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Wine in Ancient Egypt (I)


Alabaster (calcite) wine chalice of Tutankhamun © Laboratoriorosso


With our January blog the first of 2024, wine seems most appropriate given its role in New Year celebrations in ancient Egypt where, just as today, it was very much appreciated by those who could afford to drink it. From big names like Nefertiti, Tutankhamen and Cleopatra right back to the earliest rulers when Egypt was still the separate kingdoms of north and south, the northern rulers of Lower Egypt were already importing wine from established vineyards in neighboring Palestine and the Levant (still home to world-class wines Lebanon – Chateau Musar). 


Using its conspicuous consumption as a way to show off to subjects who only had home-made beer, they traded any excess with their counterparts in Upper Egypt who even took it with them into the Afterlife. So when the southern ‘King Scorpion’ was buried at Abydos c.3150 BC, so too hundreds of pottery wine jars (below) made in the Jordan Valley and Gaza. Analysis of their interiors also revealed traces of grape skins, tartaric acid (produced when grapes break down) and the natural yeast from fermentation Concise Manual for Ceramic Studies - V.4 Vessel Contents as Revealed by Organic Residue Analysis - Africae (openedition.org), while some of the wine had also been enhanced by the addition of figs and various herbs. There were even traces of pine resin, not necessarily intended to make an early form of retsina but maybe due to the way resins were used to seal the pots’ interiors, preventing evaporation during transit and the wine deteriorating into vinegar.


Scorpion’s Abydos tomb complete with wine cellar c.3150 BC © DAI Cairo


Then by c.3000 BC when the two halves of Egypt had joined into a single kingdom, its new rulers wanted their own source of wine so began importing vines too, planting them close to their new royal capital Memphis at the apex of the Nile Delta where these new royal vineyards were tended by expert winemakers brought in from the Levant to share their expertise with their Egyptian counterparts. 


Harvesting and treading grapes c.1400 BC with wine vessels in the centre © ImmortalEgypt


Winemaking was soon a standard theme for tomb wall scenes (above), magically guaranteeing eternal supplies if (horror of horrors!) the actual wines ever ran out while suitable terms were also developed, the word for wine ‘irep’ a pun on the noise of overindulgence (!), accompanied by hieroglyphic symbols of a grapevine or winepress. The wine vessels’ clay stoppers could also be stamped with the name of ruler for whom it was made, with plentiful supplies of both local and imported wines placed in successive royal tombs at Abydos, where hundreds more sealed wine jars have just been uncovered Sealed 5,000-Year-Old Wine Jars From Ancient Egypt Unearthed (newsweek.com) during re-excavations at the tomb of Egypt’s earliest female ruler Merneith.


Then as the royal burial ground moved north to Sakkara where the tombs evolved into pyramids, the ‘Pyramid Texts’ inscribed on their interiors requested specific wines as part of the same offerings also poured out in daily rites. Certainly the effect of red wine flowing down on to alabaster altars and along channels cut into limestone floors would have looked particularly dramatic, even if our own version recreated for BBC’s ‘Egypt’s Lost Queens’ had to make do with water from a rusty old bucket rather than wine from golden vessels! (26 minutes into Egypt's Lost Queens - video Dailymotion).


Jo making a libation at Karnak during the BBC’s ‘Egypt’s Lost Queens’ © ImmortalEgypt


Wine was also one of the daily offerings presented to Egypt’s many deities, particularly the ‘Ladies of Drunkenness’ Hathor and her alter ego Sekhmet the lioness. Legend even claimed that Sekhmet had almost destroyed the entire human race, chasing them south into Nubia (Sudan), where the other gods only averted mass slaughter by pouring out gallons of red wine (or in some versions red dyed beer). Mistaking this for human blood, Sekhmet ‘the Bloodthirsty’ swiftly lapped it up, soon so inebriated she could hardly move and changing back into placid Hathor who was brought safely home northwards into Egypt. And since this is the direction the Nile flows, her return marked the start of the Nile flood each New Year, when the enthusiastic consumption of alcohol was central to ritual celebrations.


Self-explanatory tomb scene from Beni Hasan c.1950-1750 BC copied by J G Wilkinson in early C.19th


Even the rising Nile waters joined in by turning a wine coloured hue, caused by a temporary increase in iron-based sediments flowing north. And while no longer found in Egypt after the creation of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s, this dramatic phenomenon can still be seen in Sudan where the darker Blue Nile joins the paler White Nile (17 minutes into Episode 1 of ‘Immortal Egypt’ What Were The Very First Ancient Egyptians Like? | Immortal Egypt | Timeline (youtube.com)).


