A people protected from the sky and who, like the bee, seem destined to work for others without benefiting himself from the fruits of his services
Thus Amrou said that the caliph had instructed him to describe Egypt in the early days of the Arab conquest, a country he described as "a magnificent countryside between two mountains".
A millennial agriculture
All the more beautiful as the seasonal flooding of the Nile had allowed since the fourth millennium BC to irrigate the cultivable land of its valley. At the time of the pharaohs, no doubt the Egyptian peasants, the fellahs, used the method of controlled flooding: the flow was directed towards basins (hod) cut on the very edges of the riverbed; water accumulated behind small dikes and sown in liquid mud. Floods and climate favored winter crops.
In ancient times, nilotic crops were grown on wheat, barley and fodder. Fodder was represented by bersim, or clover of Alexandria; it was used as the main feed for livestock, mainly buffaloes. The harvests constituted the Chetain culture, that is to say the traditional base of subsistence.
On the higher lands were added crops harvested in autumn. These crops established on the alluvial terraces of the river depended on more complex irrigation, provided by lifting machines. As this farming has continued to improve throughout Egyptian history, lifting machines, which are still encountered today by the fellahs, offer a fairly complete collection of local ingenuity. The arsenal of irrigation goes from the simple bucket maneuvered by hand to the motor pump, passing by machines that perpetuate inventions several decades old. Among them, there is the chadouf: a leather bag to draw water, a counterweight, and a lever arm provided by a long pole. There is the sakieh, whose squeaky wheel, animated by a donkey or a dromedary, tirelessly goes up a chain of jugs attached to a chain and pours the contents into channels. We also use the Archimedean screw. In the Fayum basin and in the depressions of the Libyan desert, well drilling also made it possible to reach the underground Nile water table. Curiously, this phreatic circulation also knows a similar flood rate to that of the surface river but shifted by three months compared to it. This groundwater allowed for a short spring harvest.
Elsewhere, a fallow that corresponded to the period of low water caused the cracking of the clay by desiccation. Thus, when the water of the flood arrived, these networks of slots ensured the penetration of the liquid and the silt. In this way, both moisture and soil fertility were maintained.
Of course, to these methods of irrigation corresponded a system of channels and dikes in the ground, the origin plunges into the night of time fixed the modalities.
A dependence on the Nile
Since the time of the Pharaohs, the complicated operations of opening the dikes have always been subordinated to the exact knowledge of the level of the waters that the nilometer gives.
This traditional system of water use has determined a habitat grouped into large villages settled on the dikes. The social organization throughout Upper and Middle Egypt, upstream of the Delta, reflected a communal exploitation, village by village, which we still find today.
Since the first third of the 19th century AD, under Mehemet Ali, great works have sought to obtain perennial irrigation, which has profoundly modified Egyptian agriculture. Large dams first raised the level of the Nile during low water. The first dams of this type built from 1840, at the tip of the Delta, as well as at Assiut, Nag-Hamadi and Esneh in the valley, were several times raised or rebuilt. Then dams were built to store the floodwaters of the flood. In 1902, the first dam of Aswan already had a capacity of 5.3 km3. And, in a way, the high dam that came to replace him from 1972 responds to an identical concern.
This tremendous project has provided Egypt and its agriculture with the means to develop cash crops. In addition to wheat, barley or dourah, Turkish wheat has been added to rice, peanuts, dyestuffs such as madder, indigo, and textile plants, the most important of which are cotton. Then, sugar cane and legumes have completed this rich agricultural panoply. The control of the waters has led to a spectacular movement of conquest of the soil. All over, but especially in the center and north of the Delta, vast expanses still wild a century ago have been highlighted.
It was necessary to accompany these conquests by profound transformations of the land tenure system. The cadastre has been modified. Private ownership of land has developed in a country long accustomed to a collective village regime. In 1950, the properties of more than 21 hectares covered one third of the arable surface.
The habitat has also evolved. A dotted line of agricultural villages has succeeded the scattering of a dispersed, primary habitat in the Delta and interspersed between the old villages in the valley.
Towards commercial agriculture
Gradually, cash crops have taken precedence over the food crops of yore. Cotton has become the dominant production. Its cultivation today covers 700 000 hectares. Egypt, which for a long time has found in it its only true export commodity, produces 500,000 tons, mostly from the Middle Valley and Lower Egypt. Egyptian cotton is known for its excellent quality.
At the same time, the hierarchy of food crops has changed. Wheat fell, and Egypt, once self-sufficient, has now become a major importer. On the other hand, rice has grown, thanks to pioneering crops grown on new land north of the Delta. Luckily, the rice adapts well to the salty soils of these lands near the sea. Egyptian agriculture has seen the emergence of corn, which is now grown in large in the center of the Delta and in Middle Egypt. While sorghum is getting better in the south of the country.
As a result, perennial irrigation has opened Egypt to international trade.
This agricultural revolution, however, was not without negative repercussions. Deprived of the natural maintenance provided by the fallow land and the enrichment brought by the silt of the flood, the soil gradually loses its fertility. It is impossible to keep it without bringing in increasing quantities of chemical fertilizers. But, in turn, these inputs dangerously disturb the biological equilibrium affected by uninterrupted crops. The parasites proliferate. The salt contained in the soil rises with the rinsing of irrigation. The fellahs groan at the new calamities that justify the old superstitions too much. It's Yafarit, the evil eye, who is rampant in the countryside.
As for the agrarian reform - in two stages, 1952 and 1961 - it dismantled the properties of more than 42 hectares. The government has redistributed about 10% of the cultivable soil. 225,000 families benefited from this operation. But what does this figure represent compared to the 15 million landless peasants in the country?
U.S. Specialists have calculated that, even by redistributing all the arable land equally among all Egyptian peasants, this action would not provide them with a decent standard of living if the current system of cultivation is maintained.