What is one thing that has been a basic necessity as well as a bonding factor since the beginning of humanity? That would be food!
Food is crucial for survival- we can’t do without it. Not only does it keep us alive and provide us with the fuel and energy to get about our daily activities, it also serves as an avenue for people to bond and forge new friendships. Of course, how we obtain food now is much easier as compared to how our ancestors used to; we have supermarkets, food courts, restaurants, markets, cafes and pop up stalls where we can get food from instantly. What about in the past? How did the people then do it? How did they manage to survive without an NTUC a few blocks away and a hawker centre next door?
In this blogpost, we will be exploring some of the basic foods that people in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt used to survive on. To help ourselves better understand what it was like to eat those foods in the past, we went to look for them ourselves from our local supermarkets and documented our findings below!
Some of the basic staple foods that seemed to run throughout both civilisations were wheat, grains, barley, bread and beer. Both civilisations were very dependent on the river (The River Nile for Egypt and Tigris and Euphrates for Mesopotamia) for their source of food, for the growth of their crops and to feed the animals that they reared.
Dating back to 1900 BC, it is known that the Mesopotamians had over 800 different food items, including 20 different cheeses, 100 kinds of soup and 300 different breads. They usually ate two meals a day and took pride in their highly developed cuisine, comparing it to that of desert nomads whom they believed had no idea of the ways of civilised life. They also maintained a well balanced diet by consuming vegetables and fruit were eaten at every meal, flavoured with herbs and spices grown locally or imported from afar.
Mesopotamia comes from a Greek term, meaning the land between rivers. A very accurate name, as the the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia was located between the Tigris and Euphrates river. The land they had had very fertile and alluvial soil, which allowed barley to grow easily and abundantly. The barley was used to make unleavened bread and beer, which were both main staples. With so much beer being readily available, it is not surprising that Mesopotamians were known to be heavy beer drinkers. They also had wine, but it was more expensive to produce and attain so it was not consumed as often.
Barley and cereal were often grounded with portable millstones to produce various grades of flour, which was then mixed with water to produce different kinds of bread. Bread could also be made out of other grains like millet, emmer wheat and rye. There were even different grades of bread: first quality, ordinary, black or white.
Mesopotamians also grew a variety of different food, mainly grains such as barley and wheat. Besides that, they also grew legumes that included lentils, chickpeas and beans, fruits like melons, eggplants, apples, grapes, plums, pears, dates, pomegranates, apricots and figs. There were also roots like onions, garlic, radishes, beet and turnips and vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, cucumber and leeks. Fresh vegetables were eaten raw or boiled in water. Herbs and spices like salt, coriander, black and white cumin, fennel, thyme, mint and rosemary were also crucial for adding flavour and zest to dishes and were grown as well.
Not only did they grow their own food, they also enjoyed hunting as a recreational activity. Game like gazelle and deer was usually hunted for outside their village and cities, while fish were caught in rivers as well as canals that they dug to irrigate their crop fields and gardens. Besides that, they also reared their own animals like sheep, goats, cows, pigs, cattle, ducks and pigeons. However, meat was considered as expensive and a luxury item that was usually reserved for the gods or royalty.
Egypt, located on the northeastern side of Africa, is a very dry place. It is hard to grow crops and raise animals for a civilisations to last 5000 years in the dessert. Most of the population concentrated in living along the Nile River which flooded every summer between June and September. Thanks to this natural occurrence, the land around the Nile Valley was kept fertile, rich in nutrients, and suitable for farming. Known as one of the most fertile lands in the ancient world, Egyptians had a rich variety of crops and animals. However, because the flooding of the Nile is all in nature’s control, there were times when it rose too high, destroying villages or didn’t rise high enough and not providing enough moisture to soils enough for agriculture. In years like these, the civilisations went through famine, but under normal conditions, they grew mainly wheat and barley to make beer and bread which were their essential food eaten by both the rich and the poor. This gave Egypt a distinct advantage over many other over many other civilisations when it came to food.
Similar to Mesopotamia, bread and cereal were staple food that they relied heavily on for both the rich and poor. Yeast, salt, spices, milk and sometimes butter and egg were added to the bread to make it more flavourful. The bread came in all kinds of different shapes and sizes, some of them were moulded into thick loaves with hollow centres that could be filled with ingredients like beans and vegetables. Others were rolled into long rolls or shaped into figures.
