Egyptian Beer for the Living, the Dead ... and the Gods

by: HorstDornbusch on 02-28-2005
Next time you are in New York City, make it a point to visit the Metropolitan Museum and have a BeerAdvocate moment. In a museum!? Yes, go to the Egyptian section and snoop around the many tombs and mummies and search for the neat stuff retrieved from the tomb of Meketre. This fellow was a high administrator, a sort of chancellor and prime minister of the warrior King Mentuhotep II of the 11th dynasty. Mentuhotep II ruled the land of the Nile for half a century, from roughly 2050 to 2000 B.C. For a depiction of the king's likeness, see this image and this one.

Mentuhotep II - notice the mash paddleWhen Meketre died (around 1975 B.C.), he was mummified and put to rest in a tomb in western Thebes, opposite present-day Luxor. Fortunate for us, his contemporaries placed a large collection of miniature carved wooden figures in his tomb. These toy figures represented Egyptians at work. There was a carpentry shop, an abattoir, a granary, a kitchen, a couple of river boats, and ... a brewery. Because the inner chamber of Meketre's tomb was untouched when it was discovered by Herbert E. Winlock on March 17, 1920, the workshop models give us an intimate three-dimensional view of how Egyptians lived.

The Egyptians did not invent beer. Rather they had learned the art of brewing from the world's first known brewers, the Sumerians, Babylonian, and Assyrians further to the east in what is now Iraq. The Egyptians, however, left us with the best documentation of ancient brewing practices. Most of the many depictions of Egyptian brewing that have come down to us are murals in vaults, pyramids, and sacrificial chambers. These attest to the importance and high esteem in which the art of beer-making was held in Egyptian society. Yet the find in Meketre's tomb probably ranks among the best preserved and most instructive.

The brewery model in the Metropolitan Museum apparently dates from around 2009 to 1998 B.C. A card at the exhibition in the Museum explains what is going on in the brewery: "The overseer with a baton sits inside the door. In the brewery two women grind flour, which another man works into dough. After a second man treads the dough into mash in a tall vat, it is put into tall crocks to ferment. After fermentation, it is poured off into round jugs with black clay stoppers." See the Museum's website for more.

Ancient Egyptian brewery modelIn ancient Egypt, beer was a regular part of the daily life of every Egyptian, from the highest to the lowest. It was the coinage of power and social cohesion, connected to both the gods and the state. In Egyptian culture, all power derived from the sun. The falcon-headed god of the sun, Re, was regarded as the source of all life and sustenance. He was also considered the inventor of beer. Re and his wife Nut, the goddess of the stars, were the progenitors of the pharaohs and of all the lesser gods in the beyond. Their favorite daughter was Hathor, a pretty and alluring creature, with whom Re, her father, fell madly in love. Incest was not a taboo in Egypt and it was customary for a pharaoh's children to marry each other. Re called Hathor his "eye," and she used to please him by disrobing in from of him. When Hathor drank beer, she turned into the goddess of love, lust, joy, singing, dancing, and laughter. Together, Re and his daughter Hathor had a son, Ihi, who became the god of music.

Hathor was a friend of the dead whom she accompanied on their journey to the beyond. Her sacred tree was the sycamore under whose shady canopy lovers would meet to share a crock of beer. Her brew was an aphrodisiac, often flavored with mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), a plant with a parsnip-like brown root, whose bark contains an alkaloid that has a narcotic effect.

In Egypt, Beer is a Meal with Heavenly Connections
In Egypt, beer was regarded as food. In fact, the old Egyptian hieroglyph for "meal" was a compound of those for "bread" and "beer". This "bread-beer meal" plus a few onions and some dried fish was the standard diet of the common people along the Nile at the time. Beer came in eight different types in Egypt. Most were made from barley, some from emmer, and many were flavored with ginger or honey. The best beers were brewed to a color as red as human blood. The Egyptians distinguished between the different beers by their alcoholic strength and dominant flavor.

None other than the god of the dead, Osiris, was hailed as the guardian of beer, because to him grain - both emmer and barley - were sacred. The Egyptians believed that grain had sprung spontaneously from Osiris' mummy, as a gift to mankind and as a symbol of life after death. This was sufficient justification for the god-like pharaohs to turn brewing into a state monopoly and strictly license brewing rights to entrepreneurs and priests. Many temples eventually opened their own breweries and pubs, all in the service of the gods. The port of Pelusium at the mouth of the Nile became a large brewing center, and trading in beer became big business.

