Raise your Glass

A History of Egypt through its Drinks

By Omar D. Foda

From sweet sherbets and buza to coffee and tea, the beverages consumed by Egyptians provide an interesting glimpse of traditions through the ages.

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If you have ever had the pleasure of drinking a ‘Turkish’ coffee—or just coffee (qahwa) as most Egyptians call it—you may also have experienced a delightful folk ritual. They say if you upend a finished cup on to its saucer, wait, and then remove the cup, you can see your future in the coffee grounds left behind. I make no claims as to the efficacy of this method of soothsaying, but I bring it up to highlight how a beverage can trigger deep contemplation. Examining what Egyptians drink today can help us shed light on different dimensions of the country’s long history. Like most other things in Egypt, the new has built on, but not replaced, the old.

A Sip from the Nile

One cannot talk about drinking and beverages in Egypt without acknowledging the greatest provider of refreshment in the country, its lifeblood from time immemorial, the Nile. Mustafa Ali, a nineteenth-century Ottoman visitor, noted that its waters were ‘extremely good-tasting’ and ‘purer and sweeter’ than others. It is no wonder then that for most of Egypt’s history the most common drink was water. It was so common, in fact, that one Ancient Egyptian aphorism stresses that you should avoid drinking water in a merchant’s house, ‘because he will put it on the bill’. Besides highlighting the greed of the merchant, it also shows that from Egypt’s earliest records, water was an assumed right for all Egyptians. It was Egypt’s main thirst quencher throughout history, and up until relatively recently, it was the only drink that accompanied food at the dinner table. It was traditionally stored in a qulla (earthenware jug or bottle) to help purify it and keep it cool, but since the introduction of glass and plastic, these materials have taken over as storage and serving vessels. Before indoor plumbing, those who did not have direct access to the Nile or to a well had to pay saqqa (water carrier) to bring it to them. Since the 1970s, there has been a growing market for bottled water in Egypt, serving those who do not want to—or cannot—drink straight from the Nile.

Something a Little Stronger

If there are any beverages that have a history as long as that of water in Egypt, they have to be beer and wine. The archaeological record is replete with examples of how ancient Egyptians made and drank beer. As scientific analysis has shown, the ancient Egyptians mastered the malting process of barley central to making beer. Their beer was not hopped and could be quite sweet. It was enjoyed by most Egyptians and could even serve as a form of payment of wages.

Ancient Egyptians also mastered the process of winemaking and made different wines from both red and white grape varieties, as well as from dates, figs, and pomegranates. It was primarily a drink of the elite. It was only in the Greek and Roman periods that wine consumption became popular amongst most Egyptians. In Late Antiquity, the primacy of wine continued as Egypt became a centre of Christianity, which attached sacral value to the fruit of the vine. It is then not surprising that we have prominent archaeological evidence that the Coptic monasteries were producers of wine. So reputed were their wines, that Muslim families, including families of rulers, would visit monasteries to spend a day outdoors and enjoy their wine. Despite Islam’s prohibition of khamr, alcohol consumption continued relatively unencumbered after the Arab conquest, with wine still carrying greater cultural weight than beer—notice the numerous wine odes produced in this era and the dearth of beer poems. It was only in the Mamluk era that we can speak of an efficacious prohibition on alcohol consumption. The prohibition lightened with the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517, who also helped to make buza (Turkish, boza), Egypt’s main alcoholic beverage. Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi also noted that Egypt was known for subya, a fermented drink made from rice. This beverage did not carry great social weight and was, and has remained, associated with the lower classes.

Starting in the nineteenth century, attitudes towards alcohol started changing in Egypt. Under the reformist Ottomans and the colonialist British, the number of and types of alcohol available in Egypt grew. As such, whiskey, brandy, champagne, and numerous other alcoholic beverages entered Egyptian culture. Nevertheless, it was beer that stood out from the rest. It would come to dominate in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, thanks to the magic of the Stella beer brand, the efforts of the companies that sold it, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s radical reshaping of the country. In more recent years, it is non-alcoholic beer that has taken centre stage, as beer and other alcoholic beverages, have shrunk to become niche beverages.

