In a period of changing fashions and traditions, food trends in Egypt mirrored the diverse influences from around the Mediterranean.
You are what you eat! We all understand the phrase coined by German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach in the nineteenth century: There are always those who live on a diet of what the soil around them produces easily and what is available at a low price; on the other hand, there are also those who can afford to enjoy more sophisticated and even imported food.
Was this also true for the Graeco-Roman period in Egypt? It looks like it. Just like everywhere else in the world, food defines classes, standards of living, and people’s wellbeing. So, who ate what in Egypt, after Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BCE until the seventh century, when Egypt became part of the Arab world?
We have two sources of knowledge for the food that was consumed in that period: the remains of grains and pulses found by archaeologists in rubbish bins and abandoned houses and the animal bones and wine jars found in stables and storehouses. An even deeper insight into the dietary customs of different levels of society can be learned from numerous texts written on papyrus and found in the abandoned villages along the Nile Valley or in Fayoum. As expected, food was the main concern of life; people spoke constantly about the acquisition of food and wrote down lists of commodities to be bought or delivered. We also have a small part of a cookbook from the period written on papyrus.
The main diet available to nearly everyone consisted of grains, pulses, oil, and beer. Grain provided the carbohydrates and vitamins, pulses the proteins, oil the unsaturated fat, and water and beer the liquid that the body needed. Vegetables and fruit were certainly added, wherever they grew; meat and fish were reserved for the festivals of the gods and for very special days like weddings, birthdays, and funerals.
The sort of food that was consumed tells us something about customs and ethnic diversity, particularly if we look at the consumption of grain. While the Egyptians had always grown and eaten bread made from husked emmer and spelt, the incoming Greek-speaking settlers from around the Mediterranean brought hard wheat with them. Under the Ptolemaic rulers, taxes had to be paid not only in money, but also in wheat, so its cultivation became increasingly popular all over the country. However, emmer remained the predominant grain eaten among the priestly classes and in the temples, which remained strongholds of the old Egyptian culture and religion.
Beans and lentils were the most popular pulses, the latter sometimes classified as grain in lists of goods to be transported or inventories of donkey loads and ship cargoes. This does not only show their popularity in the diets of the time, but also the understanding that lentils and other pulses would provide the basic carbohydrates and proteins the body needs and which usually come from grain. In a fragmentary cookbook written on papyrus from the third century BCE, we find a reasonably simple recipe for lentil mash: ‘Mash the cooked lentils in a broth of bird meat and cook together with wine, water, cumin, and dried dill; the lentils have to be cooked together with an onion’. As always in ancient cookbooks, no quantities are given. Of course, this cookbook comes from the kitchen of a rather well-to-do person, who could not only afford wine and some sophisticated spices, but who was also able to read.
Other popular vegetables included vetch, cabbage, garlic, lettuce, chickpeas, onions, beets, gourds, radishes, cucumbers, leeks, and turnips. None of these seem to have been newcomers to Egypt in the Ptolemaic period, and many of them will have been available also for the less wealthy. The same must have been true for the consumption of fruit, which was important to provide vitamins for the body. Dates, which grew in large quantities all over Egypt, were the most popular; figs, nuts, pomegranates, and apples were certainly less common, as were peaches, melons, and lemons.
The most common oil in ancient Egypt was pressed from radish and sesame seeds. The Greek-speaking settlers brought with them olive oil, which eventually became predominant. It remained more expensive through the Ptolemaic and Roman periods but gained wider popularity with time. In Fayoum, olive groves with their distinctive silver-bottomed leaves and frugal water consumption must have given the landscape the particular shimmering look that we still see today in places where the soil does not allow for plants and orchards that need more water. Around 100 CE, a Roman veteran named Lucius Bellienus Gemellus owned extensive olive-producing gardens in the north-western Fayoum, which were tended by his former slave Epagathos. In the correspondence between Lucius Bellienus and his freedman, we hear about these gardens, about the tasks that fell to Epagathos such as watering the trees, and about oil presses that were to be rented to turn the harvest into oil.
Beer—beside water of course—was the main drink in ancient Egypt. It was made from bread with some fermenting substance added. The Greeks were not familiar with that drink. When the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt in ca. 425 BCE, he commented on the drinking habits of the Egyptians reporting, ‘They [the Egyptians] drink wine made from grain’. He had obviously observed that people were getting intoxicated from drinking beer just as they did from the wine of his home country. The cultivation of wine was known in Pharaonic Egypt, but the popularity of this drink came—as that of hard wheat—with the Greek-speaking settlers from around the Mediterranean and increased over the centuries. As far as we can see from written texts, the later Roman period from the third century CE onwards ignored the existence of beer; everybody drank wine, and when in monasteries monks are warned of drunkenness, they are warned of drunkenness from wine, not from beer.
