Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, a Geographical and Agricultural Comparison
The early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt matured close to each other in time. People had settled in Mesopotamia by 7000 B.C. and the First Dynasty of Egyptian rulers was founded before 3000 B.C., implying a much earlier period of occupation in the Nile River valley and delta. Both civilizations required extensive development in agricultural technique to make these inhospitable lands productive and able to support long lived and complex civilizations.
Plant domestication had taken place in the Middle East around 12,000 B.C. Wheat, barley and other grains were among the first domesticated species of grasses and by the emergence of these civilizations their cultivation was wide spread from Europe to India and further east. The development of pottery, granaries and other means of food storage and preparation had emerged between 9000 and 8000 B.C. It is these two crucial events that allow for the establishment of substantial populations in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Both Egypt and Mesopotamia were hot, arid lands whose populations depended on their rivers for survival. Mesopotamia is, still today, a low flat area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that is swept by hot winds from the northern steppes. It was dry and rocky with the only water available coming from winter rains or the flooding rivers. Egypt is a river valley formed by the Nile and swept by desert winds. The river forms a large delta of nearly 12,000 square miles as it empties into the Mediterranean. The only water in ancient Egypt was supplied by the light rains of the delta or the Nile River’s annual floods.
Though regions are hot and arid the similarities of climate end there. Mesopotamia is open and subject to unexpected weather changes. The soil of Mesopotamia suffers from the dry hot winds and unrelenting sunshine making compacted and parched. Heavy winter rains often turn the plains to mud; temperatures and humidity are often high. Desert winds in Egypt sweep through the Nile valley and blow away stifling humidity making its maximum summer temperature, 122 degrees Fahrenheit, more or less bearable.
The crops and livestock would have to adapt to this harsh environment as much as the people would. Plants and animals native to Mesopotamia were the first to be domesticated by the ancient people of that region. Barley was planted and sheep herded because both were tolerant of hot, dry weather. The periodical floods of the Tigris and Euphrates provided water for livestock and crops. During dry periods crops adapted to dry conditions, like barley, still grew well and were stored up for periods of extended drought.
The Egyptians relied on many of the same crops and animals. Barley, wheat, sheep were as available in Egypt as throughout the rest of the eastern Mediterranean. Other plants were grown in the delta because of its rich soil and plentiful water supply. Some none food crops were grown in the Nile delta such as papyrus and flax. The cotton associated with Egypt was not introduced as a crop until the 8th century A.D. The Nile’s regular and predictable flooding made surplus crop production possible. The Egyptians fed their livestock grain and stored the surplus. The Egyptians domesticated available ducks and geese adding them to sheep and cattle already being raised as livestock.
Simple farming implements aided in farming in both regions. The Mesopotamians used the hoe and the mattock, a large wooden hammer, to work the hard, compacted soil of the parched region. They also used a wooden plow drawn by oxen and equipped with a seeder that dropped seed into the freshly turned furrows. Oxen supplied the Egyptians with the power to pull carts and plow fields. Innovations in tool use led to ways of digging irrigation ditches and cultivating, weeding and harvesting crops thereby increasing yields.
The Egyptians and Mesopotamians developed means for redirecting river water for irrigation. The Mesopotamians built an elaborate permanent system of canals to control and channel the annual flooding from the Tigris and Euphrates and supply water to thirsty crops. The Nile River flooded its banks annually and so predictably that the early Egyptian calendar was based on the cycle of flooding. Their irrigation system sought to keep crops supplied with water year round. Catch basins and cisterns were built to capture and hold water as the floods receded. This water was drained into low fields using gravity to spread the water into irrigation ditches or to simply flood the fields. The Egyptians constructed clever devices to raise water to the higher fields with water wheels, buckets and levers and wheels turned by animals, oxen or ass.
The geographical peculiarities of each region had an effect on the variety of plants and animals used as well as the techniques and tools available. Egypt was isolated by a vast desert limiting the influence of invaders unlike the Mesopotamian civilizations that occupied a vast plain wide open to changing influences. Egyptian’s isolation led to stable agricultural conditions resulting in surpluses permitting that civilization a long period of development. The static climate allowed those surpluses to be accumulated during periods of plenty and to off set deficits in lean years. Cattle were well tended and trade across the desert created wealth from the surpluses of grain and other crops. Unlike the unstable situation of early Mesopotamian civilization that resulted in multiple city-states dominating the region, Egyptian civilization was nearly continuous for thousands of years absorbing invaders into the Nile Valley and its dominant civilization.