Whatever Happened to Sumerian Beer?

by: HorstDornbusch on 07-13-2007
Anthropologists and archaeologists believe that the first humans ever to make the great leap from a nomadic and tribal into a civilized and sedentary existence were the Sumerians, some eight to ten thousand years ago. The place was Mesopotamia (now the southern portion of present-day Iraq). Apparently the Sumarians had migrated there all the way from India. Once settled in the Middle East, they build elaborate communities, grouped in prosperous city-states, and surrounded by fertile fields, which they kept lush by communal irrigation from the waters of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. The most magnificent of their urban centers was Babylon on the banks of the lower Euphrates. The Sumerians are considered the world's first builders, farmers, and writers - and, as we know from archaeological finds, probably the first brewers, too. Beer was at the center of their religious rituals. Their highest deity was the goddess of beer and fertility. It is a measure of the importance of beer in Sumerian society that eventually about half their grain ended up in their brews.

Ancient Sumerian tablet depicting how to make beerThe Official Story of the Sumerian Exit from History
The Sumerians' ingenuity and wealth soon became a magnet for other, non-brewing, people around them. Newcomers, mostly Semitic tribes from the north and west, began to move into Mesopotamia - sometimes commingling peacefully with the Sumerians, sometimes fighting wars against them for supremacy. As a result, the Sumerians eventually began to be absorbed by their numerous neighbors and gradually disappeared as a distinct culture. By the start of the third millennium BC, Sumeria had faded almost completely into oblivion. In its place arose a new culture, which historians call Babylonian.

The new masters of Mesopotamia centralized power away from the many scattered city-states ruled by kings, queens, and priestesses, to just one center, Babylon, and they unified the loose cluster of Sumerian settlements into a territorial state and government. This new, broad regional organization, Babylonia, was, in essence, the first sovereign country in history.

Once the Babylonians consolidated their power internally, they turned their attention to external conquest. They poured their resources into building a mighty army, which they marched westward to the shores of the Mediterranean, northward into Armenia, eastward into Persia, and southward into Arabia and the islands of the Persian Gulf. In the process, they amassed the first true empire in history - with the king of Babylon known as the King of the Totality, or the King of the Four Regions. He ruled an empire that spanned the four corners of the then-known world.

This is the official story of the demise of the Sumerians and the Babylonian take-over of their lands, at least as it is written in the history books. However, the common narrative of history always seems to focus on political and military events, while the less transient forces of social evolution often receive only scant attention. What we do not learn from the shifting sands of military power in Mesopotamia is what happened to the all-important Sumerian beer as Sumerian society changed under the burden of conquest! Born out of the mist of prehistory as the twin of society itself, did beer survive in the new order? That's a question historians rarely address.

The Real Story: Beer a Target of Governance
While Sumerian social and religious rituals had been hedonistic and expansive, Babylonian rituals assumed an austere, military panache - more Spartan drill than spiritual experience. In the zero-sum game of power between the rulers and the ruled, and with the concentration of might in just a few hands, the political stakes were high. Wealth now depended less on the bounty of the harvest than on the fortunes of war and on control over other humans. Those new virtues, however, as the Babylonians were eventually to find out, could be more fickle than the moods of a beer goddess.

Initially, the future of beer in Babylonia seemed assured, because the new rulers of Mesopotamia, like all good conquerors, usurped the achievements of the vanquished for themselves. The Babylonians continued the Sumerian tradition of making beer, yet they could not leave well alone. While beer in Sumeria was mostly a matter of religion and economics, beer in Babylonia became mostly a matter of politics. That shift in vision found its manifestation in a novelty that has since been imitated by just about every government, even to this very day: The Babylonians were the first to institute beer regulation.

Compared to the social rules among the happy-go-lucky Sumerians, laws in the power-and-control machine of Babylon were severe. In the new Babylon, no facet of life could escape the tyranny of bureaucracy, and beer was no exception, especially once Hamurabi (1728 -1686 BC), the 6th king of the 1st Babylonian dynasty, took over. Hamurabi ran his realm with an iron fist and epitomized in his deeds what the new order stood for. Life was controlled by a written set of rules, which is now known as the Code of Hamurabi, mankind's first body of laws. The code consisted of 360 paragraphs, which were chiseled into a seven-foot high column made of diorite, a dark-gray to greenish igneous rock. The column was discovered in 1901 near Susa (present-day Khuzestan) in Iraq and was taken to France, where it is now in the Louvre.


