Feeding and Supplying the City

Like all major settlements, the towns and cities of ancient Egypt required a constant supply of agricultural products to feed and (in the case of flax and linen) clothe their urban population. Some of this food could be produced locally in and around the city itself, for example by river-fishing and small-scale market gardening, but the necessary large-scale agriculture – especially the production of grain – took place elsewhere. The evidence from Amarna suggests that the work of processing this grain to produce the dietary staples of bread and beer was carried out both in state production facilities and at a domestic level. In both cases, national and local government took a great interest and were involved in making sure that the huge quantities of grain required were collected, transported and safely stored. The production of this grain – and a variety of other foodstuffs from vegetables to fine cuts of beef – was carried out in the agricultural hinterland that made up the vast majority of Egypt.

In addition to agricultural products to feed its population, a city required other things, not least the materials that would allow it to grow. Although the basic building material – mudbrick – was always easy to obtain locally, the great monumental hearts of many Egyptian cities from the New Kingdom onwards required specialist materials, especially stone from specific quarries, which were often hundreds of miles away from the city that required their sandstone, granite, quartzite or alabaster.

The Wilbour Papyrus

One of the most informative documents for the pattern of land-tenure, and therefore food-production, in ancient Egypt, at least for the Ramesside Period, is the Wilbour Papyrus. This dates from Year 4 of Ramesses V (i.e. 1147 BC) and is a record of the measurement of land and assessment of tax for the northern part of an area sometimes referred to as ‘Middle Egypt’ (the Nile Valley between Herakleopolis Magna and Asyut). The document is unique in its size (over 10 m or 33 ft long) and scope as a surviving papyrus, but was part of an extensive tradition of land ownership and taxation surveys of ancient Egypt – other papyri, from other periods simply have not survived in the fortunate way that the Wilbour Papyrus has. It is a record of a survey as it was actually carried out by a team working during the summer months.

Although bread was the main staple of the Egyptian diet, the prominence given to the butchery of cattle in tomb scenes, like this example from the Old Kingdom, indicate the prestige value of beef as a food. Gian Berto Vanni/Corbis.

The picture that emerges from this document is an extremely complex one. It falls into two sections. One part (‘Wilbour Text A’) is concerned with land located in four distinct but adjacent zones in an area that corresponds to Middle Egypt and the mouth of the Faiyum from Atfih to el-Minya, most of which is owned by major temples from outside the region (although some is owned by temples within the region itself) and worked and administered for those temples by local officials. The second part (‘Wilbour Text B’) is concerned with broadly the same region, but with land owned by the crown, but again administered by local officials. It should be noted that the amount of land listed in both documents is less than 10 per cent of the probable available total for the whole region. Since this is a tax-collection document, the identification of the location, size and estimated yield of individual plots of land is of paramount importance. Location is provided by reference to 416 named settlements in the region.

The Places of the Wilbour Papyrus

The three largest places in the papyrus are well known. The southern part of the region (on the border between Zones 3 and 4) contains Hardai, capital of the 17th nome of Upper Egypt, located close to the modern city of el-Minya. Towards the northern limit of the region (Zone 2) is Tpehu, capital of the 22nd nome of Upper Egypt. Zone 1 is an enclave in the western part of Zone 2 and containing Ninsu (Herakleopolis Magna), capital of the 20th Upper Egyptian nome. Zone 1 includes Mer-Wer, the Harem Palace of Medinet el-Gurob. Zones 1 and 4 are significantly smaller in area than Zones 2 and 3.

Other significant administrative centres in the region (because they also had ḥ3ty-‘ (haty-a) mayors) were Shede and She (both close to Mer-Wer), Onayna (close to Ninsu) and Spermeru (capital of the 19th Upper Egyptian nome, approximately halfway between Ninsu and Hardai). It is noticeable that the capitals of Upper Egyptian nomes 18 (H-nesu) and 21 (Smen-Hor) are not mentioned.

The names of most of the 416 individual locations within this region had some sort of descriptor added to them, especially ỉ3t (iat, mound), ‘t (at, house), wḥyt (wehyt, village), bḫn (bekhen, villa) and p3 sg (pa seg, fortress). Of those plots that can be located within specific zones, 123 are in Zone 1, 22 in Zone 2, 46 in Zone 3 and 102 in Zone 4 – i.e. there is a clustering of settlements around the significant centres of Hardai and Ninsu. Moreover, although there is a fairly even distribution of ‘villages’ and ‘mounds’ (i.e. established minor settlements) in all four zones, the ‘villas’ and the ‘fortresses’ are definitely concentrated in Zones 1 and 4.

Ancient Egyptian cooking methods appear to be quite uncomplicated and largely consisted of grilling, baking and boiling. Steven Snape.

