Nothing new under the sun: A history of farming in the Western Desert

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For almost three decades, the New Valley governorate has been pouring resources into agricultural development in the Western Desert oases of Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra and Bahariya. Thousands of farmers from the Nile Valley have moved into the oases, where they are given land along with housing and initial commodities to set up farms and smallholdings. Their produce is trucked to towns and cities in the rest of Egypt.

Fields prepared for planting in Dakhla Oasis (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

Yet, this is not a 21st century phenomenon. A similar scheme was set in place 2,000 years ago, and with a similar objective—to export food to urban populations a great distance away.

Helping to track the patterns of habitation and activity over the millennia is the Dakhla Oasis Project (DOP), a multi-disciplinary, international research centre based near the Dakhla town of Mut. The DOP was founded in 1978 to study the history and development of the area brought about not only by time, but by changing economic and environmental patterns in this sprawling, green area of the Western Desert. Ongoing studies begin with the Old Stone Age hunter-gatherers of the Middle Pleistocene era, roughly 350,000 years ago, and continue to the present day community and its major activity—farming.

Farmers have brought their knowledge from the Nile Valley (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

The hundreds of instances of human activity the DOP has found in the Dakhla area point to continuous occupation for 7,000 years. Since there are no local minerals or other resources, sustenance here has always been provided by the land. The earliest inhabitants were blessed with rains that supported wild cereals and animals. They domesticated the wild cattle that roamed locally. Then, in a gradual process that took a few thousand years, the local climate changed. Rainfall all but ceased, although water remained in underground aquifers. As the land dried up and their food-gathering range shrank, some people followed the animals south in order to continue hunting. Others chose to remain with their herds and began to cultivate food crops.

Donkeys have been the major means of transport in the oases for thousands of years (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

DOP researchers believe that ancient Egyptians began to migrate from the Nile Valley to the oasis as early as 2,400 BC. By 2,200 BC there was a major Old Kingdom settlement at Balat and another twenty smaller settlements across the rest of the oasis. The immigrants brought with them the irrigation methods used in the Nile Valley, and quickly overturned existing local practices. The changes they made to the landscape proved to be permanent: the small square fields with raised edges that are easy to irrigate are still in use today, forming a brown, green and sometimes yellow patchwork threaded through with dusty red tracks. The Nile Valley crops were equally suitable in the oasis, while the semi-arid conditions made wine production particularly successful.

Perhaps the Dakhla Oasis had the optimum population it could support by the end of the Old Kingdom, because researchers found little interaction with people from the Nile Valley until the Late Period some 1,500 years later. Activity picked up in the Persian and Ptolemaic eras, but it was not until after Roman occupation began in 30BC that there was a noticeable increase in population.

Fields prepared for planting (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

The Roman Empire was then new and expanding rapidly, but the authorities knew that it could not hold itself together unless there were plenty of provisions for its subjects—especially the army. Food production was therefore one of its major priorities.

“They needed more and more agricultural land to produce greater amounts of food commodities,” says Anthony Mills, who has directed the DOP since its inception. “These included oil, cereals and wine. The empire was so vast that it needed more and more.”

Before long Egypt was producing a third of the empire’s wheat demand. To help achieve this quota, in the first century AD, the authorities put in place a system almost identical to the modern New Valley scheme. Thousands of peasant farmers were encouraged to uproot themselves from the Nile Valley and move to Dakhla and neighbouring Kharga, which the Romans collectively called the Great Oasis (Bahariya and Farafra were the ‘Small Oasis’).

Wheat is still a major crop in the New Valley (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

“There was probably not a single Roman among them—they ruled from a distance,” Mills says. “These people lived as Egyptians do, in villages and towns—as opposed to farmers in most European parts of the empire, who tended to live in scattered farmsteads. They probably farmed as they probably always had.”

Everything depended on water. There is some rain in Dakhla, but it amounts to very little. “The trick is to own a well,” Mills says. “Everything this irrigates is your land. Otherwise you have to go in for sharecropping.”