Everything of importance in Hamurabi's society was regulated by his code ... and the code has plenty to say about beer. In paragraphs 108 to 111, it classifies beer into 20 different categories, each of which we would now call a beer style. Eight styles were made just from barley, but most were made from a mixture of grains, with emmer (a spelt-like grain) being the predominant one. The most highly valued and most expensive beer style among the Babylonians was pure emmer beer. There were also pure wheat beers, thin beers, red beers, and black beers - as well as an aged beer for export, mostly to Egypt, where the beer bug was happily spreading, too. In effect, by defining beer categories in the legal code, Hamurabi was the first to regulate the production of beer. The consumption of beer did not escape his regulation either. Hamurabi simply slapped price controls on the brewers and innkeepers - another "first" in human history.

Babylonian beer must have been rather strong, probably because it was often fortified with honey or boysenberries. We can infer its potency from the fact that at Babylonian drinking parties, guests were generally offered various preparations against hangovers. Such medicines tended to be taken in liquid form, dissolved ... in beer!

Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian matron goddess of beerBeer and Social Class in Babylonia
While the Sumerians had steadfastly valued beer as a happiness-inducing social beverage to be shared by everyone, high and low, the Babylonians saw beer more as an instrument of social distinctions, as a means to affirm the connection among the members of the elite. Society in Babylonia was rigidly stratified, as was the apportionment of beer according to social rank. At the bottom rung of society were the slaves, whose ranks were often replenished from abroad, either through war or through purchase. They tended the fields and did the dirty work in the shops and temples, but received beer only at their masters' whim.

Next up on the social ladder were the free laborers. They had written contracts with their employers that stipulated the length of time of their employment and their compensation, which usually included two crocks (of perhaps a gallon each) of beer per day. Members of the middle tier of society, which included merchants and civil administrators, were entitled to three crocks of beer a day, as were regular priestesses and female civil servants. Higher echelons in the bureaucracy and priesthood could claim five crocks a day as part of their compensation. On religious feast days, these rations were increased by decree, which was designed to enhance the populace's affection of its gods and especially its rulers.

In Hamurabi's Babylonia, like in Sumeria, women ran the breweries and pubs. But while they were adored by Sumerians, Babylonians really had it in for the female sex. In paragraph 282 of his code, Hamurabi decreed that a brewster or a barmaid was to be drowned in beer if she watered down her liquid wares. She met the same fate if she charged for her potion in silver coin. If she served spoiled beer, she was to be force-fed with it until she expired from asphyxiation. Like all good dictators, Hamurabi was not too fond of free speech and public expressions of political opinions. He simply forbade all political debates in drinking establishments. Therefore, if an alewife who overheard her patrons talk over a crock of beer about politics or a topic the authorities might deem subversive, she was supposed to deliver such heretics to the police. On the other hand, if she tolerated such speech, she was put to death. While priestesses under Sumerian rule were required to run temple brewpubs, under Hamurabi, they were burned alive if they were caught even just visiting one. However, male brewers (as well as cooks) were held in high regard in Babylonian society, attained high social rank and were even exempt from military service. The lustful brewster-goddess of the Sumerians would not have been pleased!

Beer Ousted From the Land of Its Birth
Shortly after the zenith of Babylonian power under Hamurabi, around the fifteenth century BC, ominous clouds of change began to emerge on the Mesopotamian horizon from two directions, the north and the west. These clouds appeared just as Babylon had consolidated its grip over the region - and perhaps overplayed its hand, too. To the north, a rival Semitic center called Nineveh, dominated by Assyrians, had sprung up on the banks of the upper Tigris, while to the west, the Egyptians - a civilization of great future importance for both the story of beer and the path of human progress - were getting sufficiently well organized along the Nile to consider expanding eastward. Both the Assyrians and the Egyptians were now poised to challenge Babylon's hegemony.

The political horizon for all actors in the Middle East was slowly expanding. In Sumerian times, Mesopotamia had been an almost apolitical mosaic of self-sufficient city states. During the Babylonian supremacy, it had become a unified, relatively unchallenged territorial state. But with its rise, it also became the crucible of political relations and expansionist impulses among rival states. The center of the universe was slowly shifting from the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization to its neighboring cultures which were fast catching up. Historically, international politics as the struggle between peoples and countries started right then and there.

