Read and Review: J. Donald Hughes | Sustainable Agriculture in Ancient Egypt (1992)

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Scene from the Tomb of Sennedjem and Iyneferti (Both pictured) | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

The study of sustainable agriculture has never been more pressing due to the effects of the Climate Crisis. The Late Donald Hughes did more than most to show that stability and growth can only be achieved when working with the natural environment. This article aims to show that the stability of Egypt was down to the ecological conditions of that the Nile provided, and that this gift permeated throughout Egyptian society, particularly through the concept of Ma’at, the idea of harmony and unity of the universe as protected by the pharaoh.

This inter-connectivity of the universe meant that farming was a sacred act, and this is why agricultural scenes are common on some tombs, such as those of Sennedjem and Iynferti (Pictured above). The gift of the Nile and the black lands were important to the continued stability of Egypt, Hughes argues that this is why irrigation was so important, since expanding the land that could be farmed also pleased the gods. It was for this reason that hoeing was considered a form of worship of the earth god, since further increased the fertility of the land.

Hughes discusses the Egyptians “joy in their environment”; their enjoyment of the bounties of the land, hunting, swimming, ploughing etc. However, whilst the Nile was forgiving and the cycle continued, Hughes is able to point out some of the ecological dangers that the Egyptians suffered: salination, deforestation, loss of habitat and species. Although, he does argue that by the end of the dynastic period the Nile was still productive, it goes to show that in a society that worships the idea of harmony in the universe, the damage that can be done by humans in an delicate environment.

I really love this article, as its relevance in today’s political and ecological landscape only grows, and Hughes work in making Environmental History mainstream will be one of his greatest legacies.

The article is available to preview on JSTOR, accessible here.

Further Reading

Xueqin, M. 2019. In Memoriam: J. Donald Hughes (1932-2019) (Paywall)

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