Texts – Rivers and agriculture in Egypt (and Mesopotamia)

Herodotus wrote in his The Histories in the 5th century BCE:

“Egypt is an acquired country, the gift of the river [….] Egypt has a soil that is black and crumbly, as being alluvial and formed of the deposits brought down by the river from Ethiopia […] At present, it must be confessed, they obtain the fruits of the field with less trouble than any other people in the world, the rest of the Egyptians included, since they have no need to break up the ground with the plough, nor to use the hoe, nor to do any of the work which the rest of mankind find necessary if they are to get a crop; but the husbandman waits till the river has of its own accord spread itself over the fields and withdrawn again to its bed, and then sows his plot of ground, and after sowing turns his swine into it- the swine tread in the corn – after which he has only to await the harvest”.

If we compare with Mesopotamia:

“The flow of both rivers [Tigris and Euphrates] was irregular and unpredictable. Insecurity that was necessary reflected in the way of life and behaviour of the inhabitants of Mesopotamia. It contrasts with the life in Egypt, used to the inalterable behaviour of the river Nile”. (A. Caballos, J. M. Serrano. Summer y Akad [Akal, 1988])

Another academic who studied Mesopotamia explained the influence of the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamian life comparing it with Egypt’s river Nile.

“Agriculture therefore depends almost exclusively upon irrigation, though the dimensions and profile of the plane, as well as the rate of flow of the rivers, preclude the cheap and easy ‘basin type’ of irrigation as practiced, for instance, in Egypt, where the overflow of the Nile freely inundates the valley for a time and then withdraws. Since the combined flows of the Tigris and Euphrates occur between April and June, too late for winter crops and too early for summer crops, the fields must be supplied with water at man’s will, and this is achieved by a complex system of canals, reservoirs, dykes, regulator-sluices and the like (‘perennial irrigation’). […]  The other danger lies in the capricious rate of flow of the twin rivers. While the Nile, fed by the great lakes of East Africa acting as regulators, has an annual flood of almost constant volume, the volume of the combined floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates is unpredictable, for it depends upon the variable amount of rain or snow which falls on the mountains of Armenia and Kurdistan. If low waters over a few years mean drought and famine, one excessive flood often spells catastrophe.” (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq [Third edition, 1993]).


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