The Assyrians, geographically the closest pretenders for the throne of Babylon, sent their armies across the lands between the upper Tigris and the lower Euphrates and harassed the Babylonians at their northern border. At the same time, the Egyptian pharaohs sent their armies across the Arabian Peninsula and butted up against the western border of Babylonia. Eventually, the two invaders joined forces in an alliance, placing the Babylonian empire into a most precarious pincer situation. As Babylonia had to divide its military between two fronts, it soon became exhausted. Around 1250 BC, the city of Babylon fell to the Assyrian invaders.

The Assyrians soon found out, however, that conquering an empire was one thing, but holding on to it was quite another. The Babylonians may have been defeated, but, unlike the vanquished Sumerians before them, they simply refused to fade into oblivion. The struggle between the Assyrians and indigenous Babylonians merely turned, as we would now say, from an international into a civil war. In the end, the Assyrian interlude in Babylonia lasted about four centuries ... perhaps a long time by modern standards, but not all that long at an age when the pace of social change was so much slower. By 600 BC Babylonian power clearly re-emerged. The Babylonians sent the Assyrians packing, then went after them and destroyed their capital of Nineveh. The metropolis on the Euphrates once again assumed its former glory ... but under whose rule, and how about the beer?

Now entered the stage of history a bon vivant, a king quite unlike the severe and austere rule-maker Hamurabi. His name was Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC). As the new ruler of Babylon, he was a man of both military discipline and earthly indulgences. His reign is usually referred to as the peak of the so-called Neo-Babylonian period. Today, he is perhaps best known as the builder of the famous hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But most important for our story, unlike Hamurabi, Nebuchadnezzar was a friend of beer.


Like the Sumerians, Nebuchadnezzar saw the meaning of life in the collective cultivation of grains for bread and beer, but unlike the Babylonians, he also saw great purpose in flexing his military muscle. He scored many victories over the Egyptians and Syrians. At the height of his power, in 586 BC, he even captured Jerusalem, destroyed the city's temple, and herded the Jews to Babylon as slaves.

His power politics, however, did not diminish his hedonistic and ritualistic embrace of the drink. Contrary to Hamurabi, who often preferred to drown people in beer rather than let them drink it, Nebuchadnezzar lacked that fellow's uptight and secular relationship to the fermented beverage. Instead, more like the Sumerians, he promoted its enjoyment by all. Under his reign, the priestesses could once again drink copious quantities of beer during sacrificial services - to please their gods and to honor their king. On his returns from military campaigns, he celebrated his successes by virtually flooding the temple altars with rivers of beer. Incongruously, however, like Hamurabi, he forbade his priestesses to open pubs or even set foot in one.

Nebuchadnezzar's reign, as it turned out, spelled the last hurrah for the golden age of Mesopotamia. The forces that were amassing all around it were not to be kept at bay for ever. This was the time of awakening not just for the Egyptians, but also for the Persians, and, more consequentially, the Greeks and the Romans. Little Mesopotamia, the first to start civilization, was also to be the first to be swallowed up by the success it had spawned. Mesopotamia had shown the world what could be accomplished once mankind had figured out how to harness its individual potential for collective action. Soon other, bigger tribes had learned the same lesson, and the Mesopotamian empire quite literally turned from master to slave. The first "new" tribe to set its site on Mesopotamia was Persia. Ironically, in 538 BC, not even two decades after Nebuchadnezzar had led the tribe of Israel as slaves into Babylon, Cyrus II, King of Persia, overran the city from the east and sent the Jews back home to freedom.

The art of beer-making, which had been, so much at the core of Sumerian and Babylonian society, albeit in different roles, now lay dormant in Mesopotamia. Under Persian occupation, which lasted for almost two turbulent centuries, Mesopotamian society fell into disarray. There was simply no dominant force in the Middle East that could have stabilized the region and provided the cultural and political base for beer to re-emerge as a vibrant force. The Middle East was ripe for a takeover, and when it came, it was with a vengeance. It changed Mesopotamian society irrevocably and it dealt a final blow to beer-making in the very land where it had started. That blow came from the then-rising intellectual and military superpower of antiquity, Greece.

