We don’t know about you guys, but when we are hungry and we don’t have time, we usually grab a sandwich or some bread to go. Even when we aren’t in a rush, we still would sometimes enjoy a hearty sandwich from Subway, which keeps us happy and full. We also frequent fast food joints like McDonald's to chow down on a yummy burger. Bread is everywhere in our society, and is found abundantly as a staple food in most parts of the world. Just like us, the Mesopotamians and Egyptians were pretty dependent on bread in their diet, and had a lot of it.
Take a walk through the bread aisle in the grocery store or of a bakery; how many different types of bread can you see? Pretty sure that you’ll find a large variety of different kinds of breads. Bread Talk outlets in Singapore alone have rows and rows of delicious freshly baked bread, and they even have transparent glass panelled walls in their kitchen that allows you to see the baking process. The Ancient Mesopotamians too had many types of breads, and by many meaning 300 different kinds. Bread Talk seems a bit inferior now eh? Mesopotamian breads were made differently, each with unique combinations of ingredients such as spices and sweeteners and choice of flour. Not just the ingredients, but the sizes and leavenings also enabled such varieties.
How they made the bread
Grain was crushed on grindstones to make flours to be used for breads. This standard preparation method of grains started in the ancient Near East thousands of years before the first recording of how certain foods were made. Bread making was a very important part of the Mesopotamian haute cuisine since 3000 BCE. Imagine bread making from scratch! Luckily we have a big selection of ready made bread mix for us at grocery stores, so we don’t have to grind grains ourselves.
The two distinct ways to make bread produced two different outcomes; leavened and unleavened bread. Leavened bread contains yeast to help it to rise, while unleavened bread does not contain yeast and is much flatter. Unleavened bread is typically found in many part of the Middle East and is part of their common cuisine. The baking process for unleavened bread has not changed much since the ancient times, and the same techniques are still used in the Middle East.
In the ancient times, the Mesopotamians called the oven for such types of bread the tinfiru. A fire was built inside a clay cylinder that stood vertically. This caused the exterior walls to become extremely hot. Instead of putting the bread dough inside, the dough is flattened in a circular shape and slapped onto the walls of the cylinder oven to bake. In present day, the oven is called the tannur.
By 3000BCE, the Mesopotamians figured out a way to make leavened bread with yeast. This was successful as they were able to prepare fermented doughs by using beer and yeast, as well as build a dome oven. The new oven design provided less intense heat that built up and kept inside the walls and floors of the oven.
Kinds of bread
Mesopotamian breads were usually made from a choice of flour and fruit fillings, with an addition of oil, milk, beer or sweetener.
The breads ranged from “very large” to “very tiny”, and were often moulded into special shapes like hearts, a head, a hand, and even a woman’s breast. In a palace at Mari (Circa 1270 BCE), more than 50 different bread moulds were found, and it is believed that these were used to shape the bread and even cheese into different decorative shapes.
Significance of bread
Bread was often used as offerings to the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia. One instance is the god Anu, who was given 243 loaves of bread as part of sacrifice. Also, more expensive breads that used finer ingredients and flour were found in the tomb of Queen Puabi of Ur. It was placed there to provide her spirit with the nourishment of bread in the afterlife.
Just like the Mesopotamians, Egyptians loved their bread as much as Asians loved their rice. They were heavily dependent on agriculture from an early date, especially from produce like wheat and barley. These formed the backbone of their diet from the predynastic period (6000-3150BCE) onward for both the rich as well as the poor. This resulted in the Egyptians creating a variety of different breads made out of these 2 staples and a variety of other ingredients.
How they made the bread
The bread was made by mixing the dough and kneading it with both hands, and sometimes with feet in large containers. Yeast, salt, spices, milk and sometimes butter and egg were then added, before the bread was moulded into their different shapes. Crude utensils were used to make bread, which resulted in foreign bodies like quartz, felspar mica and ferromagnesian minerals being mixed into the flour. This can help us to appreciate how bread is made in today's society! So much cleaner and more hygienic. The Egyptians must have either had some really strong stomachs or suffered from bad cases of diarrhoea in the past.
Initially, the dough was cooked on open fires or on the embers. However, from the Old Kingdom onwards, they used bread-moulds that were preheated and wiped with fat. This process slowly became more sophisticated.
Kinds of bread
Initially, and even up till now, bread was usually cooked in the shape of a pancake. However, later on, the Egyptians started get creative and moulded their bread into long or round rolls. Sometimes they even shaped them into figures, especially for ceremonial purposes. They also made large and soft griddle cakes, which are still made today in Nubia.
Just like the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians enjoyed to consume their bread with fillings. They had thick loaves with hollow centres that they used to fill with beans, vegetables or other items. Their flat breads were sometimes also made with raised edges to hold ingredients like eggs or other fillings.
As time went by, they constantly improved the way that they made bread and discovered new and more creative ways to spice up their breads. They began to use a wider variety of ingredients in their bread mix and experimented eating their bread with different kinds of ingredients. However, bread was still more commonly sweetened with honey or dates, or flavoured with sesame, aniseed or fruit.
Significance of bread
Bread in ancient Egyptian times were often used as a synonym for food and hospitality. There was the saying “Do not eat bread while another stands by without extending your hand to him.” (Lichtheim, n.d) which shows how bread was important to them, as well as a staple and representative food. The rich also hoped that by giving out bread, these good deeds would count in their favour in the afterlife and show that they were generous and kind people.
Sometimes, wages were paid to workers in bread and beer, though more often it was in grains. In the Old Kingdom, a daily worker’s ration was usually 10 loaves of bread and 2 jugs of beer. And a superintendent's of a temple was usually 16 loaves and 8 jugs of beer. However, the size of these loaves are unknown and could have varied greatly from place to place and time to time, so it is assumed that they were enough to feed the workers and their families with the possibility of there being a little surplus left over to buy other necessities with (Breasted, n.d).
So… Why is this topic significant to history?
Bread was an extremely significant part of both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture, and that was thousands of years back. Even now, in current times, we still consume bread on a daily basis, and use bread in a variety of modern dishes. We even have gourmets sandwiches!
Once again, we see similarities in our culture and different cultures in ancient times, even though we are from 2 very different parts of the world! The methods of cooking are different, but the ingredients and outcome of the bread are very similar to what we have today. Today, bread to us is nit as important; we have so many different kinds of food to chose from, and bread to us is just another tasty option. However, bread was definitely more significant to the people of the past as it was their staple food, and they were heavily dependent on it.
We also can see how blessed we are. Now, when we need bread, all we need to do is to head down to one of the many bakeries or supermarkets scattered around Singapore to chose the kinds of breads that we want. We don’t have to go through the tedious process of bread making. And even for chefs and people who want to make their own bread, the process is so much easier and more efficient as compared to ancient methods. We now even have bread machines! Imagine if the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had that kind of technology in the past, they would be over the moon. This allows us to better appreciate the advancements and technology that we have now and how far we have come. Sure makes our Subway taste better than it already is ;)
(1) An introduction to the history and culture of Pharaonic Egypt. (2000). Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/index.html
(2) Dunn, I. (n.d.). Tour Egypt :: Egypt: The Diet (food) of the Ancient Egyptians. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/diet.htm
(3) J. H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 618
(4) M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. I, p.17
(5) The Cuisine of Ancient Mesopotamia Author(s): Jean Bottéro Source: The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1985), pp. 36-47 Published by: The American Schools of Oriental Research Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3209946 .
All yummy bread photos were taken and made by us!