The Hydraulic hypothesis


How far was the rise of Egypt due to hydraulic engineering? This theory was elaborated by the German-American historian Karl Wittfogel in his 1957 book “Oriental Despotism”. There was for a long time the theory that the success of Egypt as with Mesopotamia depended on irrigation and that the pharaohs rose to power because they were great irrigation engineers who organised the irrigation of the land, and thus increased its fertility. This idea is no longer in fashion: the trouble is that there is little evidence for water engineering in ancient Egypt. The irrigation was all done by the Nile in its annual flood which brought down fertility from its sources in central Africa and deposited it benignly over the fields. Certainly the annual level of the Nile flood was measured and recorded, because when it failed, which it did periodically, there would be a famine, as the story of Joseph and the seven lean years in the Bible illustrates; but there was nothing that the Egyptians could do about it.

A shaduf

But there is no archaeological evidence for major hydraulic engineering: such canals and waterways that were built were always minor local affairs. Indeed even the simplest water lifting mechanism the shaduf – an upright pole with a horizontal pole on top, with a weight at one end acting as a lever to raise a bucket of water, was not invented until the New Kingdom nearly 1500 years after the building of the pyramids.

Instead the appeal of the pharaoh was as the bringer of unity, and of right and justice and peace. The Egyptians called it maat, and maat brought about the conditions under which all could thrive. We need to examine closely the story of the rise of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt.

On to Predynastic Egypt