Many of the world’s first civilisations developed at many different times and places, however some emerged simultaneously. Although it’s quite hard to tell, scientists have been able to roughly estimate the time cities first became civilised. It is arguable as to what civilisation began initially, however it is assured that Egypt and Mesopotamia were two of the first. These two civilisations progressed along major rivers that affected the settlement and everyday lives of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians.
Due to their geographical positioning, Egypt and Mesopotamia both developed and depended on irrigation, however their different rainfall patterns caused them to progress individual techniques for agricultural practices in regards to irrigation. Egypt began around 5000-3000 BC in the valley of the Nile River situated in north eastern Africa. It was divided into two sections known as Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. These names can be quite deceiving as Upper Egypt is actually situated in the south of Egypt, and Lower Egypt is in the north.
This is because the Egyptians based their direction around the Nile, and the Nile flowed from south to north, being one of the only major rivers in the world to do so. To the west of the Nile lay the Western Desert, a huge limestone plateau at a height of 450 metres, taking up two thirds of Egypt. To the east of the Nile is the Eastern Desert, which is stated by Ade`s (2007, p. 8) to be, “…a rugged, mountainous region notched by deep wadis that remain dry for much of the year… ” . These deserts along with the Nile acted as a natural barrier to Egypt as they were very difficult for an invading army to cross.
This is not the case for Mesopotamia however, as its landforms were quite vulnerable to invasions, often finding itself at war. According to Pollock (1999, p. 8), “Mesopotamia is, geologically speaking, a trough created as the Arabian shield has pushed up against the Asiatic landmass, raising the Zagros Mountains and depressing the land to the southwest of them. ” Within this trench, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries have laid down enormous quantities of sediments, forming the Lower Mesopotamian Plain. To the southwest of the Euphrates stands the Western Desert.
This desert contains a very limited number of water sources which made it an effective weakness to travel through, especially before the use of camels around 1000 BC (Pollock, 1999). To the northeast rises a range of hills known as the Jebel Hamrin which signifies the beginning of the Zagros Mountains. The Jebel Hamrin is a relatively low elevation, approximately 200 metres high, however it is very limited in regards to crossing points due to being steep and deeply divided. In ancient Egypt, no single geographical feature was more important than the Nile River for agricultural practices.
The Greek historian Herodotus quoted (Christensen, 2009), “The Egypt to which we sail nowadays is…the gift of the river”. The Nile accounts for barely 3 per cent of Egypt, but it is the most vital geographic attribute that pumps its fertile waters across the length of the country. Food production relied solely on the Nile, with the timing of the inundation being fairly predictable and flooding before sowing season, leaving behind rich, black silt (Heinrichs, 2009). This silt was very fertile, and as an effect made it perfect for crops to grow.
The Nile’s two main tributaries are the White Nile and the Blue Nile. The longer of these two is the White Nile, carrying waters that descend from eight different countries, however it only contributes about 14 per cent to the main Nile. The other 86 per cent comes from the Blue Nile. The White Niles principal source is Lake Victoria which is fed by yearly rains. The water flows quite progressively out of the lakes until it reaches the vast Sudd swamp, where its waters roam through the wetland for more than a year, eventually evaporating away more than half of the White Nile’s water.
The Blue Nile on the other hand has a far more regular flow. Heinrichs (2009, p. 21) states, “…from July through to September, heavy monsoon rains drench the Ethiopian highlands. [This] sends a flood of waters rushing downstream, containing close to 60 per cent of the main Nile’s annual flow. ” With the Nile comes a priority, this priority being irrigation. During early ancient Egypt, irrigation was done by hand using buckets attached to a yoke worn across the shoulders. Then a more efficient way of irrigating was invented, a mechanism called a shaduf.
This was a suspended wooden pole with a bucket at one end, and a weight at the other end which allowed farmers to collect water out of the inundated area with much less strain. The ancient Egyptians also developed another form of irrigation called basin irrigation. They built large flat bottomed basins for growing crops along the river banks, and they dug simple channels that diverted the water into the basins at the peak of the flood. These canals were dug in a repeated square pattern and inside the squares was where they would plant their crops. Due to the geography and climate of Egypt, irrigation was very necessary during ancient times.
