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Egyptian corn July 10th, 2014 by

In Egypt recently, standing in the ruins of one of the oldest temples, at Sakkara, built before the great pyramid, one of our Egyptian colleagues suggested that the ancient Egyptians were growing “wheat, dates and corn.” I bit my tongue; it was an easy mistake to make. Up through early modern English, “corn” meant grain, and some labels in the Egyptian Museum still use the word in that sense. But of course corn (that is, maize) was domesticated in what is now southern Mexico, and only reached Egypt in the age of exploration. Still, one could easily mistake maize for a native Egyptian crop.  Little fields of lush maize are common along the Nile today. And the ancient Egyptian monuments themselves have little to say about agriculture. The carved and painted stones depict many animals, from baboons to crocodiles, to the now rare Egyptian goose and they show the pharaohs offering piles of food to the gods: bread, slaughtered cattle and ducks. But little of the ancient art is dedicated to cropping.

For all of its magnificence, the ancient Egyptian state was fixated on two ideas: keeping the pharaoh in power and then sending his divine corpse to the afterlife.

No doubt many commoners found both ideas hard to swallow, for most of the tombs of the kings and queens were looted in ancient times. The old royals tried barricading their carcasses inside pyramids and when that failed, hiding them in secret shafts in the desert, in the Valley of the Kings. Apparently it never occurred to the pharaohs that grave robbers would be less motivated if the tombs were not filled with gold.

Wooden models in the Egyptian Museum, carved during the Middle Kingdom, show people making beer and bread, and storing grain. A scribe sits on top of the granary, tallying the wheat and barley as the people carry it in sacks over their shoulders. The rulers were keeping records of the stored grain, and managing it.

The pharaohs felt that manual labor was undignified, but they did hold two scepters: one a shepherd’s crook, and the other a flail, for threshing grain by hand. The pharaohs shunned doing the work, but they were the masters of an economy based on crops and livestock. Food produced by smallholder farmers made it possible to make the grand statues, temples and pyramids.

The tiny Greek city-states aside, most ancient states were ruled by despots. Modern democracy has been taking shape since the 18th century, and more and more smallholder farmers are now free to travel, to study, to buy and sell.

It’s an exciting time to be able to learn from smallholder farmers and share ideas with them. For example, our Egyptian colleagues at Nawaya (a social enterprise) and at various other organizations are now working on videos and other media for farmers on crops and animals, native and introduced. Topics include processing dates, controlling the red weevil (which attacks palm trees), managing local chickens, building nurseries for baby chicks, keeping donkeys healthy and free of sores, managing aphids on okra, and storing the seed of corn (maize, that is).

For further reading:

Tingor, Robert L. 2010 Egypt: A Short History. Princeton University Press.

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