Darker Blue Nile (L) joins the White Nile (R) at Khartoum to flow north into Egypt © AramcoWorld


With this changing of water into wine proof of the goddess’ divine presence, red wine has long been connected with blood in many religions, both for its life-giving powers and its associations with death. So the Egyptian god Shesmu was equally ‘lord of blood’ and god of the winepress, cutting down enemies in the same way he cut down the grapes he then squeezed in his winepress along with enemy heads, hymns to Shesmu sung while the grapes were being trodden into the same pulp as the royal enemies crushed underfoot. 


Shesmu (R) on a gold funerary shrine of Tutankhamun © Ancient Egyptian Portal, and (L) as imagined by forums.smitegame.com


But in Egypt, where death was simply the transition to eternal life, Osiris was similarly god of resurrection and ‘Lord of Wine’, he and wife Isis (see Isis in the Ancient World: from Egyptian myth to Mexican surrealism (immortalegypt.co.uk) the stars of a great annual festival at Abydos, the aforementioned burial place of Egypt’s earliest kings. The emphasis on resurrection and eternal life was again embodied by the Nile flood, celebrated in songs like that sung at this wine-fueled party below, the lyrics written in hieroglyphs above the female band announcing that ‘the channels are filled with water anew and the land is flooded with love…’. 


Musical scene c.1400 BC, complete with song lyrics and racks of wine vessels © British Museum


So too the temple inscriptions describing how “the floodwaters rejoice and the vineyard flourishes, bearing more grapes than the sand of the riverbanks, the grapes made into wine for your storerooms”. As a reference to the storerooms in Egypt’s many temples, kept well stocked with the food and drink needed for daily offerings, these were sometimes enjoyed rather too much by those employed to guard them (below)! 


Tomb scene of wines en route to the temple storeroom c.1450 BC with a translation of the original hieroglyphic text © Patrick Houlihan


Yet such temple stores could remain intact for literally millennia. One group of vessels discovered by archaeologist Flinders Petrie at the end of the C.19th was sent to a wealthy Yorkshire wine merchant who’d helped fund his work, eventually donated to the local museum where we rediscovered them and worked out their back story through a combination of chemical analysis and archive research. It turns out they’d been presented to the temple in question c.1450 BC by Egypt’s great warrior pharaoh Tuthmosis III, whose numerous campaigns north into Palestine, Lebanon and Syria had seized gold, silver and prisoners of war, all sent back to Egypt’s temples and some prisoners put to work treading grapes for the gods’ wine. 


For by now Egypt’s vast empire stretched from Nubia (Sudan) in the south up to Syria in the north, and with even parts of the Greek world listed as Egyptian territories by the mighty Amenhotep III, his name and that of wife Tiye have also been found at these same Greek sites. Minoan Greeks were now sending tribute to Egypt too, including Greek-made wines and finely crafted ‘rhyton’ wine vessels, all much appreciated by Egypt’s 18th dynasty royals.


‘Greeks bearing gifts’ including the cone-shaped rhyton (far L) and bull’s head version (R) © MMA 


Certainly Queen Tiye and her female relatives were able to channel the powers of Hathor and Sekhmet in rituals centered on ‘wine, women & song’, their lyrics inviting ‘Golden Goddess’ Hathor to “shine on our feast & enjoy the dance at night, the women rejoice & the drunkards play tambourines for you, and those they awaken bless you” (perhaps not the usual reaction when woken in the night by a drunken singsong!). And with such lively rituals shown in tomb and temple scenes complete with vigorous gyrating and hair swishing, the ‘porches of drunkenness’ in temples like Karnak were the places in which Hathor apparently ‘spends her days in festivity like a drunken woman’. So too Hathor’s alter ego Sekhmet, Amenhotep III setting up over 700 granite statues of the divine lioness to whom generous daily libations would hopefully offset any repetition of her murderous behavior.


