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Wine in Ancient Egypt II

Alexander as an Egyptian pharaoh getting a round in (almost), Luxor Temple (public domain)

As our wine-themed journey continues through Egypt’s ancient past, we look at wine production for the first millennium BC pharaohs, from Cleopatra’s multimillion pound cocktail to the way wine continued to fuel ritual life throughout the Nile Valley and out across the Delta.

For the celebrations accompanying the annual Nile flood brought together multiple strands of myth over time, with the wine capable of transforming raging Sekhmet into hungover Hathor continuing to exert its influence as the waters flowed through Nubia all the way north to the Delta. 

Huge granite gate of Bastet’s Delta temple c.900 BC, dismantled in antiquity and part (R) now in Bolton (check out the temple singers’ floral headdresses) © Bolton Museums

And here at the Delta site of Bubastis in the great water-bound temple patrolled by its resident cats, the multifaceted goddess was venerated as the great cat Bastet, whose annual fertility rites required gold and silver wine vessels adorned with feline figures, Hathor heads and lotus petals (below left) Treasures from Tell Basta: Goddesses, Officials, and Artists in an International Age: Metropolitan Museum Journal: Vol 47 (

The festivities even began en route to the festival, when the crowds of pilgrims travelling in by boat reportedly “play rattles & pipes, the rest sing and clap their hands. Whenever they pass a town, the women shout, dance & even stand up & expose themselves, on reaching the temple drinking more wine than at any other time of the year”, the contemporary images of such inebriated ‘flashers’ (below right) so endearing we had to have them in the last series Immortal Egypt (@immortal_egypt) • Instagram photos and videos

(L) Gold top of Bubastis wine vessel c.1200 BC featuring Hathor between two felines © MMA, while a rowdy pilgrim flashes her bum on far left of this drinking cup (R) c.500 BC © BM

For Bubastis was clearly once a very lively place, by c.900 BC home to the 22nd dynasty pharaohs (‘the Bubastite Dynasty’) and Egypt’s royal capital. It was also a magnet to Greek travelers attracted by the lure of divine Bastet who they identified as their own goddess Artemis, and as these same Greeks began setting up colonies right around the Mediterranean - which Egyptians now called ‘The Sea of the Greeks’ - the whole Delta region, with its direct access to the sea, became a real hotbed of cultural exchange and co-operation.

By 600 BC Egypt’s capital had shifted again, this time west across the Delta to Sais, home to Egypt’s 26th ‘Saite’ dynasty and close to the nearby port of Naukratis (map below). Located on the only officially sanctioned trade route in and out of Egypt, Greek traders were allowed to set up shop at Naukratis in order to trade Egyptian grain, linen and papyrus for Greek silver, olive oil, rhyton wine vessels (discussed in part 1 at Wine in Ancient Egypt (I) (, and of course the wine itself.

Satellite view of the north-west Delta with Sais, Naukratis, Plinthinē and Alexandria © B.Redon at: Plinthine_on_Lake_Mareotis.pdf (

This Greek wine was especially popular with Saite pharaoh Ahmose II (below) who seems to be the kind of guest to have at one of those imaginary dinner parties. Described by Greek traveler Herodotus as someone ‘fond of his joke and his wine’, particularly those from the Greek island of Chios, Ahmose’s name appears on Chian wine jar seals from all around the Delta. And as these unassuming lumps of ancient clay are really helping piece together the international wine trade, the French archaeologists working at the Delta coast site of Plinthinē (Plinthine_on_Lake_Mareotis.pdf ( have revealed that 40% of wine vessels found here were imported from Greece as compared to the 15% brought in from the Levant.

Wine-loving pharaoh Ahmose II (570-526 BC) © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung

The remaining 45% were Egyptian-made jars for the wines which had been produced locally around the Delta since c.3000 BC (see Wine in Ancient Egypt (I) ( And while the region’s waterlogged soil has preserved little physical evidence for this most ancient of industries, the French team at Plinthinē recently discovered a Saite winemaking facility in which even the grape skins and pips had been preserved (B_Redon_An_Egyptian_grand_cru_wine_produ.pdf) (map above).