The Hellenistic Takeover of the Cradle of Beer
The final trouble for Mesopotamia started in 337 BC, when the Macedonian King Philip II (359 336) declared war on Persia. Not unlike what the Babylonians had done in Mesopotamia, Philip had united all the Greek city states and had harnessed their combined military, economic, and brain power for the cause of aggression against Darius III, King of Persia. Within a year, Philip had decimated the Persian armies and was just about to exploit his victory, when, on his way home he was murdered. This put his young son Alexander, known as The Great, at the head of the Greek army. Alexander immediately embarked on one of the most remarkable feats of empire building. Within just a few years, the world - to the extent that it was known to the ancients - became Hellenistic ... in taste, in culture, in politics, and in drink! In 330 BC, Alexander arrived in Babylon to occupy it. There he died seven years later at the young age of 33.

The Greeks, unfortunately, like the Persians before them, were not much interested in beer. The fermented beverage from grain, often referred to as the most democratic drink, did not catch on in the cradle of democracy, because there just wasn't enough spare grain in the Greek homeland to support a beer culture. The climate and soil of most of Greece are more suited for the cultivation of grapes and olives than of grains ... and wherever the Greeks went, they put their cultural stamp on society.

This is not to say that the Greeks were unaware of beer. There was one place where the Greeks actually did attempt some beer-making of their own, in the province of Thrace. Only in Thrace did barley grow better than grapes, and Dionysus - generally considered the Greek god of wine, the sun, and agriculture - was also revered as the guardian of beer. Even an authority as unassailable as Aristotle (384-322 BC), philosopher and tutor of Alexander the Great, had a kind word to say about beer drinkers, and this in spite of the general Greek disdain for beer. Aristotle wrote, that "those who get drunk from beer fall on their backs and lie with their faces up, while those who get drunk from wine fall down every which way." The ancient Greek word for beer is zythos, which has survived to this day in modern Greece, where beer is still called sythos. From this etymology of zythos, we can surmise that the Greeks first learned about beer from the Egyptians (whom the Alexander had conquered, too, in 332 BC), because the ancient Egyptian word for beer is zytum.

Beer had flourished in old Mesopotamia for at least five millennia before the Greek conquest, probably even longer. With the Greeks in charge, however, beer-making was at an end in the land where it had started. Beer could not stand on its own, without a supportive political and cultural environment.

Mesopotamia set an example that was to be replicated everywhere, henceforth: In societies where there is ample grain, there is ample beer, and where there is ample beer, beer cannot be ignored. Because beer is important in society, our collective institutions will always have an eye on it, for better or for worse, no matter what the particular time and place and social order. This is the truth that is at the heart of the story of beer throughout the ages. Political fights, such as the struggle over brew rights in medieval Europe or the fight over Prohibition in North America after World War I, are essentially no different from Hamurabi's struggle with the brewsters and barmaids of his time.

The End of Beer ... Almost
As the center of power shifted in antiquity from Mesopotamia to lands less sympathetic to beer - first to Greece, then to Rome - wine, the favored beverage of these new powers, replaced beer as the people's drink. As civilization was expanding, however, and new cultures joined the world around the Mediterranean, beer found new opportunities to become established in new places. Plato, in his Phaedo, once likened the Mediterranean to a pond. "The earth is a very large place," he wrote, "but we...live in only in one small part of it, around the sea, like frogs around a pond." While the Greeks and the Romans had their day in the sun around that pond, there were other cultures, both near the pond and far beyond, ready to take the plunge into civilization, and - like the Sumerian pioneers - to farm the land, to raise the grain, and to make the beer. The end of beer in Mesopotamia, therefore, did not mean the end of beer in the world. The most important standard bearer for beer from the decline of Babylon until the beginning of the Christian era many centuries later was the most productive grain-growing culture of antiquity, the one that had given the Hellenistic conquerors their word for beer. That culture was Egypt.

For an account of beer-making in its new home of ancient Egypt, see Horst Dornbusch on Beer and Civilization #7, Egyptian Beer for the Living, the Dead ... and the Gods.

For those interested in further reading about the ancient cultures of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians and Egyptians can go to The Ancient Near East by Amélie Kuhrt. The book can be read online at: books.google.com
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