Due to their rich soil, the Egyptians grew a variety of different fruit and vegetables. Similar to the Mesopotamians, they consumed plenty of vegetables like chickpeas, lentils, green peas, leeks and lettuce. They also consumed garlic and onions, that were also used for medicinal purposes and to repel diseases. Not much is known about the kinds of fruits that were consumed by the Egyptians except for the fact that they consumed plenty of dates, grapes and plums. Grapes and dates were usually dried for consumption or fermented to make wine.
Meat was more of a luxury food for the Egyptians. The rich feasted on most kinds of meat available, including sheep, antelope, deer, and goat, while the poor usually settled for geese, duck, quails, pigeon and crane. They also consumed most fish that they caught from the nile. Beef from cattle was consumed more by the rich, but was often eaten during festive occasions by both the rich and the poor. Pork was initially not consumed as it was associated with the evil god Seth, but slowly became accepted throughout Egypt.
Just like in Mesopotamia, beer was a staple and one of the most common drinks available. Their beers had a variety of different strengths that were calculated based on how many standard measures of the liquid was made from one hekat of barley. Unlike Mesopotamia however, wine was more commonly drunk. The Egyptians had plenty of vineyards that produced an abundance of grapes and wines.
Let's go shopping!
So we went supermarket shopping and attempted to find some of the foods that the Mesopotamians and Egyptians used to eat and here's what we found!
Managed to find someone the fruits that they used to eat: grapes, plums, melon, prunes and apples!
Here are some of the vegetables and roots that we found! Leeks, onions, garlic, cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, beans and eggplants!
They also ate apricots so we found a dried version of it.
Found the equivalent to wheat/grains!
Mesopotamians loved their cheese. They would have fainted at the sight of this cheese aisle.
And of course, their staple food: BEER
Pretty sure that if they had such a variety of beer like we do now they would be over the moon.
They don't sell the kinds of birds that the Egyptians used to consume at supermarkets in singapore so we had to make do with this wild Pigeon that we saw wandering around.
Barley! One of their essential foods.
Instead of rearing sheep and other animals, we can now get them at our local supermarket all nicely cut up and packaged for us.
For venison as well!
So… why is this topic significant to history?
Learning and understanding the eating habits and the kinds of food available to the Egyptians and Mesopotamians allows us to better understand their culture, and to draw links between their culture and what we have in current times. All cultures are unique in their own ways, but as seen from the examples that we have mentioned, there are a few common foods that run throughout most cultures. Also, with globalisation and advancements in technology, it helps different societies to connect and share their cultures with each other, and also to share common kinds of food. Most of the foods we mentioned can be found all around the world, unlike in the past where they were only available to specific areas depending on the environment.
We also realised that these two ancient civilisations had food that we could easily find in grocery stores of today. The civilisations are ancient, the dishes they made were ancient dishes, but these foods have been around for many years. Sure, the packaging and the way that it's been produced is very different, but at the end of the day, it’s the same kind of food. The biggest difference is the access to it. People would have to wait through seasons to eat a particular vegetable and harvesting didn’t always go right. Now, we can get anything we want in grocery stores even if it’s off season because somewhere in the world, is a place where they can harvest and transport it over worldwide. When we take a step back and look at these changes and advancements in society not only in a specific area, but globally, we really begin to appreciate how far the world has come today, as well as how globalised it is.
(1) 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
(2) Brewer, D. J., & Teeter, E. (n.d.). Ancient Egyptian Society and Family Life. Retrieved October 14, 2016, from http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/2/21701778/
(3) Nemet-Nejat, K. R. (1998). Daily life in ancient Mesopotamia. https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=lbmXsaTGNKUC&pg=PA159&lpg=PA159&dq=mesopotamia+diet&source=bl&ots=dt6O4kGUri&sig=h1SdLJzl9Wkk_Pg1euyh2t_fSvA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwihmYKfwtfPAhVBs48KHejLDmkQ6AEIZzAQ#v=onepage&q=mesopotamia%20diet&f=false
Credits to Market Place at Tanglin Mall for allowing us to take photos in their premises!