Since wells silt up fairly quickly—some more quickly than others—Mills thinks it unlikely that any wells in use today (called ‘rumi’ or ancient wells) date from Roman days. “Everyone knows the technology: it can take years to clear one out, and involves diving in. It’s easier to dig a new one,” he says.

Roman authorities probably gave the settlers seed grain and land as incentives for cultivating the area. The policy was to get people to come, settle, farm and produce food for an expanding empire, and they were given guarantees for their crops.

Fields showing the square beds introduced into the New Valley during the Old Kingdom (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

“There is no way of estimating the ancient population,” Mills says. “It’s impossible to work it out from the numbers of houses, rooms, graves, etc. A place sustains as many people as it can hold. When there are too many people they get hungry, and they leave. For example, the Neolithic Bishendi culture (sixth to fifth millennium BC) lived by hunting and gathering and needed a wide area, and there is evidence that the population then was as large as the area could hold. With agriculture, people’s food needs take up less space. The best way to ascertain the population would be to find a Roman census.”

Under the Romans, housing seems to have come from a central planning department, much as it does today. “All the houses are exactly alike, with a ground floor, a pigeon loft above it, and all with a little courtyard,” Mills says. The farms were spaced evenly apart, once again according to an apparent plan. Along with several villages, there were three towns: Kellis, Muthis and Trinatis. The government built stone temples for the settlers at Deir al-Hagar, Mut, Ayn Azizi, Ismant al-Kharab (Kellis, where there were two temples) and Ayn Bebeir. Another fifteen to twenty mud-brick temples were built by local communities.

The settlers kept in touch with the families they left behind in the Nile Valley by letter, and the many examples of these ostraca found and studied by the DOP give a fascinating insight into their thoughts and lives. Letters list the necessities settlers wanted from home, the debts they owed or hoped to recover, and family links and grievances. Letters and produce travelled to the Nile Valley by camel, donkey, or ox-cart—oxen were strong and could pull heavy loads, but unlike the others needed to be fed and watered every day.

The Deir al-Hagar Temple was built for Roman-era immigrants in the Dakhla Oasis (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

Inscriptions at Bebeir Temple begin with Emperor Augustus, the first emperor, and end with Emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. Soon after this Rome began a downward political and economic slide and eventually, in 284, divided, at which point the oasis scheme collapsed. Suddenly there were no more market guarantees for crops, and people either had to move or starve. Some stayed, continuing to live off the land, but the succeeding period was a relatively dark age for Dakhla. There is no further documentation from the oasis until the fourth century, by which time it had converted to Christianity.

Documents dating from the first four centuries of the Christian era found at 250 sites by excavators at Kellis have been compiled into an interesting publication (The Kellis Agricultural Account Book, Roger Bagnall, ed., Oxbow books, Oxford). Among the accounts are goods received by the agent at Ismant al-Kharab (Kellis), an absentee landlord, including tons of cereals, turnips, honey and wine. The list of commodities and produce is highly informative and includes wheat, barley, chaff, hay, cotton, turnips, chickens, dried figs, dates, date stones (ground to a paste to feed camels), olives, jujubes, olive oil, must (new wine), wine (made), vinegar, honey, barsim (clover), beans, fenugreek, safflower, sesame, onions, butter, cheese, cumin, wood, and meat—pork being the most common in ancient Egypt. Repetitive payments for ‘the female donkey’ were probably for maintenance, which will be familiar to many horse owners today.

A modern qanat or irrigation channel (photo: Jenny Jobbins)

This Roman legacy is not of interest only to archeologists. Today, agricultural expansion in Dakhla is due partly to making use of ancient, long-abandoned soils. The hard work of those ancient immigrants is once again bearing fruit.

Jenny Jobbbins is the author with Farid Atiya of ‘The Silent Desert I: Bahariya and Farafra’ (Farid Atiya Press, 2003).