Through the irrigation systems and farming techniques, ancient Egyptians were able to reap bountiful crops. There principal crops were emmer wheat and barley, which were made into flour for bread and beer—the two foods which supported the Egyptian diet at all levels of society. Farming in ancient Egypt was relatively easy due to the softening of the soil. The ancient historian Diodorus Siculus (Ade`s, 2007) remarked, “Every kind of agricultural labour among other peoples involves them in great expense and toil, and only among the Egyptians is the harvest gathered in with an insignificant outlay of time and money. Farmers harvested their cereals by cutting the stems off ripe wheat with wooden sickles fitted with sharp flint blades. Irrigation was depended on for food production in Egypt as an effect of the geographic location. Without the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, agriculture would never have been a possibility in Mesopotamia. However they were equally dangerous as their inundation was unpredictable. Pollock (1999, p. 11) argues that, “The Euphrates was by far more important of the two. ” The Euphrates River extends from its headwaters in the mountains of eastern Turkey right through to the Gulf.
The rivers inconveniently flooded later in the year, meaning after the sowing season. Once every three or four years, the floods were strong enough to make the Euphrates River over-top its banks, inundating and depositing a layer of silt. But the inundation wasn’t always good for Mesopotamia. Because of the built up silt in the river beds, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers gradually raised until it became at a higher level than the surrounding plain, and in effect made the water for irrigation flow into the fields by gravity. Once the water was on the crop fields, it could not easily drain away because it was elevated lower than the rivers.
As the water evaporated, not only did it leave its dissolved mineral salts behind, but also hauled salts upward from lower levels of the soil. Over time the soil became toxic and would no longer assist crops. (Mesopotamia, 2012). The irrigation systems in which the Mesopotamians employed, or the Sumerians employed was a large scale irrigation program. They built huge embankments along the Euphrates River, drained the marshes and dug irrigation ditches and canals. According to Hays (2009), “It took a great amount of organised labour to build the system and to maintain it. Due to the unpredictable rain fall and flooding, irrigational practices was a must in Mesopotamia. Farming methods and irrigational progression aided in the growth of crops in Mesopotamia. A common crop that was grown annually was flax. Flax was used by the Mesopotamians in the production of nets, cloth, linseed oil, meal and even pharmaceuticals. For farming, the Mesopotamians used the seeder plough. Invented by Mesopotamia, this was a huge technological achievement. It revolutionised agriculture by carrying out the tasks of seeding and ploughing simultaneously.
The seed was dropped into the middle funnel, down into the furrow that the plough created in the ground (Jennifer & Louise, N. D). The geographic positioning of Egypt made it essential to irrigate in order to harvest food. In some respects, Egypt and Mesopotamia were quite similar in regards to geographical conditions as they were both civilisations very dependent on their main rivers due to their dry climates. However, in regards to agricultural movements, they were different. Agriculture was more favourable in Egypt than in Mesopotamia as the Nile inundated before the sowing season, but the Tigris and Euphrates inundated after.
The Egyptians did not have to go out to a great extent to sow their crops in their fields, whereas Mesopotamia was forced to go to great efforts by directing the water to their fields using canals. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers contained poisonous minerals, over time destroying their crops; the Nile on the other hand had more sanitary waters. Egypt’s surrounding deserts were very complex to travel through, making Egyptian trade more difficult, however it also worked in their favour by protecting them from invasions.
Mesopotamia was very open to trade, but was also open to invasion. As mentioned above, Egyptian irrigation was a simple system, whereas Mesopotamia’s irrigational scheme took a great amount of organised labour. Given the evidence, it can be concluded that due Egypt and Mesopotamia’s geographical positioning, they both developed and depended on irrigation, however their different rainfall patterns caused them to progress individual techniques for agricultural practices in regards to irrigation.