Beer in Egyptian society beer was the sacrificial drink of choice in the temples of Hathor. During a five-week long feast in her honor, the priestesses and temple maidens gave banquets for the worshippers, during which they performed erotic dances. Each dancer, dressed only in a string around her waist, as unclad as Hathor had shown herself to her father, would move her hips enticingly before the guests. Hollow pearls, filled with pebbles and suspended from the dancer's waist band, would amplify the arousing rhythm of the erotic spectacle. As the alcohol took over, Hathor's beer would put the imbibers in direct contact with the world beyond. It created the link between the heavens and the earth and allowed the temple visitors to partake in the mystery of life and death. Fittingly, the dead, too, were supplied with crocks of beer in their catacombs so that they would not be thirsty on their trip to the realm where Hathor and Osiris were waiting for them ... with a crock of beer, of course.

It was common etiquette for a worshipper to drink until intoxicated. A wealthy Egyptian rarely would leave home without being accompanied by two slaves and a hammock. So if he got too inebriated to walk home after a night in a tavern or at a beer banquet, he could sleep off his delirium in a prone position while being carried home.

Egyptians used beer as a currency to pay slaves, tradesmen, priests, and public officials alike, which means that every Egyptian was entitled to a certain amount of daily beer. This quantity was strictly regulated, even at the highest level. A queen was entitled to 10 loaves of bread and two crocks of beer a day. This allotment must have been of tremendous importance, because it was usually guaranteed to her by her pharaoh-husband as part of her marriage contract. A princess also got 10 loaves, but she had to wash them down with only one crock of free beer a day. An officer of the guard, on the other hand, who might be called upon to defend both the queen and the princess, fared better than either: He got 20 loaves and two crocks. Even the daily ration of the slaves who built the pyramids, as well as the pay of all low-level officials, included two to three loaves of bred and two crocks of brew, and it was not up to the master's whim whether or not a slave got his beer: The nectar of the gods was even a slave's entitlement.

Beer and Taxes
Beer became so popular in ancient Egypt that no ruler dared to put a tax on it ¾ that is, until the middle of the last century B.C., after the pharaohs had long disappeared and Egypt had become a Greek province. Every government in the world nowadays has an alcohol tax ... but it was a voluptuous and ruthless Greek Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra (69-30 B.C.) ¾ member of the Ptolemy clan and seductress of Roman generals ¾ who first came up with the idea.

Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. and founded Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile the same year. In 321 B.C., two years after Alexander's death in Babylon, one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, took over Egypt as the Greek governor. Soter, however, was not content with being just a remote administrator of a Greek province. He had more ambitious plans. He soon established his own dynasty in Egypt, as the legal successors to the indigenous pharaohs. In 304 B.C., he made Alexandria his capital, from where the Ptolemy clan was to rule the land of the Nile, not as a Greek colony but in its own right, for almost three centuries, until Egypt fell to the Romans in a melodramatic final act in 30 B.C.

In the meantime, in the wake of Alexander's almost perpetual warfare, Greece was left exhausted and gradually lost its grip over the conquests Alexander had made. Maintaining preeminence in the Mediterranean world gradually became harder for Greece for another reason: Rome was emerging as a serious rival. This meant that the Ptolemy clan, happily ensconced in Alexandria, could not necessarily count on Greek might to keep them in power in Egypt. To ensure the survival of their clan, therefore, the Ptolemy clan became, one can argue, more "Egyptified" than Egypt became Hellenized. In most respects, the Ptolemy clan dropped its Greek ways and adopted the indigenous mores of their new land. The clan even adopted the old pharaoh custom of incestuous progeniture by marrying brothers to sisters.

Brewing in Egypt was still going strong when the Greeks arrived there. The Greeks were no beer drinkers. They favored wine. However, the strength of the Egyptian brew industry as well as the Ptolemy clan's assimilation to Egyptian customs, are probably the key reasons why beer survived the Greek conquest along the Nile. It is true that wine was known and consumed in Egypt, but it was mostly an upper-crust beverage. Beer, on the other hand, remained the people's drink. Its production continued unabated under Greek rule and, by all accounts, the beer must have tasted pretty good. As we learn from the Bibliotheca historica, a 40-volume history of the world, written by the Sicilian (and obviously wine drinking) historian Diodorus Siculus (circa 90-21 B.C.): "They make a drink from barley in Egypt, which is called zytum, and it compares not unfavorably in pleasantness of color and taste to wine."

With the rise of Rome, in the last two centuries B.C., the Greek Ptolemy clan's hold on fertile Egypt and its wealth could not remain unchallenged. The inevitable show-down over Egypt started indirectly, with a few seemingly unrelated events in Rome and Alexandria. It was around 50 B.C., when Rome's most powerful generals, Gaius Julius Caesar and Cneius Pompey, Caesar's son-in-law (married to Caesar's daughter Julia), were locked in a mortal fight for control of the Roman Empire. At the same time, back in Alexandria, the Ptolemean queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, was busy in a struggle of her own for the throne, which was coveted by Ptolemy XIII, her brother and husband (yes, he was both, in old pharaohnic fashion!). Cleopatra had married him after her first husband, Ptolemy XII, also a brother of hers, had accidentally drowned.

