« PreviousContinue »
pursuits, they far excelled the husbandmen of other countries, and had become acquainted with the capabilities of the land, the mode of irrigation, the exact season for sowing and reaping, as well as all the most useful secrets connected with the harvest, which they had derived from their ancestors, and had improved by their own experience." "They rented," says the same historian, "the arable lands belonging to the kings, the priests, and the military class, for a small sum, and employed their whole time in the tillage of their farms;" and the labourers who cultivated land for the rich peasant, or other landed proprietors, were superintended by the steward or owner of the estate, who had authority over them, and the power of condemning delinquents to the bastinado. This is shown by the paintings of the tombs; which frequently represent a person of consequence inspecting the tillage of the field, either seated in a chariot, walking, or leaning on his staff, accompanied by a favourite dog.*
Their mode of irrigation was the same in the field of the peasant as in the garden of the villa;† and the principal differ
ence in the mode of tilling the former consisted in the use of the plough.
The usual contrivance for raising water from the Nile for watering the crops was the shadóof, or pole and bucket, so common still in Egypt; and even the water-wheel appears to have been employed in more recent times.
The sculptures of the tombs frequently represent canals conveying the water of the inundation into the fields; and the proprietor of the estate is seen, as described by Virgil, plying in a light painted skiff or papyrus punt, and superintending the maintenance of the dykes, or other important matters connected with the land. Boats carry the grain to the granary, or remove the flocks from the lowlands; as the water subsides, the husbandman ploughs the soft earth with a pair of oxen; and the same subjects introduce the offering of first-fruits to the gods, in acknowledgment of the benefits conferred by "a favourable Nile." The main canal was usually carried to the upper or southern side of the land, and small branches, leading from it at intervals, traversed the fields in straight or curving lines, according to the nature or elevation of the soil.
The inundation began about the end of May, sometimes rather later: but about the middle of June the gradual rise of the river was generally perceived; and the comparatively clear stream assumed a red and turbid appearance, caused by the floods of the rainy season in Abyssinia: the annual cause of the inundation. It next assumed a green appearance, and being unwholesome during that short period, care was taken to lay up in jars a sufficient supply of the previous turbid but wholesome water, which was used until it reassumed its red colour. This explains the remark of Aristides, "that the Egyptians are the only people who preserve water in jars, and calculate its age as others do that of wine;" and may also be the reason of water-jars being an emblem of the inundation; though the calculation of the " age" of the water is an exaggeration. Perhaps, too, the god Nilus being represented of a blue and a red colour may allude to the two different appearances of the low and high Nile.
waters overflowed the plain. That part nearest the desert, being In the beginning of August, the canals were opened, and the
Part 1. Figs. 1 and 3. Men calling to others to drive the cattle towards the boat. 2. Rower. 4. Pulling a cow by a noose to the boat.
7. The rowers.
the lowest level, was first inundated; as the bank itself, being the highest, was the last part submerged, except in the Delta, where the levels were more uniform, and where, during the high inundations, the whole land, with the exception of its isolated villages, was under water. As the Nile rose, the peasants were careful to remove the flocks and herds from the lowlands; and when a sudden irruption of the water, owing to the bursting of a dyke, or an unexpected and unusual increase of the river, overflowed the fields and pastures, they were seen hurrying to the spot, on foot, or in boats, to rescue the animals, and to remove them to the high grounds above the reach of the inundation. Some, tying their clothes upon their heads, dragged the sheep and goats from the water, and put them into boats; others swam the oxen to the nearest high ground; and if any corn or other produce could be cut or torn up by the roots, in time to save it from the flood, it was conveyed on rafts or boats to the next village. And though some suppose the inundation does not now attain the same height as of old, those who have lived in the country have frequently seen the villages of the Delta standing, as Herodotus describes them, like islands in the Ægean Sea, with the same scenes of rescuing the cattle from the water.
Guards were placed to watch the dykes, which protected the lowlands, and the utmost care was taken to prevent any sudden influx of water, which might endanger the produce still growing there, the cattle, or the villages. And of such importance was the preservation of the dykes, that a strong guard of cavalry and infantry was always in attendance for their protection; certain officers of responsibility were appointed to superintend them, being furnished with large sums of money for their maintenance and repairs; and in the time of the Romans, any person found destroying a dyke was condemned to hard labour in the public works or in the mines, or was branded and transported to the Oasis. According to Strabo, the system was so admirably managed, "that art contrived sometimes to supply what nature denied, and, by means of canals and embankments, there was little difference in the quantity of land irrigated, whether the
inundation was deficient or abundant." "If," continues the geographer, "it rose only to the height of eight cubits, the usual idea was that a famine would ensue; fourteen being required for a plentiful harvest: but when Petronius was præfect of Egypt, twelve cubits gave the same abundance, nor did they suffer from want even at eight:" and it may be supposed that long experience had taught the ancient Egyptians to obtain similar results from the same means, which, neglected at a subsequent period, were revived, rather than, as Strabo thinks, first introduced, by the Romans.
In some parts of Egypt, the villages were liable to be overflowed, when the Nile rose to a more than ordinary height; by which the lives and property of the inhabitants were endangered; and when their crude brick houses had been long exposed to the damp, the foundations gave way, and the fallen walls, saturated with water, were once more mixed with the mud from which they had been extracted. On these occasions, the blessings of the Nile entailed heavy losses on the inhabitants; for, according to Pliny, "if the rise of the water exceeded sixteen cubits, a famine was the result, as when it only reached the height of twelve." In another place he says, 66 a proper inundation is of sixteen cubits . in twelve cubits, the country
suffers from famine, and feels a deficiency even in thirteen; fourteen cause joy, fifteen security, sixteen delight; the greatest rise of the river to this period being of eighteen cubits, in the reign of Claudius; the least during the Pharsalic war."
From all that can be learnt respecting the rise of the Nile, it is evident that the actual height of the inundation is the same now as in former times, and maintains the same proportion with the land it irrigates; and that, in order to arrive at great accuracy in its measurement, the scales of the Nilometers ought, after certain periods, to be raised in an equal ratio; as may be seen by any one who visits those of Cairo and Elephantine. For the bed of the river gradually rises from time to time; and the level of the land, which always keeps pace with that of the river, increases in a ratio of six inches in a hundred years in some