From abundant delicacies to flowing wine, ancient Egyptian banquets were truly a sight to behold.
Food is crucial to daily life, but it also serves to define a culture and is one of the key elements in any celebration, be it sacred or secular. Banquets in ancient Egypt were held to celebrate births, marriages, rites of passage, advancement, homecomings, departures, death, and religious festivals, with lavish and sometimes special menus for these occasions. The king also used celebrations to bring together courtiers and diplomats and to win favour with the populace by feeding thousands of people.
There is no word in Egyptian that is clearly translated as ‘banquet’; the closest word in Egyptian is heby, to be festal or to make a festival, with heb being translated as feast or banquet. However, banquets are often depicted on tomb walls, and rules for being a good guest (and host) are outlined in texts called Wisdom Literature.
In banquet scenes, honoured guests, lavishly dressed, bewigged, and bejewelled, are shown being welcomed by their host and then seated. Servants pour scented water for the guests to wash their hands and provide them with perfumes and cones of fat impregnated with perfume to wear on their heads to smell pleasant—or to repel insects depending on the choice of perfume in the cone. They might also present the guests with garlands or sweet-smelling lotus flowers.
‘Despite the fact that the Wisdom Literature discouraged excess, tomb scenes vividly show men and women being sick or even passing out and having to be carried out after overindulgence.’
The blue lotus/lily (Nymphaea caerulea), held or worn by people or used to adorn jars and tables, blooms by day and closes at sunset and was a symbol of rebirth and resurrection associated with the sun. If these blossoms really were open during banquets, as depicted on tomb walls, then the parties must have started during midday and kept on going. In fact, religious festivals sometimes even carried on for days!
After the guests were seated, the food was brought out. The most important people were seated on chairs, and tables were placed before them, piled with food. As the guests’ status decreased, so did the type of seat, table, and portion and diversity of foodstuffs, with the least important people sitting on mats.
But for everyone, food was plentiful: entire oxen were roasted, together with ducks, geese, pigeons, and various other fowl (chicken was not available in ancient Egypt). Sometimes fish was also served, baked, boiled or grilled, but rarely, as it was considered more of an everyday food not fit for special occasions. Although pigs were eaten, they were considered to be a lower status meat and also did not feature in banquets. Stews of meat and vegetables were cooked and different types of bread baked, accompanied by a profusion of fresh vegetables and fruit. Cakes and confectionaries, using dates and honey as sweetening agents, were also served. A recipe for a special cake/bread made of tiger nut (hab al-‘aziz) flour is inscribed on the wall of Vizier Rekhmire’s tomb in Luxor. For religious festivals, it is possible that specially shaped cakes or breads were baked in the form of triangles, circles, trapezoids, possibly using particular ingredients, the same way that kahk and other sweets are made today for special holidays. The Egyptians even made some of their breads and cookies in the shapes of animals or people—the equivalent of the earliest animal crackers or gingerbread people.
Alcohol was also plentiful at banquets, particularly royal events designed to win popular support. Red and white wine made of grapes or dates (like the historical date wine of Siwa Oasis), beer, or shedeh, a fermented pomegranate drink, were offered in ceramic vessels, many decorated with lotus blossoms. Dom-palm nuts were crushed, boiled, sweetened with honey, and served as a drink, as is the case today. Despite the fact that the Wisdom Literature discouraged excess, tomb scenes vividly show men and women being sick or even passing out and having to be carried out after overindulgence.
Partygoers enjoyed socialising with one another, but entertainers also performed at banquets. Music was a popular form of entertainment, with male and female musicians singing and playing harps, lutes, drums, tambourines, and clappers. Most of the songs were cheerful, and some might have invoked the goddess Hathor, who was closely associated with feasting as well as with love, happiness, alcohol, drunkenness, music, and dancing. Some songs were more serious, reminding the guests of the ephemeral nature of life but, at the same time, urging them to seize the day and live it to the fullest. The message to enjoy life was no doubt emphasized by the dance performances, with professional dancers, generally female, performing elaborate acrobatic combinations to divert the guests. The ancient Egyptians clearly knew how to throw good parties.
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Salima Ikram is distinguished professor of Egyptology at AUC. She obtained her PhD from Cambridge University, entitled Choice Cuts: Meat Production in Ancient Egypt. She has excavated and published extensively, and her main areas of interest are ancient Egyptian food and daily life, funerary archaeology, archaeozoology, and heritage management.