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Archive for the 'Ancient Near East' Category

Ancient Egyptian Drinking Party

1st November 2006

MSNBC has an article about an ancient Egyptian drinking party which they liken to the debaucheries of the “Girls gone wild” video genre (Gee, do you think that tie-in was made to be provocative?). The article, “Sex and booze figured in Egyptian rites,” by Alan Boyle reports on some finds from the ruins of a temple in Luxor by Johns Hopkins University professor Betsy Bryan.

Here are some excerpts:

Johns Hopkins University’s Betsy Bryan, who has been leading an excavation effort at the Temple of Mut since 2001, laid out her team’s findings on the drinking festival here on Saturday during the annual New Horizons in Science briefing, presented by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

“We are talking about a festival in which people come together in a community to get drunk,” she said. “Not high, not socially fun, but drunk — knee-walking, absolutely passed-out drunk.”

The temple excavations turned up what appears to have been a “porch of drunkenness,” associated with Hatshepsut, the wife and half-sister of Thutmose II. After the death of Thutmose II in 1479 B.C., Hatshepsut ruled New Kingdom Egypt for about 20 years as a female pharaoh, and the porch was erected at the height of her reign.

Some of the inscriptions that were uncovered at the temple link the drunkenness festival with “traveling through the marshes,” which Bryan said was an ancient Egyptian euphemism for having sex. The sexual connection is reinforced by graffiti depicting men and women in positions that might draw some tut-tutting today.

The rules for the ritual even called for a select few to stay sober — serving as “designated drivers” for the drunkards, she said. On the morning after, musicians walked around, beating their drums to wake up the revelers.

Prayerful party
The point of all this wasn’t simply to have a good time, Bryan said. Instead, the festival — which was held during the first month of the year, just after the first flooding of the Nile — re-enacted the myth of Sekhmet, a lion-headed war goddess.

According to the myth, the bloodthirsty Sekhmet nearly destroyed all humans, but the sun god Re tricked her into drinking mass quantities of ochre-colored beer, thinking it was blood. Once Sekhmet passed out, she was transformed into a kinder, gentler goddess named Hathor, and humanity was saved.


New twists in an old tale
The discoveries at the Temple of Mut parallel historical references to drunken rituals during Egypt’s Greco-Roman period. The writer Herodotus reported in 440 B.C. that such festivals drew as many as 700,000 people — with drunken women exposing themselves to onlookers. “More grape wine is consumed at this festival than in all the rest of the year besides,” Herodotus wrote. The festival also turns up in chronicles from around A.D. 200.

The new twist in Bryan’s work is that such rituals were found to have taken place during a much earlier time in Egyptian history, said Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol. “She’s actually found the first definite evidence,” he told

I especially like the accompanying sketch of a wall painting which shows one of partiers throwing up (top left):


This festival seems to be akin to the מרזח marzeach, a drinking festival widely attested to in the ancient Near East.

Some things never change.

Posted in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Near East, Archaeology | 1 Comment »

Food in the Bible and the Ancient Near East

27th October 2006

Ever feel like making our self a bowl of “red stuff” or wondering what the typical ancient Israelite or first century Jew ate for dinner? has an article entitled “The land of milk … and molasses?” by Yahil Zaban that discusses food in Bible times.

The actual article draws from a book published a couple years ago: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Abingdon, 2004; Buy from | Buy from

Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Food at the Time of the Bible” studies the various mentions of food in the Bible, the New Testament, the Mishnah and the Talmud, and offers readers a different perspective on the history of the Land of Israel. Author Miriam Feinberg Vamosh compares historical sources, looks at archaeological findings and tracks down communities that have preserved old culinary traditions that date back to antiquity. In so doing, she paints a tangible and human portrait of the past, dashing some of the myths we have grown up with, along the way.


That is probably why the author has provided an array of biblical-style recipes. Prepare “Jael’s Labane” and feel Sisera’s death on the tip of your tongue. Eat “Song of Songs Cake” (“before adding nuts, chop dates in a food processor”) and feel the refreshment in your belly. Anyone who wants to nibble the delicacies that graced King Solomon’s table is invited to whip up some “Solomon’s Chicken Kebabs” spiced with coriander, garlic and cumin. Most of the recipes are pseudo-biblical, of course, and you will need modern kitchen appliances to prepare them, but the spices and ingredients were all available in biblical Israel. Tomatoes and potatoes, which entered our lexicon after the discovery of America, are not on the menu.

The recipes in the book thus combine historical research and contemporary culinary know-how. Some of them are a little bizarre, like “Pharaoh’s Melokhia Soup” (taken from an inscription in an ancient Egyptian tomb), but most are characterized by the book’s sober approach to biblical cuisine. The author discusses the spiritual significance of food customs in the Bible, and delves deeply into the metaphoric use of cooking and eating terms. But the symbolism of food, in her view, is anchored in the reality of biblical life.

A case in point is Ezekiel 24, where the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem is described in culinary terms. The city is likened to a pot, and the sinning Israelites to chunks of meat. The grim prophecy alludes to the cooking customs of the time. God, in his anger, turns up the fire under the pot and orders Ezekiel to add some bones. The author overdoes it, perhaps, with her recipe for “Ezekiel’s Lamb Stew,” but with a little substitution – lamb, onions and carrots, instead of Israelites – readers can enjoy an old Jerusalem favorite.

This work appears to be a bit more popular than academic, though it look interesting.

I have long had an interest in ancient cuisine, which is probably due to the fact that I used to cook at a French restaurant and have always enjoyed cooking.

Food in the Ancient Near East

In this regard another book on this subject which includes a number of ancient recipes is Jean Bottéro, Texts culinaires Mésopotamiens / Mesopotamian Culinary Texts (Eisenbrauns, 1995; Buy from Eisenbrauns).

This volume provides reconstructions and translations of the Yale Culinary Tablets. Most of the book is in French, but there is one chapter in English that includes actual recipes. Recipes include “Gazelle broth,” “Goat’s kid broth,” “Green wheat in porridge” (they sure liked their broth!).

It should be noted that these Mesopotamian recipes do not reflect the typical meals of your average Joe or Jane Babylonian — they are “restricted to the kitchens of the mighty and, perhaps, to the kitchens of the gods” (Bottéro, 16). They are fascinating nonetheless.

I have been thinking for quite a while that I need to prepare one of these dishes and feed it to unsuspecting students. Hmmm… perhaps the “Spleen broth” would do the trick!

Posted in Ancient Near East, Bible | 1 Comment »