What did the Ancient Egyptians eat and drink? Main Index

What did the Ancient Egyptians eat and drink?

Every year in the Summer the River Nile rose and all the land along its banks was covered with water for three months. When the water eventually went down everywhere it had been was covered with a new layer of very fertile thick black mud.

The Ancient Egyptians farmed this very fertile strip of mud-covered land, which they called Kemmet, translated into English as Black Land. Beyond the Black Land was the Red Land which was not flooded every year, so nothing could grow in it; this was where the people built their houses.

The Black Land was so called because of its colour. Similarly for the Red Land: the Egyptian word we translate as Red Land is Desert - one of the very few words of Ancient Egyptian which has passed into other languages.

The Ancient Egyptians grew cereals such as wheat and barley and many sorts of trees and other plants, and kept cattle, sheep, goats, ducks, geese and pigs. They also kept bees, fished in the River Nile and hunted the wild animals living in the delta and desert. The only trees and plants they needed but could not grow along the River Nile were those which produced spices and incense. Spices were used for flavouring their food and many other purposes, and incense was used in the Temples. These had to be imported from other countries.

Much if not most of what we know about Ancient Egyptian farming, food and drink comes from wall-paintings and models in tombs, many of which show everyday people doing everyday things like making beer and hunting, and of course eating and drinking.

Food

Bread

The main food at every meal was bread, as in fact it was throughout Egypt, the Near East and Europe until the potato was introduced after the discovery of the Americas in the 15th century CE. The Ancient Egyptians, both rich and poor, ate so much bread that the people who lived in the lands around Egypt called them “bread eaters” (but not to their faces - it was not a very polite term!).

The bread was usually made from emmer wheat, although they also grew and used two other types of wheat, einkorn and spelt. Bread is made from flour, obtained by grinding the wheat to a fine powder. The Egyptians did not have windmills or watermills to do this, so the grinding was done by hand, using special grinding stones called querns, and the way it was done allowed some of the stone worn away from the querns to become mixed with the flour. This meant that the bread was very gritty and chewing it gradually wore away your teeth, so many older Egyptians had very poor teeth and lots of dental problems.

Pharaoh himself controlled the production of wheat and barley. In years when the harvest was very good the surplus grain was stored in huge mud-brick containers called granaries, and then in years when the harvest was poor the stored grain was distributed to prevent the people from starving. This is why cats were so important in Ancient Egypt: they were needed to control the rats and mice who would otherwise eat the grain in the granaries.


Meat

Rich people ate mainly beef, with some sheep and goat. They would not usually eat pig if other meat was available. They also hunted and ate many of the wild animals that lived in the delta and Red Land (desert), including deer and antelope. The poor people ate less beef and more goat and sheep and they also kept and ate pigs.

People working on building projects were provided with food and beer, and those working on Royal projects, for example the pyramids or the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, seem to have had a meat allowance containing a much higher proportion of beef than other workers.


Poultry

There were no chickens or turkeys in Ancient Egypt, but the Egyptians kept geese and ducks and these were eaten by both rich and poor. They also hunted and ate wild ducks and geese and many other birds such as quails and cranes. The only birds they did not eat were those they considered sacred, such as the ibis.

Fish

There were many different sorts of fish in the River Nile, but rich people did not eat a lot of fish (except salted fish) if meat was available. Poor people ate more fish, and they also preserved it by drying it in the sun or salting it. Salted fish was a great delicacy with both rich and poor, and was also one of Ancient Egypt's main exports.

They ate most sorts of fish except one species, which was sacred because it was associated with the god Osiris.



Vegetables

The Ancient Egyptians grew peas and beans, lentils, onions, garlic, radishes, turnips, peppers, leeks, lettuces and cucumbers, and also many herbs such as aniseed, fennel, mustard, thyme, coriander, cumin and dill. They could not grow spices as most spices need much hotter conditions - the spices, and also the incense, they needed they obtained from the Land of Punt. Egyptologists are not certain where this was, but it must have been somewhere much further South, possibly on the East coast of Africa.


