Although food is generally perishable, quite a bit of evidence has survived to show us what the ancient Egyptians ate. Not only do we have brightly coloured tombs and numerous texts, but also ancient examples of plant remains and food.
Bread was a staple of the Egyptian diet, along with different kinds of vegetables. For most of Pharaonic history, bread was made from emmer wheat, while bread-making, from the sowing and harvesting to the grinding and baking, probably occupied a large slice of daily activities. Several hundred bread loaves have survived to this day thanks to Egypt’s wonderfully arid environment. The ancient Egyptians mastered some forty kinds of bread (and even cakes!): oblong, disc-shaped, flat, triangular, and even human and animal-shaped loaves have all been found. Honey and dried fruits were also added to make sweeter breads or cakes. The ancient Egyptians even had ‘multi-grain’ bread. Cracked grain was boiled and added to fine-textured dough to create a soft and chewy loaf. Finger prints left in some bread loaves point to hand-shaping, but bread was often formed using moulds. Bread was also decorated with inclusions and prick marks.
Beer was another important staple. Ancient Egyptian beer was much denser and more nutritious than its modern equivalent; perhaps it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to call it liquid food! It was indeed a valuable source of sugars, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. It was once generally thought that the Egyptians made beer by washing partially cooked bread loaves (special ‘beer bread’ loaves, not just any old stale bread), and leaving them to ferment in large vats; dates or malt could then be added. However, more recent research has managed to pretty much recreate (a suggested) method of making ancient Egyptian beer.
Vegetables and Legumes
Lentils were a popular dish. They were probably prepared in a similar manner to today’s methods, as surviving examples indicate that the lentils were soaked and pounded prior to consumption. Lettuce, leeks, onions, garlic, celery, and cucumbers are some of the other common vegetables. Tomatoes and potatoes, being new world crops, did not exist in ancient Egypt, while aubergines were not introduced until much later in Egyptian history. Sadly, the methods by which various foods were prepared are not yet fully understood.
As in modern Egypt, meat was a luxury for any ancients below society’s crème de la crème. It was primarily consumed at festivals, or sometimes given as bonuses or gifts. Though eaten for their meat, some animals were also raised for their milk, which was made into cheese. Pigs were also consumed, and fish, readily available in the then-clean Nile, were quite common, and were often salted or smoked. The ancient Egyptians, however, did not have chickens! Some scanty attestations of chicken-like fowl are known from ancient Egypt, but no bones have been recovered in archaeological contexts, and so it seems that it was not until the Thirtieth Dynasty (ca. 380-343 BCE) that chickens were consumed. Instead, geese, ducks, quails, pigeons and other types of avifauna were eaten.
A fruit-based product beloved by the ancient Egyptians was wine. But only the rich and affluent could afford it. Aside from its consumption as a drink, wine was also used as a mild antiseptic and as a cough syrup, among other medicinal uses. When consumed in excess, wine had, needles to say, nasty repercussions. Some instances from New Kingdom tomb reliefs show banquet scenes with members of both sexes suffering from over-consumption: women are being ill, and men are being carried home! There were many sorts of wines with different additions and flavourings, and many different vineyards were in operation. There were even different grades and qualities of wine: nefer nefer nefer wine (literally meaning ‘good good good’ wine), and just nefer wine (just ‘good’ wine). Apparently also, the well-known lotus flower of ancient Egypt has some hallucinogenic qualities, and when added to wine, it gave it a certain extra, well, kick…
Not just for writing
Papyrus is almost synonymous with ancient Egypt. It was used for paper (of course), for boats, for roofing, and in case you hadn’t guessed it already, it was also eaten! Good old Herodotus has documented that the bottom parts of papyrus stalks were baked and eaten, and that young shoots of papyrus were also consumed.
Food for the dead
Food was not only consumed by the living. Part of ancient Egyptian belief was that the dead would come alive again, and that tomb paintings could also come to life. A very common scene is that of funerary offerings. The deceased is often depicted seated before a table, piled high with food which could magically substitute for real food for him to consume in the afterlife. Another common scene is that of offering bearers bringing various food products to the deceased. Lists of food and drink were engraved on tomb walls, commonly reading, ‘one thousand of bread, one thousand of beer’. These could include many other kinds of food and drink too, and give us much information about the ancient Egyptians’ eating habits and preferences.
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Mennat-Allah El Dorry holds a PhD in archaeobotany from the University of Münster and an MA in Egyptian archaeology from the American University in Cairo. She is currently the head of the Minister’s Scientific Office at the Ministry of Antiquities in Egypt. Her interests span from social organisation in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods, to food and agricultural traditions in monastic settlements and Pharaonic elements in Egyptian cinema.