All thanks to the site’s location on a strip of dry land beside the sea, this was also the ideal location for the international wine trade controlled by Egypt and its Greek allies, both of whom had to face the Persians as they expanded west. And when the Persians invaded Egypt in 525 BC, dramatically terminating the Saite kings (see 3 hours 22 minutes into ‘Immortal Egypt’ The Dominant Rise And Total Collapse Of The Ancient Egyptians | Immortal Egypt | Odyssey (, two centuries of intermittent Persian occupation was only ended by the Macedonian Greek superman Alexander the Great, another famous wine-lover who modelled himself on the Greek wine god Dionysos (and very certainly another fantasy dinner guest round the Immortal Egypt dinner table).

Alexander as an Egyptian pharaoh getting a round in (almost), Luxor Temple (public domain)

Having liberated Egypt in 332 BC for which he was crowned pharaoh (above), Alexander soon became a devotee of Egypt’s gods too, founding new temples for them in yet another new royal capital in the Delta. Located on the coast just east of Plinthine and downstream from Naukratis, he named it Alexandria after himself, this fabulous, fabled city soon home to the dynasty established by Alexander’s general, close friend and rumoured half-brother Ptolemy. 

And as this Ptolemaic dynasty of male and female Greek pharaohs ruled Egypt for the next 300 years, their armies expanded Egypt’s ancient empire to once more take in parts of the Levant and Greece. They also overhauled Egypt itself, creating new towns for all the of Greek settlers flooding in, their demand for more wine than the country could then provide or import solved by retraining retired troops as winegrowers settled into new Greek towns around the Fayum oasis. 

Papyrus ‘receipt for payment of wine’ from Greek settlement of Oxyrynchos south of Fayum © Bolton Museum and modern Egyptian wine label celebrating the Ptolemies’ winegrowing legacy

 And as Egypt’s ancient wine industry now went into overdrive, the wine really did flow like water under the Ptolemies, now enjoyed by mere mortals as well as their rulers and their gods. Even the sacred animals were given wine, including the crocodiles of the god Sobek whose wine-and-honey-offering blend was poured into their open mouths each day by some brave soul.

Sobek the crocodile god awaiting his wine offerings (L) in a C.1st BC scene from Fayum © Walters Art Museum & (R) a modern version of Sobek’s sacred creature © Assassins Creed/Sobek’s Tears

Wine was also central to the Ptolemies’ great royal festival which paraded through the streets of Alexandria every four years, a spectacular procession honoring the gods of Egypt and Greece led by Egypt’s Osiris ‘Lord of Wine’ who the Greeks equated with Dionysos, patron deity of the Ptolemaic house (see 3 hours 45 minutes into The Dominant Rise And Total Collapse Of The Ancient Egyptians | Immortal Egypt | Odyssey - YouTube).

Thousands of participants wore Dionysos-style ivy crowns, played music and carried gold and silver wine jugs, while a 40ft long float carried 60 men treading grapes to produce wine en route. This was accompanied by a huge wine skin pouring out 30,000 gallons of wine for the crowds and their gods, whose figures were able to rise up from their thrones thanks to the engineering skills of Alexandria’s brilliant scholars and engineers. 

Ancient automaton made in C.3rd BC as recreated by K.Kotsanás, Museum of Ancient Greek Technology © Eunostos

These scholars even created the world’s first automata (above). Capable of pouring wine from a jug thanks to hydraulic equipment concealed in their torsos, similarly complex technology was also employed within one of the lavish temples dedicated to the Ptolemies’ first female pharaoh Arsinoe, where huge wine-filled rhyton vessel (aka cornucopia or horn of plenty) reportedly produced a trumpet fanfare whenever wine was poured out and collected into jugs. Many of these jugs bore images of Arsinoe and her female descendants, shown holding these same cornucopiae and often in the company of wine-loving goddesses Sekhmet, Hathor and Isis who they could also personify in the same way the Ptolemaic kings took on the role of Dionysos. 

