The Harvest of The Land | A Story of Ancient Egyptian Land Tenure

The Ancient Egyptian civilisation depended on the annual inundation of the River Nile for at least some five millennia. It was the silt-filled river, filled with nutrients, that watered the fields and prepared the soil for cultivation. These floods were the direct result of the summer monsoon that fell over the highlands of Ethiopia. The flood waters of Egypt owe their thanks to the rainfall that occurred further down south.

Through history, the effect of increasing control over the Nile flood was to extend the regions that could be cultivated. This encouraged the planting of cash crops to create security in what was a fundamentally insecure existence. From this arose a core issue in the role and efficacy of the central state; the extent to which it was able to maintain direct control of agriculture as well as a direct relationship to the farmer and landlord.

To succeed in this endeavour required extremely detailed knowledge; the registration of the land which would be cultivated, the tenant responsible for payment, the crop that was being cultivated as well as the water that was available.

While the inundation did allow the state to estimate the revenue it would collect, it did not and could not provide an accurate account of the taxes that would be collected from each individual plot.

The issue of land ownership was neither plain nor simple. The practical issue that arose was: who has the right to create income as well as the right to access the field itself? What was the relationship between those who worked the land and the land itself?

Year-on-year, there were degrees of variability relating to the topography of the field as well as the fiscal sustainability of planting a particular crop in a particular year. Although communal responsibility for tax has been a standard theme throughout economic history, the reality on the ground was that it represented a division of the workload among a community of workers that were subordinate to the owner. Crucial to this concept was that land was worked on in individual units and not as a large conglomerated farm.

Share-cropping on small fields is characteristic of Egyptian land management with landlord and tenant sharing in different degrees the investment and the return. Enterprise and the notion of profit were not unfamiliar concepts in the Egyptian countryside. The imperative behind decision-making was between the individual farmer and the relationship he had with the landlord as well as the state.

Agricultural scenes of threshing, a grain store, harvesting with sickles, digging, tree-cutting and ploughing from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes

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