The People of the Wilbour Papyrus

A further insight into the information about settlement distribution in the Wilbour Papyrus comes from the occupations of some of the tenants within the different zones. The most useful of these are ‘cultivator/farmer’ (ỉḥwty, ihuty), ‘herdsman’ and ‘stablemaster’, because each of these suggests a type of economic activity based on land-use. It should be noted that the term ỉḥwty is a contested one – while the conventional translation is ‘cultivator/farmer’, it has been argued that it means something like ‘Agent of the State Treasury’. ‘Cultivators’ are found in high numbers in Zone 1, but in low numbers in Zone 3, while ‘herdsmen’ are only common in Zone 3. ‘Stablemasters’ are found in Zones 2, 3 and 4. This suggests a concentration of agriculturalists around the main population centres of Ninsu and Mer-Wer. This is probably a result of a combination of factors: major centres of population would organically develop in areas of rich agricultural land, while the reduction in transport costs for moving cereal crops into large population centres would also be an attraction. By contrast, less-productive agricultural areas (either because they were naturally so, or because human activity had made them so) between major population centres could be used for the pasturing of animals, which would be more flexible in their ability to be moved around for grazing or to be taken on their own legs to market.

A further feature worth noting in the distribution of tenants’ occupations is the significant numbers of ‘soldiers’ and ‘Sherden’ (foreign mercenary soldiers) in Zones 3 and 4, suggesting both military establishments in this area and the settlement of veterans. This in itself suggests that the (re-)settlement of parts of the Nile Valley – particularly at times of political crisis – may have been more dynamic than we might suspect.

Distribution and Transportation


There were two ways of moving people and goods in ancient Egypt, by land and by water, and the latter was much to be preferred. Egypt – a country dominated by the Nile river and criss-crossed by canals was ideally suited to riverine transport. The river flowed from south to north, while the prevailing wind blew from north to south, so transport was facilitated in both directions and gave the Egyptians their hieroglyphic determinatives for travelling north (a boat with its sail furled () and south (a boat under full sail ). If anything the Egyptians were nervous sea-goers, but river travel must have been natural to them, particularly during the inundation, when the volume of the river and the area of land it covered increased dramatically.

Unsurprisingly, boats came in a variety of shapes and sizes, from small ‘domestic’ craft to vessels owned by the crown and other state institutions. Availability of raw materials was paramount; on a local level the papyrus marshes furnished all that was needed for a simple canoe or skiff, while the wherewithal to create large-scale vessels, from the boat buried close to the pyramid of King Khufu to state barges to transport vessels, was a more significant undertaking, often requiring the acquisition of timber from external sources, especially cedar from Byblos on the Lebanese coast.

Moving Stone

Large-scale river transport allowed two major things to happen that were vital for the development of ancient Egypt. First, it facilitated the establishment of a centrally controlled, unified state by affording the ability to move substantial quantities of agricultural surpluses – especially grain – around the country with relative ease. This meant that major urban centres with substantial populations could be supplied even from well beyond their immediate hinterland. Secondly, the movement of large quantities of building stone – to say nothing of massive monoliths – from their quarries to distant building sites allowed the emergence of Egypt as a state that found expression through monumental construction.

Once the waters of the annual inundation had subsided, teams of draught animals ploughing fields, as seen in this wooden model from the Middle Kingdom, would have been a familiar sight in the Egyptian countryside. British Museum, London.

A heavily laden river-craft transports a mixed cargo of goods in this Old Kingdom tomb scene at Saqqara. Steven Snape.

The Old Kingdom pyramids may well have been largely constructed from local stone from nearby quarries, but the fine-quality limestone that cased these monuments needed to be brought across the river, while the significant quantities – and large blocks – of granite had to be brought over 800 km (500 miles) from Aswan. The temples of New Kingdom Thebes similarly could not have been built on such a scale without the supply of riverborne stone from sandstone quarries such as Gebel Silsila, while obelisks and colossal statues would have been an impossibility without river travel.

A good indication of the large-scale movement of stone comes from a group of ostraca found at the Ramesseum at Thebes, which refers to the construction of the mortuary temple of Ramesses II. These documents indicate that the supply of building-stone was effected by a flotilla of 10 ships carrying sandstone from the Gebel Silsila quarries. These documents indicate that stone blocks came in standard sizes (most common were 2.5 by 2 by 1.5 cubits, or c. 1.25 by 1 by 0.75 m, 4 by 3¼ by 2½ ft), each ship carrying between 5 and 7 blocks, with a total load somewhere between 12 and 20 tons each. The ships themselves were probably 3–4 m (10–13 ft) wide by 9–13 m (20–43 ft) long. This flotilla of relatively small craft was probably one of a series that was used to ensure a constant supply of stone to this long-term building project, and its size presumably minimized the loading facilities required at the quarry and those for unloading at the building site (including travelling along canals). Bigger projects included a fleet of 44 ships and 3,000 men plus 500 masons sent to extract stone for the Medinet Habu complex of Ramesses III. One-off projects required something bigger. To transport the obelisks of Thutmose I from Aswan to Thebes, Ineni used a transport barge 120 cubits long by 40 cubits wide (i.e. 63 by 21 m, 207–70 ft). A similar barge is illustrated by Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri.