Maintaining their divine personae by drinking heavily at public and private events, the Ptolemies’ temple building programme was yet another way to strengthen these divine connections while maintaining the support of their Egyptian subjects. This included the beautiful new home which Ptolemy XII created for Isis at her cult centre Dendera, its wall scenes describing how Ptolemy ‘comes to dance and comes to sing, offering the wine jug for he hates the bright goddess to be sad!’. Telling her that ‘I come to you, my arms carrying wine, I pour for you the best of it, at its prime’, Ptolemy XII’s additional royal title ‘New Dionysos’ was complemented by that of his daughter and chosen successor ‘New Isis’, none other than the great Cleopatra herself. 

Cleopatra VII (L) in full goddess garb on the exterior wall of Dendera Temple, with her palace in Alexandria reimagined in the 1963 film Cleopatra © 20th Century Fox

Yet wine was not only integral to rites within the temples but to life inside Alexandria’s royal palace, whose wine cellars were kept fully stocked with imports from the Levant and Syria, from Chios, Cyprus and other parts of the Greek world. Increasingly too were the wines imported from France, Spain and Italy, and of course the wines of Egypt, from the Fayum and the oases further south to (very) old favourites from the Delta. This included the renowned Maroitic wine, produced almost on the palace doorstep around Lake Mareotis, which even today is still surrounded by huge piles of ancient amphorae fragments.

And with such wines accompanying great events of state, Cleopatra’s Egyptian marriage to Roman general Julius Caesar was celebrated by his officers drinking wine from silver rhyton vessels, as they surely did at her subsequent marriage to Caesar’s deputy Marc Antony, who again took the title ‘New Dionysos’. Antony and Cleopatra even had their own exclusive dining club (below), at which they served wines in exquisite drinking vessels of onyx, gold and jewels, Cleopatra’s own gold wine cup set with a large amethyst believed to prevent drunkenness – another fantasy dinner party scenario, surely.

Antony and Cleopatra (L) reimagined by Hollywood © 20th Century Fox (notice his crafty ciggie), with Cleopatra dropping her pearl into her wine cup (R) in detail from A. Schoonjans’ 1706 portrait (public domain)

Her bejeweled winecup was also the means by which Cleopatra won a bet with Antony to stage the most costly banquet of all time. Removing one of her huge pearl earrings worth some 10 million sesterces (around £25 million today), she dropped it into her wine cup where it dissolved amidst much fizzing to create a pearl-based cocktail she knocked back to win their wager (above right). And as wine allows us to get even closer still to the great woman, a papyrus document rediscovered less than 30 years ago allowed one of Antony’s generals to ‘import 5,000 amphorae of wine from Cos each year with no tax payable’, signed off ‘make it happen!’ in the very handwriting of Cleopatra herself. 

Finally in a royal tradition stretching back millennia, wine accompanied Cleopatra into death, her royal burial equipment including the stocks of wine from which Antony took his last drink before dying in her arms from a self-inflicted wound. Then as Cleopatra followed him into the next world shortly after, news of her suicide soon reached her enemies in Rome where the parties began immediately. Roman poet Horace even composed his ‘Cleopatra Ode’ so famously beginning ‘Nunc est Bibendum’, ‘Now for a drinking spree’, celebrating the death of Egypt’s last native ruler and the termination of a 3000 year history in which wine had played such a vital role.

Horace’s famous ‘Cleopatra Ode’ beginning ‘Nunc est Bibendum’ - ‘Now for a drinking spree’ ©

In our ongoing travels through the wines of ancient Egypt, we’ve been helped by some very special friends, including academic and filmmaker Marc and his knowledgeable friends at Catavi Wines in beautiful Barcelona, where lengthy winetasting triggered wonderful discussions. Likewise the talks we did with historian Alan and sommelier extraordinaire Nick for their online wine tasting event featuring Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. And last but by no means least Cairo’s Lydia and Jerome whose wine knowledge is amazing – research has never been so much fun, so thank you all! 



Jo at Abu Simbel_edited.jpg

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