Agriculture has arguably been the single most crucial development in human history. The methods of cultivating and harvesting crops have been perfected over thousands upon thousands of years, dating as far back as the Neolithic Era of 10,000 BC, and no civilization has been more integral to such advancements than the people of Ancient Egypt. However, unlike other regions of the world, Egyptian agriculture was dictated entirely by the cyclical flooding of the Nile River, a natural form of irrigation that divided the farming calendar into three distinct seasons.

The first of these three periods was known as the Flooding Season, or Aketo, which occurred from July to October. During this time, as one can ascertain, the Nile River rose considerably and consequently left miles of farmland completely submerged under roughly 5 feet of water.

To take full advantage of the rise and fall of the Nile, Egyptians developed a form of water management known as basin irrigation, whereupon a strategic network of manmade channels ran both perpendicular and parallel to the river. This grid of banks would lead to basins of various sizes located on higher farmlands immune to flooding, where the collected water would sit and saturate the soil for roughly one month. Any remaining water would be drained into a connected basin down-gradient.

By October, the floodwaters would recede, leaving the alluvial grounds of the Delta full of rich, fertile soil (coincidentally, the floods would also leave behind thick deposits of black sediment, inspiring Egyptians to name the river Aur, or “black”). Thus began the five-month Growing Season, known as Peret to the indigenous people, and farmers would take advantage of this period to sow their crops—notably wheat, barley, figs, melons, pomegranates, and various vine plants.

While in other parts of the world farmers would be forced to turn over large amounts of soil with heavy plows to ensure crops received enough nutrients, in the case of the Delta floodlands, the silt-laden Nile deposited such a bountiful supply of minerals into the top layer of earth that farmers in Egypt merely needed to break up the topsoil in order to sow and cover their seeds.

Lastly, Harvest Season, or Syumuu, would arrive in March, at which time fully grown crops were cut down and collected before the floodwaters returned. The cultivation of grain, it should be noted, was particularly thorough, as it was Egypt’s main food staple and a primary source of national income via trade with neighboring countries. The benefits of farming also extended far beyond dietary sustenance—flax, for instance, was processed to make linens, and papyrus was converted into sandals, paper, and skiffs.

Given the incredibly hot and arid desert climate of Egypt (rainfall is all but nonexistent in the region), drought was a common concern following flood season. To combat this danger, a series of mud-brick reservoirs, distinct from the aforementioned irrigation basins, were constructed to trap and hold floodwaters. Workers could simply use a shaduf—what was essentially a bucket tied to a large pole and balanced on a crossbeam—to lift water from the reservoirs.

While predictable in its timing, the height of the Nile River’s flooding could vary from year to year. On average, the river’s waters would rise to about 27 feet during Aketo; however, during instances in which they rose either higher or lower than expected, Egyptians were faced with dire consequences. Low waters would yield unfertilized lands, resulting in widespread famine, while high waters would kill cattle, goats, and livestock—many of which were integral to the seeding and harvesting process—and cause considerable damage to nearby villages.

It was not until the construction of the Aswan Dam, built between 1960 and 1970, that Egypt gained full control over the Nile’s annual floods.

In contrast to other great empires of the era, Egypt’s farmlands were sustained for millennia with virtually no interruption thanks to the Nile River and the ingenuity of the Egyptian people. Their method of single-season planting did not overly deplete the soil, and their farmlands were naturally refertilized as the Nile’s floodwaters returned each summer. Though fortunate to have been blessed with such reliable and rich natural hydrological bestowments, combined with a precise and optimized system of basin-based irrigation, it is no surprise that Egypt developed what is thought of by many as the most stable farming-based civilization in history.

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