Tomb scene (L) of Akhenaten and Nefertiti drinking wine © Egypt Exploration Society, with Tutankhamun doing the same (R) on the terminal of a broad collar necklace © Eton Myers Collection


Yet beyond the world of ritual and magic, this same royal family of Amenhotep and Tiye, daughter-in-law Nefertiti, son Akhenaten and grandson Tutankhamun, all of whom owned their own wine estates, clearly drank for their own enjoyment too. Using wine goblets in the form of blue or white lotus flowers (waterlilies), symbols of eternal life and invigoration, these same royals are uniquely shown actually drinking their wine rather than simply holding it, Tutankhamun himself shown drinking from a wine goblet as big as his own head (above)! 


Glazed faience wine goblet (L) besides large wine vessels with matching lid, all featuring the petals of the blue lotus (waterlily) © Ian Trumble/Bolton Museum


Decanting their wines from large ceramic vessels often decorated with blue lotus petal designs (above), handwritten inscriptions like modern wine labels often gave the name of the vintner, the date and place of production, even classifying the wines according to quality, from plain to ‘very very good’, ‘sweet’, ‘blended’ and even ‘wine still becoming’ (ie. fermenting), along with helpful recommendations of how to use them, from ‘offering wine’ and ‘wine for taxes’ to the most straightforward - ‘for merry-making’.


And with huge quantities of such wine vessel fragments found all around the royal palace sites, grapes were so closely associated with royalty at that time their forms adorned the palace interiors too, on everything from novelty tableware to the bunches of glass and ceramic grapes hung from the ceilings and wall tops (below).


Bunches of glazed ceramic grapes pierced with holes for suspension to walls and ceilings of Amarna’s royal palaces, Bolton Museum © Yorkshire Post


Creating palatial vineyard interiors, the royals who relaxed to imbibe here were themselves decked out in their characteristic broad collar necklaces, often featuring twice as many beads in grape-form as any other bead type. Intriguingly one such collar incorporating no fewer than 83 bunches of grapes and found at Amarna by Petrie (seen 30 mins 40 into Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings - Part Two | Ancient Egypt - Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings - Part Two | By Dr Joann Fletcher | Facebook) was recently found to have one bead inscribed with the most famous Egyptian name of all - Tutankhamun. 


Detail of the broad collar from Amarna now in the Petrie Museum, featuring multiple grapes top and bottom and Tutankhamun’s name on one turquoise bead © Immortal Egypt


Made famous by the discovery of his gold-filled tomb in 1922, one of the first things found was the huge alabaster wine chalice (shown at the start of the blog, much like the one from which he was shown drinking), with a well-stocked wine cellar in one of the tomb’s side chambers. And with several more wine vessels found within the actual burial chamber, their contents were finally analyzed and published in 2006, when it was discovered that the wine jar placed on the west side of the king’s body had held red wine while the jar to the east held white First evidence of white wine in ancient Egypt from Tutankhamun's tomb - ScienceDirect As the earliest ever evidence for white wine in Egypt (which really struck a chord as a white wine drinker myself), such careful placement really emphasizes wines’ role within the Egyptian belief system, the red wine placed in the west symbolizing the sun setting red each night before rising bright and golden in the east next morning to trigger resurrection. 


The Opening of the Mouth funerary ceremony c.1300 BC © British Museum


And of course this also explains why wine was such a vital part of funerals. Presented to the upright body during the ‘Opening of Mouth’ ceremony in efforts to revive the soul within (above), wine was also drunk by the mourners, the debris left behind by Tutankhamun’s funeral party including wine vessels and small cups gathered up and buried in the Valley of the Kings close to the tomb c.1323 BC, and only rediscovered in 1907. 


Small cup found in Valley of the Kings during 1905-1906 dig season later painted by Harold Jones © Carmarthenshire Museum


A couple of years earlier, a stray cup inscribed with Tutankhamun’s name had also been discovered ‘under a rock’ in the valley and was later studied and painted by Barnsley-born Egyptologist Harold Jones (above). And this modest little object can really take us right back to the way the ancient Egyptians marked an individual’s passing with a funeral, then each year gathered again at the tomb to hold a lively party in the firm belief that the soul of their loved one would hear the noise and rise up to join in. 


And as a custom which continued down the centuries, as we’ll see in part 2 next month, drinking wine at both tombs and temples was one of the most effective ways to make direct contact with the unseen spirits of the divine and deceased alike.


For ancient tricks for preventing drunkenness, Cleopatra’s favourite wines and inebriated dancing en route to the Great Cat Temple, subscribe to Immortal Egypt to receive an alert for Part 2 of ‘Wine in Ancient Egypt’.

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