Moving Grain

The skills that the Egyptians developed for long-distance transport of stone were also used for the movement of other bulk cargoes, especially grain. The ability to move huge amounts of this basic foodstuff around Egypt was critical to the ability of the state to organize its redistributive systems. These systems included the collection of grain revenues owed to major state temples of the New Kingdom from tenants on temple land all over Egypt and their transportation to the great storerooms at sites such as the Ramesseum, before redistribution to the populace.

The movement of grain-ships at harvest time would have filled the Nile with these craft: here one is being loaded in a scene from the New Kingdom tomb of Wenensu. Steven Snape.

The most informative document for this process is the Ramesside Papyrus Amiens, which refers to a flotilla of 21 ships bringing in the grain harvest in the 20th Dynasty for the Estate of Amun-Re at Medinet Habu. Papyrus Amiens, and similar grain transportation documents, suggests that the ships involved could be as impressively large as all but the largest stone-shifting ships. Boats that were used to carry 900 bushels of grain would have been faced with a cargo of c. 33 cubic metres (1,165 cubic feet), and would therefore have needed to have been as large as 20 m (66 ft) in length by 7 m (23 ft) wide.

The quaysides where such cargoes were unloaded would need to have been able to cope with a rapid movement of the grain to the storerooms for which they were intended. They would also have been a natural location for other types of commercial activity, especially markets.

Markets and Traders in the Old Kingdom

We have already seen that illustrations of the production of food and other goods were regularly shown in the range of topics depicted in the ‘scenes of everyday life’ in elite tombs of the Old Kingdom. Among other types of genre-scene, illustrations of markets were not common, but did appear in a sufficient number of tombs that it would be incorrect to speak of them as being rare. What these scenes cannot do is inform us as to what extent markets were significant economic features during the Old Kingdom, although they stand as a counter to the notion that Old Kingdom Egypt was an economically monolithic state whose resources were all channelled towards the building of megalithic monuments.

Indeed the range of goods being bought and sold in these Old Kingdom market scenes is remarkable. Some seem to show what one might expect – foodstuffs produced and sold on a small scale, perhaps through the deliberate over-production of basic staples (e.g. bread, beer and vegetables), as well as more specialist food-production; markets such as these may have been the most common venue at which fishermen traded their catch. However, what is perhaps more surprising is the depiction of trading activity involving luxury goods and specialist services, such as jewelry, domestic furniture and seal-engraving. Unfortunately, these scenes do not give much clue as to where these markets were held; the New Kingdom evidence is more helpful.

Markets and Harbours in the New Kingdom

One of the terms often found in connection with markets in texts of the New Kingdom (especially Deir el-Medina ostraca) is the meryt. This was the place where markets were held, but more specifically it refers to a place on the riverbank, one at which ships could moor: a quayside. As noted above, the riverbank is the logical place for a market – boats could pick up and unload goods, and local traders could cluster around the normal outlet for long-distance traders. Moreover, as the natural location for a ferry, the meryt was a crossroads, the place where east bank and west bank could come together, because of the inevitable dependence on the river for the transport of goods.

A ship’s log documented in Papyrus Turin 2008+2016 records that the ship was moored ‘at the quay’ of such-and-such a place on its travels along the river. For major settlements the meryt was probably a harbour, for smaller riverbank settlements it was probably something much more modest, perhaps a makeshift mooring-place at the river’s edge. In addition, the riverbank terminus of any ferry provided an obvious place where individuals from the east and west bank of the Nile could meet to exchange their specific types of surplus produce. These meryt-markets are well known from two New Kingdom Theban sources, depictions in Theban tombs and in ostraca from Deir el-Medina.

Unlike Old Kingdom market scenes, depictions of local trading activity at New Kingdom Thebes are careful to show the physical context of the local market. In the tomb of Ipuy from Deir el-Medina, women traders are shown exchanging goods with sailors, as also seems to be the case in the tomb of Khaemhet. Most remarkable of all, the tomb of Kenamun shows stalls set up by individual traders on the quayside in order to carry out the sale of small-scale goods – sandals, scarves and food – to foreign traders who have arrived in their substantial merchant vessels. The Kenamun scene seems to show different levels of trading activity at a busy quayside, possibly one primarily associated with institutional-level trading activity (a major temple?): small-scale traders come along to exchange small-scale goods with the individual sailors from the ships. The location of this scene has been disputed (it may be Thebes or Memphis, given the international character of the major trading activity being carried out).

This idea of the meryt as a trading centre with some sort of physical structures is given support by references to the meryt in ostraca from Deir el-Medina. The use of the town-sign determinative in some examples of the word suggests that there was some sort of physical settlement there, and this idea finds further support in references to members of the Deir el-Medina workforce owning property there. For example, the workman Nekhemmut owned a so-called at there, while in Ostracon BM 5637 an at of the meryt is mentioned, from which some loaves and oil were stolen – in this context an at was probably some sort of storeroom/place of business on the quayside, perhaps even one of the booths depicted in the scenes from Kenamun and Ipuy.

Market-traders – both men and women – exchange goods from little booths on the riverbank, as illustrated in the New Kingdom tomb of Ipuy and as illustrated in the New Kingdom tomb of Kenamun. Steven Snape.

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