In the eventful year of 47 B.C., the Roman and the Egyptian internal power struggles became hopelessly intertwined in a cataclysmic international affair, when Cleopatra obtained Caesar's political help, became his mistress, triumphed over her brother, and moved to Rome ¾ pregnant with Caesar's son, whom she bore in Rome that year and called Caesarion.

A year later, it was Caesar's turn to settle his score with Pompey. He defeated his rival (and daughter's husband) at the Battle of Pharsalus in Thessaly, after which Pompey, improbably, fled to Cleopatra's Alexandria! There, Cleopatra showed her gratitude to her Roman lover for having saved her throne. She made short shrift of Pompey by having him murdered as he stepped ashore. To clean things up, she then had her husband/brother murdered as well. This paved the way for her undisputed rule in Egypt, under Roman protection. It also ensured, so she hoped, that her son Caesarion would some day succeed her to the throne, as Ptolemy XIV.

But the plans of mice and ... queens! By 44 B.C., the seemingly invincible Julius Caesar, ruler of the Roman universe, found himself dead as a doornail from a bad case of assassination by his erstwhile buddy Brutus. Following Caesar's untimely demise, the rivalries in Rome flared up again ¾ this time between Marc Anthony, Caesar's immediate successor, and Octavius, Caesar's grandnephew and designated heir. Cleopatra was now in a genuine quandary: With her Roman lover and protector gone, her own hold on power in the balance, and her son's prospects as future King of the Nile in jeopardy, she needed a new benefactor ¾ but, fatefully, at that moment her luck ran out. She bet her political future, and her body, on the wrong horse.

The impervious Octavius, soon to be called Emperor Augustus, quickly ousted his challenger, Marc Anthony, and firmly took over the reigns in Rome. Marc Anthony, not reading the signs of the time, thought he was not finished yet. Remembering the good services Cleopatra had once rendered unto Caesar, he headed for Egypt and took up residence in Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria. There, although a married man, he soon became Caesar's successor, not in the hall of Roman power as he had hoped, but in the chambers of the queen's passions. He became Cleopatra's new and acknowledged lover and her unacknowledged hope for the continuance of the Ptolemy dynasty. Using her army by land, her navy by sea, and her body by night, our darling Cleo now alternately fought against Rome and made love to its erstwhile commander-in-chief. Satisfying her steamy lust for power and the powerful ¾ after she had given Caesar a son ¾ she now gave Caesar's aspiring successor to the job of ruler of Rome, the adulterous Marc Anthony, a pair of twins.

While she parted her sheets for her desires, she also drained her kingdom of its wealth to finance her wars. When her coffers would yield no more, she resorted to the ultimate insult: She slapped a tax on beer, the people's drink ¾ ostensibly to curb public drunkenness, but in reality to build more naval galleys! Thus, the licentious queen is credited with the dubious achievement of having invented not only the alcohol tax, but also its most perennial and insincere excuse. To beer lovers, her beer tax and not her affairs (of state and passion) are her most enduring legacy. Darling Cleo's invention set a trend that has survived the rise and fall of many a civilization. It has known no national boundaries, no cultural barriers, no limits of time. The beer tax is still with us today, in just about any country of the globe. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

For the beer-tax crime, however, it seems that fate was quick to mete out just retribution. The now powerful Octavius went after the lusty lovers and decimated their forces in the Battle of Actium, in 30 B.C. For the beer-tax Queen of the Nile and her Roman beau, the jig was finally up. They committed suicide together, and Octavius put Caesarion, Caesar's and Cleopatra's putative, now 17-year old, son to death.

With this convoluted plot, the line of the Ptolemies and of Greek rule over Egypt came to an end. As the might of Rome settled upon its new colony, the fertile flood lands of the Nile were being converted primarily into a granary for the new mother country. The Romans had no taste for beer, so the grain that was once transformed into the brews of the Nile was now transformed into the breads of the Tiber. As a result, quality brewing in the Old World, long the domain of the people of the Middle East, was sent on a path of decline.

Egypt remained under Roman influence until the so-called Arabic conquest, which was completed by 642 A.D., at which point Egypt became an integral part of the Moslem world. Egyptian brewing, or what was left of it, fell victim to the abstemious zeal of this new religion. As the wave of Islam engulfed the Middle East, the Koran became law, and the Koran says that holy warriors shall practice sobriety. Thus, the brewers of the Nile were forced to exit history for good ¾ ousted by war, taxes and temperance. Only a few mute miniature figures, discovered in the tomb of a 4,000-year old corpse and now on display some 4,000 miles from the Nile, speak volumes of these brewers' former greatness.
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