Fruits

The Ancient Egyptians grew grapes, figs, water melons, dates, pomegranates, pumpkins, plums and many other fruits, and also walnuts and almonds and other nuts.

Grapes could be eaten as they were, made into wine or sun-dried to make raisins, and dates, figs and plums could also be eaten fresh or dried in the sun. Poor people also used dates and other fruits to sweeten their food - we now think that the hieroglyph for date could also mean any sort of sweetener except honey. Rich people sweetened their food with honey but this was very expensive.


Eggs

There were no chickens as we know them in Ancient Egypt, but the Ancient Egyptians kept ducks and geese and ate their eggs - we know this because there are wall-paintings showing baskets of eggs. But we do not know much about how they cooked them because we have not found very many recipes containing eggs.

Butter and cheese

The Ancient Egyptians milked cows, goats and sheep. They drank some of the milk and turned some of it into butter and cheese.



Honey

The Ancient Egyptians kept bees for honey and beeswax and also collected wild honey. Sugar, like the potato, was unknown in Egypt and the Near East and Europe until the discovery of the Americas, so rich people used honey to sweeten their food and to make cakes and puddings.

Honey keeps almost for ever and provided the jars have not been broken honey put into tombs is still eatable more than three thousand years later. However honey is also a very good preservative and the Ancient Egyptians used it for preserving small pets etc as a less expensive alternative to mummification. So if you do happen to come across a jar of Ancient Egyptian honey it is always advisable to check what else is in the jar before you start to eat it!

The Ancient Egyptians and other ancient people used beeswax for many purposes, but none of them ever used it to make beeswax candles, most ancient people only used lamps, burning a liquid. This is discussed on the Page on Lighting in Ancient Egypt.


Fats and oils

The Egyptians used fats and oils in food and cooking, for skin care and in perfumes and cosmetics, in medicines, and to burn in lamps to provide light at night and inside the temples and tombs. Solid fats were usually animal fat or butter; liquid vegetable oils were obtained from the seeds of plants such as castor, sesame and flax. Olive trees did not grow in Ancient Egypt although an attempt was made to introduce them during the 18th Dynasty, about the time of Tutankhamen.

Fragrances can be captured in waxes and fats, which is why candles and soaps can be scented. In wall paintings Egyptian ladies are shown with wax cones on their wigs and it is thought that these were scented and that the wax would melt and run down over the wig releasing the fragrance.


Salt

Salt is not a food but we cannot live without it: if we were to go completely without any salt at all for more than three or four days we would die (in considerable pain). Also, most foods taste horrible if cooked without any salt whatever. But too much salt is bad for you, particularly for very young and very old people and people who are very fat or have heart disease.

Today most take-away and prepared foods (beefburgers and fries etc, pizzas and hot-dogs, pre-cooked foods and foods in packets, jars, tins etc ) contain so much added salt that many people living in towns in Europe and North America are taking in far too much salt. But in Ancient Egypt, mediaeval Europe and even many poor countries today, it was far from easy for most people to obtain enough salt. We lose salt when we sweat, and the Ancient Egyptians workers, labouring out of doors all day under the hot Egyptian Sun, would have needed much more salt than we do. Most workers (not only in Egypt but also in many other countries) received a daily salt allowance as a part of their wages. (Hence of course the expression “not worth his salt” for a worker who is not pulling his weight.)

If you lived near the sea you could make salt by collecting sea water in shallow pots and then leaving the pots in the Sun so the water evaporated leaving the salt behind, but if you lived a long way from the sea you needed to obtain your salt from a salt mine, and sometimes the nearest salt mine might be hundreds of kilometres away. Most of Egypt's salt had to be brought from a place called Siwa, involving a journey of more than two hundred kilometres across the Western (Sahara) Desert. Not only in Ancient Egypt but throughout the whole of the ancient and mediaeval world the people who controlled the salt mines and the merchants who transported and sold the salt were often very rich and powerful.