Warming the Spirit

Whereas beer and wine have ancient roots but a relatively small presence in contemporary Egyptian culture, more recent entrants into the country, tea and coffee, have grabbed a central cultural role. If we were to assert a national drink for Egypt, it would be one of these two. They are consumed by all social classes and in almost any situation. Coffee came to Egypt in the sixteenth century, most probably with Yemeni Sufis studying at al-Azhar. It was not the only hot beverage to arrive in Egypt under the Ottomans. Sahlab, a beverage made from ground orchid tubers and served hot in the winter, also appeared at that time. However, it was coffee that became a phenomenon. Coffee and coffeehouses began as low-class ventures, perhaps due to the latter’s resemblance to taverns, but by the nineteenth century they had penetrated Egyptian society up to the elite classes. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, unsweetened coffee was the preeminent beverage in coffeehouses; however, with large scale immigration into Egypt, as well as British colonialism, new coffeeshops appeared where coffee was sweetened with sugar. Soon thereafter sugar became standard. It was boiled with the coffee beans and thus required a patron to specify their preferred amount of sugar when ordering their coffee, a tradition that survives to this day.

These new coffeeshops also offered tea, the drink of British colonialists. It is not coincidental that tea took off after the British occupation. Their colonial venture was distinctly capitalist in nature. It extracted raw materials from its imperial possessions, refined them, and exported them to those same imperial territories. In the case of tea, it was extracting tea leaves from the Indian sub-continent and exporting them to places like Egypt. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, tea took the place of coffee, especially among the Egyptian poor. Between 1947 and 1959, Egyptians consumed more than 30 million pounds of tea. That pre-eminence remains today, and like the beverage it replaced, tea is consumed black and heavily sugared.

Sweetening the Mood

The domination of tea is being threatened by another heavily sweetened beverage: the carbonated soft drink such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Their ubiquitous presence in Egypt today is partly due to the strong marketing efforts their producers made after the 1980s as well as to the traditional affinity of Egyptians for heavily sweetened beverages. The success of Coca-Cola is particularly astounding as its parent company had been barred from the county between 1967 and 1979 for political reasons.

While carbonated soft drinks dominate today, their forerunner is the sherbet or sharbat, a condensed syrup made from the juice of fruits or other edibles like wheat and mixed with water or ice to produce a beverage. Its origin lies in medieval Egypt (as a way to preserve fruit before refrigeration) and it was attributed with great medicinal value. So much value in fact that the sharabi (the server of sherbet) resembled a pre-modern pharmacist. The cities of Egypt historically housed many itinerant sherbet sellers and the drink carried a great deal of social weight. It was the main beverage Egyptians would serve guests in their homes or at big social ceremonies such as weddings. It also appeared throughout the Islamic world and was a central part of Ottoman drinking habits. It even entered Western culture as sherbet, sorbet, or shrub. Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola built on the sherbet tradition, as they are essentially the same thing, a sweet syrup mixed with water, only in this case carbonated.

A Cap on it All

So, what can we say about the history of beverages in Egypt? The beverages that Egyptians drink today are undoubtedly the products of millennia of history. Even the most ‘modern’ drink, the carbonated soft drink, taps into a history that stretches back to the seventh century. That is not to say that certain beverages were not discarded along the way. Koumiss, the fermented mare’s milk loved by the Mamluks, for example, did not remain popular for long. Nevertheless, in your bottle of Coke, cup of tea, or can of Stella, you can still see the strands that connect Egyptians to their earliest history.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 10, 2019



Wine strainer intended for removing sediment as it is poured out of jugs, jars, or flasks into bowls and goblets for drinking. Excavated at Tell Basta, Ramesside, Dynasty 19–20 (ca. 1295–1069 BCE), New Kingdom. Over their long history, ancient Egyptians made and consumed grape wine—both red and white—but it is also possible that they made wine out of dates, figs, and pomegranates. Wine was produced from as early as the predynastic period (ca. 4400 BCE) and was a valuable commodity, mostly consumed by the elite but distributed amongst the masses on special occasions such as feasts. It was also given as a reward to soldiers or as a bonus to workers. Tomb scenes show a great deal of detail about wine production: harvesting and pressing the grapes; filling the jars, transporting and storing them; serving wine; and finally, the excessive drinking of wine. Wine vessels would have carried inscriptions or labels bearing the king’s name and regnal year, the particular variety of wine, its vineyard, and the vintner, serving the same purpose as modern wine labels. Wine had different grades; nefer nefer nefer denoted wine of excellent quality, while nefer nefer indicated a lesser wine, and just nefer, a wine of far lesser grade, nefer being the ancient word for ‘good’.

© THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART/Theodore M. Davis Collection

Model group of brewing, comprising an overseer, nine (originally 13) figures sifting flour, three sieving mash, and three (originally four) crouching before ovens. Excavated in Deir al- Bahari, Dynasty 11 (ca. 2124–1981 BCE), Middle Kingdom. Beer was one of the staples of ancient Egyptian subsistence. Its production methods probably changed over time, but it either had a base of malted cereal grains (most likely barley, perhaps with the addition of emmer wheat) or lightly baked bread. Tomb scenes, models, and statuettes show many aspects of beer production, but it is experimental archaeology and scientific analysis that have added key pieces to the beer puzzle. Beer was a key economic commodity used in rituals, as offerings to the dead, and as payment for wages. It was unknown to the Greeks and when Herodotus wrote his accounts of life in Egypt in the fifth century BCE, he referred to beer as ‘wine made from grain’. Ancient Egyptian beer may very well be the base of the modern buza; the ancient Egyptian word for malt was besa. In turn, the word buza may very well be the origin of ‘booze’.


Spheroconical vessel likely to be similar to the fuqqa‘ bottles used in Egypt, possibly made in Egypt, Iraq or Syria (13th–14th century CE). The 14th-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawa’id lists 13 recipes for this mysterious foamy beer-like beverage, and numerous others for aqsima, a variation. The lightly alcoholic drink (which was to be fermented a maximum of three days or else deemed prohibited by Islamic scholars) was occasionally made with barley but more typically with fermented wheat bread loaves, spiced and sweetened in various ways (e.g., with molasses or pomegranate, always with spices added). The term fuqqa‘, denoting the presence of bubbles indicates that it was a sort of sparkling beverage. Fuqqa‘ was sold in portion-sized spherical vessels with a tiny spout sealed with a patch of leather. One would pierce the cover with a nail and quickly start drinking the beverage as the froth poured out. Chronicler al-Maqrizi describes how the summer favourite was sold by the fuqqa‘iyyun at their coloured marble storefronts, where one would enjoy the sight of the beautifully arranged the vessels in rows on both sides of the street.


An Egyptian café, Cairo (1896). Coffee was introduced to Egypt in the 16th century and despite initial religious opposition, gained popularity relatively fast. Coffeehouses began as low-class ventures, perhaps due to their resemblance to taverns, but by the 19th century they had penetrated Egyptian society up to the elite classes. Popular Egyptian coffeehouses became iconic, bringing together revolutionaries, political activists, artists, musicians, intellectuals, as well as the unemployed, often providing them with a refuge and a home away from home.


Glass beaker with leather case; Mamluk from Egypt or Syria (14th century). A story from the year 1398 related by historian al-Maqrizi tells us of a wild party held by Sultan al-Zahir Barquq to celebrate his victory in a polo match. Unfortunately, he does not describe exactly what he meant by ‘an ugly day of sanctioned inebriants and rampant public indecency’, but we do know that the sultan ordered for 30 kantars (1,350 kgs) of raisins to be made into aqsima (see box on fuqqa‘) and 60 ardabs (5,100 kgs) of flour to made into buza. The notorious drink, which resembles an earlier version named mizr (an intoxicant beverage made of barley), remained associated with debauchery and alcoholism among the lower classes well into the twentieth century. The adventurous can still find it if they are brave enough to try.


Omar D. Foda

Omar D. Foda

Omar D. Foda is a visiting assistant professor of history at Towson University and holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania. His book Egypt's Beer: Stella, Identity, and the Modern State tells the lively story of Egypt’s iconic beer brand.