater needs of the people led to the formation of the first states. Later, “the expansion of those states to secure their economic base created the incentives that completed the shift to farming in Egypt.” 11 The shift from foraging to farming was not immediate, but rather a gradual process as the civilization formed and the state expanded.

Gordon Childe’s concept of “urban revolution” goes hand-in-hand with Allen’s theory, for it shows how “the undifferentiated agricultural society came to cluster around villages which were agricultural, political, and economic centers.” 12 He believed agriculture to be a prerequisite for the state and that a society based on agriculture would inevitably result in the formation of cities and a bureaucracy. 13 In essence, he argues that the invention of agriculture brought about both a surplus of wealth and a surplus of population, where the surplus of wealth created a ruling class with leisure time and an interest in the arts, and the surplus of population provided the specialists who serve each need of the crafts and arts as a main vocation.” 14 In this way, agriculture had far-reaching effects on Egyptian social life and the formation of classes. This is mainly attributed to the fact that “Egyptian agriculture was a foreign transplant very different from the foraging economy that preceded it.” 15 Due to the increased ability to feed a growing population, the food surplus in particular allowed for the emergence of cities and a civil and ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

While agriculture is traditionally associated with the beginnings of civilization, as in Childe’s urban revolution theory, Egypt is unique in its longevity and stability of state after the implementation of agriculture, which “unleash[ed] a dynamic that led to a unified state in Egypt while no comparable process occurred elsewhere in the Near East.” 17 Allen explains that “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. […] Successful states in the ancient world depended on the ability of elites to extract a surplus from farmers and other producers.” 18 Egypt’s ability to use its producers to its advantage without instituting a totalitarian regime is a key factor in its status as one of the greatest and most prominent civilizations in ancient history.

In order for Egypt to fully utilize agriculture to its benefit, major advances in technology had to be made. An irrigation system had to be organized, and water levels of the Nile had to be maintained. The Nile River played an essential role in agriculture, but its nature was fickle: “A high Nile which fell 30 inches below the normal meant insufficient crops and a pinched year. A drop of 60 inches meant a fatal famine, with starvation stalking the Egyptians for a year. Too high an inundation was also a peril. […] Constant vigilance against the antic behavior of the life giving River was necessary, and only an orderly government could provide that vigilance for the entire land.” 19 Dikes and canals were necessary, bringing about the stone-working technology that was crucial in ensuring efficient, productive work that could meet the needs of the Nile and fertilize crops.

Prior to the adoption of major irrigation technology, ancient Egyptians relied on draining swamps in order to procure soil that was rich enough for faming. While this was an effective method, it was only a short-term measure: “The draining of the swamps won fertile soil for agriculture, but that soil could be kept fertile and extended in area only by large-scale irrigation.” 20 While population was low in the Nile Valley at the time agriculture was implemented and civilization began, it steadily increased as the land became used more and more, making irrigation essential. Alfred Lucas explains the relationship between population and irrigation when he states, “The increase of population in Egypt ultimately and inevitably led to an extension of the natural irrigation system and land near the river not covered by the annual flood had water conducted to it by artificial channels.” 21 Agriculture and population increase were inextricably related, with population increasing as a response to agriculture, making irrigation necessary in order to ensure that there was enough usable land to provide for this increase in Egyptian inhabitants.

It is important to note that irrigation was not implemented immediately, however. It was not needed “until the settled population in any one district had outgrown the grain supply of the naturally-inundated land of that district, and a very long period may have elapsed between the earliest agriculture in Egypt and any attempt to extend artificially the area of cultivation.” 22 The time period when irrigation was first implemented has not been pinpointed, but it can be assumed that it wasn’t until the Egyptians realized that in order to cultivate crops on a larger scale than they were used to, they needed to extend the areas where they grew their crops. Large-scale crop cultivation relied upon the “efficient basin system of irrigation.” 23 While the concept behind basin irrigation was not overly complicated, the massive engineering feats employed in constructing and maintaining this system of irrigation were nevertheless impressive. In his work Ancient Egypt: A Social History, Bruce Trigger notes that the ancient Greek Historian Herodotus was greatly impressed by such advanced accomplishments when he visited Egypt in around B.C. 24 Modern historians are equally impressed with the technology used by the ancient Egyptians, leading them to conclude that “society in this region must have been highly stratified to have accomplished these feats of construction.” 25 The sheer scale of the irrigation basins alone separates them from the smaller irrigation systems used in other countries due to the unique climate of ancient Egypt. John Wilson puts the extent of irrigation into perspective when he reveals that major irrigation works of this time included “large catch basins or canals which cut across miles of land and brought the Nile waters to the edge of the desert hills.” 26 Size and extent were not the only factors that differentiated Egypt from its neighbors in regards to irrigation, however. The hydraulic system of ancient Egypt was radically different from those of other ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia because it controlled the annual floodwaters of the Nile as opposed to relying on standard gravity-flow irrigation practices. 27 Critics such as Karl Butzer have argued that “the importance of artificial irrigation during the Pharaonic period has been over emphasized and that it was never more than an enhancement of the natural flooding regime.” 28 Contrary to Butzer’s assertion, there was indeed a great need for irrigation and not simply to aid in crop cultivation for a growing populace. In fact, artificial irrigation had significant political and social implications for the formation of a complex society in ancient Egypt. Coupled with the prosperity of agriculture, “irrigation produced profound economic and social changes, bringing a much larger population, a surplus of wealth, a ruling class, and skilled professions.” 29 The entire country benefited from irrigation, as it served as a catalyst for the surplus in wealth, the creation of castes, and the establishment of a ruling class that, as previously stated, are associated with the advent of agriculture. It both “extended the arable land and produced the necessary food for a larger population and for that element of surplus which goes with civilized living,” but artificial irrigation itself also played a key role in the development of a complex society. 30 Large-scale irrigation “demands planning and agency by a strong governmental organization, and, when once undertaken, it maintains and fosters that strong governmental unit.” 31 Because of its role in securing this stated governmental unit, artificial irrigation is certainly necessary, contrary to Butzer’s claim. Irrigation was a key factor in the growth of Egypt as a state because of the way it formed an organized community of people, rather than the scattered, separate tribes of the hunting-and-gathering era. Ancient Egyptians worked together to “develop strong organization for the building of canals, dykes, and embankments. Consequently, this led to the emergence of a well-organized political system.” 32 In addition, irrigation indirectly brought about a military force in Egypt due to the fact that “production was boosted by capital investment in irrigation works, canals, and mechanical pumps, improving on the animal power and other water-powered devices common in Egyptian agriculture. […] State monopolies, controlling the buying and exporting of agricultural products, helped boost state revenues. These measures provided a prosperous state with a strong army.” 33 All in all, large-scale irrigation was undoubtedly necessary in the transformation of Egypt into a complex, civilized society with a strong, prosperous, and united government. Egypt is, without a doubt, one of the most momentous civilizations in the ancient world.

Its contributions to human progress across the centuries are numerous, and it is worthy of the attention it receives by archaeologists and historians alike. Furthermore, its origins as this immensely significant complex society reveal the importance of both agriculture and technology, such as the irrigation systems employed by the Egyptians as instigators of civilization as a whole.

Directly or indirectly, agriculture and irrigation sparked a revolution that transformed Egypt into a complex, fully-formed society with its own system of government, social classes based on wealth, and a rapidly growing populace with an interest in the arts that Egypt is still renowned for today.


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The Importance of Agriculture and Irrigation Technology: A Study of Ancient Egypt. (2022, Apr 20). Retrieved from

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