Drink


Water

Although the River Nile always contained lots of water, even during the dry season of Shomu, the Egyptians did not usually drink river water or water from the irrigation ditches and canals because this contained lots of water snails and other animals which spread human parasites - parasites are very tiny animals which live on or inside our bodies and can make us very ill or blind us, or even kill us. Instead the Ancient Egyptians usually obtained their drinking water from wells in their houses or villages.

Beer

The Egyptians drank a lot of beer, and workers usually received a daily allowance of beer. Both adults and children drank it.

Beer, even beer made from river water, was much safer to drink than well water because beer-making involves boiling the mixture of the water and the malt (made from the barley) and this kills all the bacteria and parasites in it, and then the ethanol (alcohol) in it prevents them from coming back. Beer was still being drunk for the same reason throughout mediaeval Europe.

Beer was made from barley or sometimes wheat but sometimes dates or other fruits were used as well - we now think the hieroglyph for date was also used to mean anything sweet except honey. We have lots of wall paintings of Ancient Egyptians brewing beer but very few recipes for it so we cannot be certain what it tasted like. Today most beer is flavoured with hops but there were no hops in Ancient Egypt.

Although beer would not have been stored in unglazed pots, if it was poured into unglazed (porous) earthenware jugs before serving it some of the beer would evaporate and this would cool the beer in the jug. At home most people would drink beer cooled in this way.

Most tombs contained large amounts of beer but very unusually Tutankhamen's tomb contained none at all, only wine.


Milk

The Ancient Egyptians milked cows, goats and sheep. Many of the people in the countries round Egypt milked asses (donkeys) but the Egyptians did not because the donkey was associated with the god Set.

Egypt is a very hot country and of course there were no refrigerators in Ancient Egypt so fresh milk would go sour within a few hours. Any milk that was not going to be drunk within a few hours would therefore be turned into a yoghurt-like drink or made into butter or cheese.


Wine

Rich people drank wine made from grapes. The wine was labelled with the name of the vineyard the grapes came from and the year it was made and was often kept for many years, just like high quality wines today. They also made wine from dates and other fruits, but this was drunk mainly by the poor people.

There is much more on Egyptian drinks on the Egyptian Beverages web site - to visit it click here Link to Egyptian Beverages web site This site carries a lot of advertising, and you may need to close some of the advertising windows before you can find the page you want.

To visit a rather simple site on Ancient Egyptian food and drink but with some nice pictures and links to lots of other similar pages click here Link to Egyptian Food and Drink web site

Feast and Famine

The amount of food that could be produced each year depended upon how high the River Nile rose during the Annual Inundation. Once the Priests had measured the height of the Inundation, using a Nileometer, they could predict what the harvest would be like.

Here is a table giving their prediction (approximately, using modern units)

8.5 metres  Hunger
9.0 metres  Suffering
9.5 metres  Happiness
10.0 metres  Security
12.0 metres  Disaster!

If the river rose too much it would flood the Red Land and wash away whole villages.

When food was plentiful, during the years following good harvests, the rich people ate very well indeed. Wall paintings of banquets sometimes show guests having eaten so much that they are being sick! But the poor people also usually had enough to eat: Pharaoh was the defender of Ma'at, responsible for the well-being of all his people, and usually took his responsibilities very seriously.

Pharaoh himself decided how much grain should be stored in the granaries each year in good years and how much should be taken out in poor years. Granaries were usually built inside the wall which surrounded a temple, and archaeologists excavating one temple found the remains of a number of granaries so big that between them they would have stored enough grain to feed thirty thousand people for seven years. And this was just one temple, and the population of Ancient Egypt was less than two million people. So even in the years following poor harvests there would still be grain in the granaries, and also fish and birds in the river and delta.

Only if the Nile failed completely for several years running and the granaries ran out would there be real famine. This happened only a few times in the three thousand year history of Ancient Egypt; when it did happen and the people realised that Pharaoh could not protect them against starvation his authority would be severely weakened and the whole government might collapse, as happened at the end of the Old Kingdom.





© Barry Gray September 2010 last revised October 2014

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