Strange question

I\’m reading a history of Ancient Egypt. And there are two bits that would help me get a grasp on what I\’m reading, two bits that don\’t seem to be in the book.

One is the population, which I can find online. 1-5 million, dependent upon period.

But the other is the size of the fertile area. This is of course in three parts, the Delta, the Fayoum and the banks of the Nile itself. From what I\’m reading those bankside fertile areas could be very narrow. A hundred or two hundred metres perhas. And at times much wider.

But is there any estimate of what that fertile area amounted to in total? Not that it\’s important at all, but connecting the arable land area with the population would give an idea of real population density which is useful in imagining actual living conditions.

So, anyone know?

10 thoughts on “Strange question”

  1. It depends on what era of “ancient Egypt” you are looking at. Historical references refer to Egypt being the “bread basket” of the Roman Empire which may suggest that the fertile area was larger than it is today. Whether this was climatic or a response to demand in a primarily agricultural rather than “industiral” (relatively speaking) culture.

    Geologically we know North Africa has been far wetter than it is today. The climate optimums in the Minoan Period and Roman Warm period also suggest better growing conditions in North Africa. Just some thoughts for areas of research.

  2. A bit of googling suggests that the delta has an area of about 25,000 km^2 and the valley about half that. The Fayoum is about 1,500 km^2 and the Western Oases are about the same in total if I recall correctly.

    So about 40,000 km^2 all together; similar to the Algarve and the Alentojo combined.

  3. How many harvests per annum could they get? Could upriver areas squeeze in two between the end of the floods and the start of the next?

    Tim adds: Only one I think as there was only one flood per year.

  4. “Historical references refer to Egypt being the “bread basket” of the Roman Empire which may suggest that the fertile area was larger than it is today.”

    Or maybe not You can see how small the population of Ancient Egypt was from Tim’s figures. When referring to it being the Empire’s breadbasket, how big did that breadbasket have to be? It’s not the Empire from the Med to the North Sea. Not the Atlantic to the Black Sea. The Empire, in this sense is Rome & it’s environs. The part of the Empire with a population density sufficient to need it’s agricultural production supplemented. So how many’s that? Peak was at 1 million. It’s not a particularly large number.

  5. I’m not sure that knowing the available arable area is a particular help here. The point of the fertile Nile flood plain was not the size, particularly, but the incredible fertility of the soil thanks to the annual floods. Productivity per acre was immense, by the standards of the time – the development of things like crop rotation and fertilisers were (indirect) attempts to mimic the natural effects of the Nile floods in other areas.

  6. “Tim adds: Only one I think as there was only one flood per year.” This link says you’re right for wheat. I wonder whether horticulture might have worked differently.

    ” The total amount of grain harvested depended on the surface covered by the flooding Nile, which was between perhaps 20,000 and 34,000 square kilometres. Taking pre-green-revolution wheat yields of about 750 kg/ha [1] as a base, the annual amount of corn [11] produced was approximately between 1.5 and 2.5 million tons, supposing that most of the surface was used to produce corn. About 4 to 5 million people lived in Egypt during the New Kingdom [3]. In a bad year the annual yield was less than 300 kg per head, possibly considerably less.”

  7. “Ponds were important for irrigation of fruit trees and for ornamental gardens. … Shallow wells were 4 to 35 m in depth; deeper artesian wells were dug up to 380 m. Vegetables, flowers, vines, and fruit trees were grown near the rivers, by the banks of canals, and in prized gardens. These horticultural crops required constant and controlled irrigation during the spring and summer drought. At first irrigation was carried out manually with pots dipped in the river, carried on the shoulders with yokes, and poured into field channels …. By the New Kingdom, the shaduf, a balanced counterpoise, became the irrigating mechanism for gardens .

  8. Herodotus in Histories Book 2 tells of the Nile flooding Egypt extensively [2.19] and how the rising levels of silt had reduced the area flooded within historical memory [2.13]. He also writes I think about towns during the inundation being like so many islands only reachable by boat (can’t find the section).

    “Now the Nile, when it overflows, floods not only the Delta, but also the tracts of country on both sides the stream which are thought to belong to Libya and Arabia, in some places reaching to the extent of two days’ journey from its banks, in some even exceeding that distance, but in others falling short of it”.

    So it seems the fertile area varied and diminished over time, and would anyway depend on the strength of the annual flood.

  9. It occurs, Tim’s actual question was for “an idea of real population density which is useful in imagining actual living conditions.”

    Seems to be pretty well a rule of thumb that, with pre-mechanised arable farming, the maximum travelling time from village to the outlying fields tends to be in the range 20-30 minutes. Presumably, because any more than an hour travelling out of the working day isn’t cost efficient. We therefore have the village spacing at around 2 miles. All that’s required, then, is productivity/area & productivity/head & you’ve the population of the villages.

  10. bloke in spain seems reasonable with his estimate of around 2 miles between villages. A couple of hundred yards wide for the riverside fertile zones sounds on the low side to me.

    The big point of irrigation, from what I-ve read, was to trap, channel, and distribute the Nile flood as far as possible away from the river so that the effective zone on each bank would have been a lot more than just a tenth or an eighth of a mile in breadth.

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