Thus, with the three basic dietary components—grain, oil, and, drink—we see a general and decisive shift from the old Pharaonic tradition of husked emmer, radish oil, and beer, to the newly introduced wheat, olive oil, and wine over the centuries of Ptolemaic and Roman rule. In the case of wheat, the ruling power may have had a direct influence on this development because the kings preferred to collect taxes in wheat and not in emmer. In the cases of oil and beer, we do not know how that development took place. Was it fashion—as we would call it today—that made people prefer olive oil and wine over radish oil and beer? Was it that wealthier people became trendsetters for the new products and made the traditional food look old-fashioned and undesirable? Or is this a modern concept that we are projecting onto the past? Ordinary people, those who did not own land and were without higher income from heritage or royal privilege, will have stayed with the traditional foodstuffs, of which we have—perhaps—less evidence.
Delicacies and Diets
Those who could afford it were certainly following trends set by the ruling class in Alexandria and in the big cities along the Nile or by other influences which are difficult to discern. These people could afford meat on a regular basis, and they also consumed fish brought far inland from the coasts of the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. Even in the monastery of Naqlun in the southern Fayoum, shells of oysters from the Mediterranean have been found … The monks certainly knew what tasted good!
The main meat consumed in Graeco-Roman Egypt was pork. This is clearly evidenced both by texts and by archaeological finds of bones. In the Roman period, we often see that in contracts of leases of vineyards the rent is fixed on the basis of a certain percentage of the vintage as well as on a piglet as part of the rent. This was obviously an offer for the festival of the wine god Dionysus, in whose honour the piglet would be sacrificed. Animals were not only reared and bred in religious contexts, however; they were part of the daily diet of the well-to-do. Beside pork, cows and sheep were also slaughtered and eaten. Ducks and hens were also not despised, and dovecotes lined the fringes of villages, often constructed from ceramic jars in which the birds nested. In the Graeco-Roman village of Karanis on the north-eastern edge of the Fayoum, huge dovecotes have been excavated.
‘In the Fayoum, there was a village along the lake named Halmyras or ‘the Place of the Salt’. Today, the Egyptian Company for Salts & Minerals (EMISAL) stands at the same spot.’
A recipe for pork from the era shows the use of a wide variety of herbs and spices such as dried coriander, thyme, anise, and fennel, and displays the characteristic sweetness of the Graeco-Roman kitchen undercut by the sharpness of pepper. The famous cookbook of Apicius, a Roman cook from the second century CE, shows recipes very similar to these early ones from the third century BCE. Apicius also does not give any quantities, nor does he go into more detail about the preparation of the food. His recipe for a flamingo dish for instance is limited to, ‘Pluck the flamingo and push it into the oven’!
Salt was precious, won from the sea and the salty inland waters. In the Fayoum, there was a village along the lake named Halmyras or ‘the Place of the Salt’. Today, the Egyptian Company for Salts & Minerals (EMISAL) stands at the same spot where the main drain from the fields in the oasis empties into the lake bringing with it salt from the soil upstream.
Pickled meat and pickled fish allowed the storage of these precious foodstuffs. In the third- century BCE recipe mentioned above, salt is a natural ingredient. It was also widely used in the preparation of ‘garum’, the famous fish sauce consisting of raw fish and salt.
There seems to have been a clear awareness of food of high quality and that of a lesser quality. Meat was distinguished by the denomination of ‘first’ and ‘second’ class, and wine found to have a mouldy taste could be returned to the producer, who had committed to good quality in the offer to the purchaser.
Wine was widely produced in Egypt, mostly in the region around Alexandria and in the Fayoum, but numerous amphorae handles with indications of the provenance of the content tell that wine was largely imported from the island of Rhodes and from Knidos along the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor. Such amphorae handles have been found also in the Fayoum some 300 km inland from Alexandria. They show the appreciation of the upper classes for quality food in that oasis, which was home to a high percentage of Greek-speaking settlers, their descendants, and in the Roman period, veterans of the Roman army.
How and when these commodities were consumed, whether in groups, in restaurant-like settings, or at home, is left to a large extent to our imagination. The main meal was taken in the evening, and lunch at noon was considered more important than breakfast. Wine was consumed with both lunch and dinner, most likely mixed with water as was the custom around the Mediterranean in Classical Greece and Rome.
People, or rather mostly men, would meet for the symposia, social gatherings, in which food and drinks were consumed and speeches given in accordance with a long-lasting tradition. Banquet halls in which such symposia were held have been excavated in Karanis and Tebtynis in the Fayoum; there, they were connected to the temples and built along the sacred streets that led towards them. Beer was consumed here, but certainly also wine; food was served on special occasions. Parents would celebrate the wedding of their children in such banquet halls close to the temples, inviting neighbours and friends to come and dine with them in the ‘House of the God at 8 o’clock in the evening’. Surely, sometimes also music was played, perhaps by flute players and harpists.
Eating and drinking in the Egypt of the Graeco-Roman period was as diverse as it is today all over the world. For some, the main commodities had to suffice, others had plenty of everything, and dined in considerable style.
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