From sweet sherbets and buza to coffee and tea, the beverages consumed by Egyptians provide an interesting glimpse of traditions through the ages.
If you have ever had the pleasure of drinking a ‘Turkish’ coffee—or just coffee (qahwa) as most Egyptians call it—you may also have experienced a delightful folk ritual. They say if you upend a finished cup on to its saucer, wait, and then remove the cup, you can see your future in the coffee grounds left behind. I make no claims as to the efficacy of this method of soothsaying, but I bring it up to highlight how a beverage can trigger deep contemplation. Examining what Egyptians drink today can help us shed light on different dimensions of the country’s long history. Like most other things in Egypt, the new has built on, but not replaced, the old.
A Sip from the Nile
One cannot talk about drinking and beverages in Egypt without acknowledging the greatest provider of refreshment in the country, its lifeblood from time immemorial, the Nile. Mustafa Ali, a nineteenth-century Ottoman visitor, noted that its waters were ‘extremely good-tasting’ and ‘purer and sweeter’ than others. It is no wonder then that for most of Egypt’s history the most common drink was water. It was so common, in fact, that one Ancient Egyptian aphorism stresses that you should avoid drinking water in a merchant’s house, ‘because he will put it on the bill’. Besides highlighting the greed of the merchant, it also shows that from Egypt’s earliest records, water was an assumed right for all Egyptians. It was Egypt’s main thirst quencher throughout history, and up until relatively recently, it was the only drink that accompanied food at the dinner table. It was traditionally stored in a qulla (earthenware jug or bottle) to help purify it and keep it cool, but since the introduction of glass and plastic, these materials have taken over as storage and serving vessels. Before indoor plumbing, those who did not have direct access to the Nile or to a well had to pay saqqa (water carrier) to bring it to them. Since the 1970s, there has been a growing market for bottled water in Egypt, serving those who do not want to—or cannot—drink straight from the Nile.
Something a Little Stronger
If there are any beverages that have a history as long as that of water in Egypt, they have to be beer and wine. The archaeological record is replete with examples of how ancient Egyptians made and drank beer. As scientific analysis has shown, the ancient Egyptians mastered the malting process of barley central to making beer. Their beer was not hopped and could be quite sweet. It was enjoyed by most Egyptians and could even serve as a form of payment of wages.
Ancient Egyptians also mastered the process of winemaking and made different wines from both red and white grape varieties, as well as from dates, figs, and pomegranates. It was primarily a drink of the elite. It was only in the Greek and Roman periods that wine consumption became popular amongst most Egyptians. In Late Antiquity, the primacy of wine continued as Egypt became a centre of Christianity, which attached sacral value to the fruit of the vine. It is then not surprising that we have prominent archaeological evidence that the Coptic monasteries were producers of wine. So reputed were their wines, that Muslim families, including families of rulers, would visit monasteries to spend a day outdoors and enjoy their wine. Despite Islam’s prohibition of khamr, alcohol consumption continued relatively unencumbered after the Arab conquest, with wine still carrying greater cultural weight than beer—notice the numerous wine odes produced in this era and the dearth of beer poems. It was only in the Mamluk era that we can speak of an efficacious prohibition on alcohol consumption. The prohibition lightened with the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517, who also helped to make buza (Turkish, boza), Egypt’s main alcoholic beverage. Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi also noted that Egypt was known for subya, a fermented drink made from rice. This beverage did not carry great social weight and was, and has remained, associated with the lower classes.
Starting in the nineteenth century, attitudes towards alcohol started changing in Egypt. Under the reformist Ottomans and the colonialist British, the number of and types of alcohol available in Egypt grew. As such, whiskey, brandy, champagne, and numerous other alcoholic beverages entered Egyptian culture. Nevertheless, it was beer that stood out from the rest. It would come to dominate in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, thanks to the magic of the Stella beer brand, the efforts of the companies that sold it, and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s radical reshaping of the country. In more recent years, it is non-alcoholic beer that has taken centre stage, as beer and other alcoholic beverages, have shrunk to become niche beverages.
Warming the Spirit
Whereas beer and wine have ancient roots but a relatively small presence in contemporary Egyptian culture, more recent entrants into the country, tea and coffee, have grabbed a central cultural role. If we were to assert a national drink for Egypt, it would be one of these two. They are consumed by all social classes and in almost any situation. Coffee came to Egypt in the sixteenth century, most probably with Yemeni Sufis studying at al-Azhar. It was not the only hot beverage to arrive in Egypt under the Ottomans. Sahlab, a beverage made from ground orchid tubers and served hot in the winter, also appeared at that time. However, it was coffee that became a phenomenon. Coffee and coffeehouses began as low-class ventures, perhaps due to the latter’s resemblance to taverns, but by the nineteenth century they had penetrated Egyptian society up to the elite classes. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, unsweetened coffee was the preeminent beverage in coffeehouses; however, with large scale immigration into Egypt, as well as British colonialism, new coffeeshops appeared where coffee was sweetened with sugar. Soon thereafter sugar became standard. It was boiled with the coffee beans and thus required a patron to specify their preferred amount of sugar when ordering their coffee, a tradition that survives to this day.
These new coffeeshops also offered tea, the drink of British colonialists. It is not coincidental that tea took off after the British occupation. Their colonial venture was distinctly capitalist in nature. It extracted raw materials from its imperial possessions, refined them, and exported them to those same imperial territories. In the case of tea, it was extracting tea leaves from the Indian sub-continent and exporting them to places like Egypt. Between the 1920s and the 1950s, tea took the place of coffee, especially among the Egyptian poor. Between 1947 and 1959, Egyptians consumed more than 30 million pounds of tea. That pre-eminence remains today, and like the beverage it replaced, tea is consumed black and heavily sugared.
Sweetening the Mood
The domination of tea is being threatened by another heavily sweetened beverage: the carbonated soft drink such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola. Their ubiquitous presence in Egypt today is partly due to the strong marketing efforts their producers made after the 1980s as well as to the traditional affinity of Egyptians for heavily sweetened beverages. The success of Coca-Cola is particularly astounding as its parent company had been barred from the county between 1967 and 1979 for political reasons.
While carbonated soft drinks dominate today, their forerunner is the sherbet or sharbat, a condensed syrup made from the juice of fruits or other edibles like wheat and mixed with water or ice to produce a beverage. Its origin lies in medieval Egypt (as a way to preserve fruit before refrigeration) and it was attributed with great medicinal value. So much value in fact that the sharabi (the server of sherbet) resembled a pre-modern pharmacist. The cities of Egypt historically housed many itinerant sherbet sellers and the drink carried a great deal of social weight. It was the main beverage Egyptians would serve guests in their homes or at big social ceremonies such as weddings. It also appeared throughout the Islamic world and was a central part of Ottoman drinking habits. It even entered Western culture as sherbet, sorbet, or shrub. Soft drinks such as Coca-Cola built on the sherbet tradition, as they are essentially the same thing, a sweet syrup mixed with water, only in this case carbonated.
A Cap on it All
So, what can we say about the history of beverages in Egypt? The beverages that Egyptians drink today are undoubtedly the products of millennia of history. Even the most ‘modern’ drink, the carbonated soft drink, taps into a history that stretches back to the seventh century. That is not to say that certain beverages were not discarded along the way. Koumiss, the fermented mare’s milk loved by the Mamluks, for example, did not remain popular for long. Nevertheless, in your bottle of Coke, cup of tea, or can of Stella, you can still see the strands that connect Egyptians to their earliest history.