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Food in Ancient Egypt

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A feature of the climatic conditions of Ancient Egypt was that the floods of the Nile, making the land fertile, periodically gave way to dry and lean years. At such a time, food was valued much more than gold.

According to ancient sources, Egyptian rulers in fertile years were obliged to create food supplies that would last for several years, but quite often they neglected their duties.

In Harris’s Great Papyrus, there is evidence that food was no less valuable an offering than precious metals, clothing, aromatic oils and incense.

The daily diet of the rich inhabitants included meat dishes, while ordinary Egyptians ate them only on holidays. On the walls of many tombs, archaeologists have found images of animals intended for slaughter and scenes of the slaughterhouses themselves.

Some phrases characterizing slaughter cattle have not yet been translated into a more understandable language (for example, “bull – the mouth of the herd” or “bull to the whale”), and the decoding of individual names is only approximate (perhaps the bull “heris” was the best offspring , but it is not exactly).

At the slaughterhouse, butchers in the amount of 4-5 people got down to business, who pounced on the animal and quickly slaughtered it. Butcher’s techniques have remained unchanged to this day.

During the Old Kingdom, most of the meat was obtained by hunting gazelles, oryx (oryx) living in the desert, and other representatives of the artiodactyl order. Particularly skilled hunters tried to tame and domesticate the captured animals, but this was not always possible to do. In the future, this type of animal husbandry has almost completely lost its significance.

It is not known whether the ancient Egyptians ate pork, lamb or goat meat, but that they were bred in Upper and Lower Egypt is known for certain.

The inhabitants of Egypt began to breed chickens only from the 2nd millennium BC, but poultry farming became widespread much earlier.

A fresco from the tomb of Nacht in the Valley of the Kings, astronomer, scribe and priest under Thutmose IV.

A fresco from the tomb of Nacht in the Valley of the Kings, astronomer, scribe and priest under Thutmose IV.

Fish deserves special attention. At various times, in some Egyptian cities and nomes, it was forbidden to eat certain types of fish. Sources say that the Ethiopian king who conquered Egypt, a Muslim by religion, refused to feast at the same table with the rulers of the Delta and the South, since they were not circumcised and ate unclean food (fish), which was a terrible insult to the royal palace. Only a resident of the sacred city of the priests of Shmun, who, according to tradition, did not eat fish, was awarded a great honor.

The diet of the Egyptians also included various vegetables included in the annual calendar of Medinet Abu under the name “renput”. Onions, leeks and garlic were especially valuable. According to the testimony of the “father of history” Herodotus, the builders of the Cheops pyramid received 1600 silver talents for their labor of radishes, onions and garlic.

However, scientists have not been able to find any evidence for this statement, although a hieroglyphic depiction of these plants is found in the Great Harris Papyrus.

Bundles of garlic have been found in some Theban tombs, indicating the generous gifts of Ramses III. Watermelons, melons, and cucumbers often appear on sacrificial steles next to tied papyrus stems. Peas, beans, and chickpeas (chickpeas that resemble the head of a falcon) are frequent finds in tombs.

It is known that in their gardens the Egyptians cultivated lettuce, a plant of the fertility god Ming, whose ityphallic statue usually stood in front of a plot planted with lettuce. The Egyptians used this plant in large quantities, knowing that it returns sexual power to men and fertility to women. Lettuce was usually eaten raw with salt and vegetable oil.

The gardens of Ancient Egypt did not differ in the variety of fruit crops. Pears, peaches, almonds and cherries appeared here only after the Roman conquest, and the ancient Egyptians did not hear about oranges, lemons and bananas at all.

The most common crops were grapes, figs, dates and sycamore (fig). The latter plant was grown not only for its delicious fruits, but also for its durable wood, which is an excellent material for making mummy coffins.

Pomegranate, olive and apple trees, introduced by the nomadic Asian tribes of the Hyksos, took root in Egypt and gave a good harvest with appropriate care. Olive oil, obtained from the pulp of olives, was used not only as a food product, but also as a material for lighting. Before the advent of olives, the Egyptians cultivated other oilseeds, mainly the bak walnut tree.

Dum-palm nuts and jujuba (zizyphus) fruits were good medicines, and only a select few ate coconuts, since their cultivation in Egypt was difficult due to inappropriate climatic conditions. The poor Egyptians feasted on the pith of papyrus stalks and the rhizomes of some aquatic plants.

Milk was considered a particularly valuable product. They kept it in pot-bellied earthen vessels with a sealed neck, which prevented the penetration of insects. In some sources, there is a mention of such dairy products in the diet of the Egyptians as cream, butter, cottage cheese.

They used honey or carob to give the drink or food a sweet taste. The collection of wax and honey from wild bees was carried out by special people, who went after them to the distant deserts.

These people, like the collectors of turpentine resin, enjoyed the grace of Pharaoh, who provided them with all kinds of help.

Some Egyptians were engaged in breeding bees in their own garden plots, using large earthenware jars as hives. Extracted honey usually went not only for food, but also for sale. They kept it in carefully sealed stone vessels, which made it possible to leave the valuable properties of this product unchanged.


Drawing from a fresco in the tomb of Akhenaten, with a meal of the pharaoh and his family.

Drawing from a fresco in the tomb of Akhenaten, with a meal of the pharaoh and his family.

About how the feasts of the ancient Egyptians were held, very scant information has been preserved. It was assumed that the head of the family, who woke up earlier than other household members, had breakfast alone, immediately after washing. His breakfast, set on a small table, consisted of meat, pie, bread and beer.

The hostess of the house ate breakfast while brushing her hair, or immediately after finishing the toilet. Her morning ration included fruit, perhaps some sweets and clean water.

The children were fed separately from their parents. They were seated on a mat or pillows spread out directly on the floor.

The lunchtime diet supposedly consisted of meat, poultry, or fish, bread, pies, vegetables, fruits, and beer. It cannot be said that meat was included in the number of constantly consumed food products. Even in fairly well-to-do families, meat dishes were usually served only during lunch or holiday feasts. Poor families were more likely to be content with dairy products, vegetables, fruits and flat cakes.

On the walls of the tomb of Tell el-Amarna, a wonderful drawing is depicted, conveying the very atmosphere of a feast taking place more than three thousand years ago. At the head of the table sits Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV, a representative of the 18th dynasty), next to him are his wife, the queen-mother and little princesses sitting on small pillows. The king eats juicy meat, and his wife eats poultry. Around the table there are several small tables with a variety of dishes and toiletries.

Among other items, during the excavation of temples dating back to the era of the New Kingdom, many dishes were found intended for the preparation and consumption of soups, sauces, stewed fruit, sweets and dairy products. There are also all kinds of plates, forks, spoons and knives. It can be assumed that toiletries (a jug of water and a basin) were necessary for the Egyptians to wash their hands, both before and after meals. This is due to the fact that poultry, pies, sweets and some other dishes were then eaten with their hands.

Around four or five o’clock in the evening, the Egyptians had a light supper, after which they returned to work or prepared for their evening entertainment.

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