Food and Drink
Representations of tables laden with large varieties of food and drink show that the upper classes ate heartily. Great piles of fish, beef, and fowl, along with bread and honey, weighed down a table. Red wine was served. Eating was a sensual delight, both as regards smell and taste. The nose was a determinative sign used in writing both these nouns, as well as the verb ‘enjoy’ or ‘take pleasure in.’ Food was enhanced by the use of salt and oil, the former serving also for curing and preserving fish and meat.
The sweet product valued above all others was honey and bee-keeping was an important minor industry. In a tomb at Saqqara belonging to a woman of the lesser nobility her relatives had laid out food on rough pottery, alabaster, and diorite bowls and dishes beside her sarcophagus. Undisturbed for thousands of years, the food was identified as a type of barley cereal, a cooked quail, a pigeon stew, fish (cleaned and dressed with the head removed), ribs of beef, two cooked kidneys, wheat bread, small cakes, and stewed fruit. It is unlikely that this represented the courses of a single meal.
A well-stocked larder included lentils, chick peas, cow peas, and ordinary peas, as well as beans. Eggs were stacked in earthenware dishes. Goats and cows supplied milk, butter, and cheese. The oil of sesame seeds and refined butter – ghee – were used for cooking. Vegetables included onions and garlic, cucumbers and leeks. Among the fruits were watermelons, pomegranates, and grapes. Fish was very popular and it seems that no larder was complete without its assortment of mullet, catfish, and perch. Egyptian caviar was a great delicacy produced from early times. The tombs of Ti (a high-ranking official who worked under three kings of the Fifth Dynasty) and Kagemni (a Sixth Dynasty vizier and judge) show how the ovaries of the gray mullet were extracted, salted, and dried for this purpose. In the double tomb of Ni- ankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (low-ranking priests of the sun temple of Nyuserre and ‘manicurists of the court’), fish is shown being broiled in a cauldron over an open fire.
Most cooking was done outdoors, in a courtyard partly roofed with matting or palm thatch. Straw, palm leaves, and animal dung were used for fuel, along with branches of acacia and tamarisk. Geese – which were the favorite among farm birds – were generally roasted over live embers, placed on a low slab of limestone that served as a hearth, or on a metal brazier. Poultry was an important source of protein, and quantities of duck, pigeon, and quail were eaten. One of the most popular methods of preparing smaller fowl – and one that is still used in Egypt today – was to split the bird across the breastbone and spread it flat for grilling.
Beer was the national drink. It was made from coarse barley bread that was only lightly baked so as not to destroy the yeast. This was broken up, mixed with water and malted barley, and left to ferment. It was sometimes sweetened with dates and stored in pottery jars. Residues have been found in Predynastic jars and the earliest mention of beer is in the Third Dynasty. Not surprisingly, bread-making and brewing were depicted together in ancient Egyptian tombs, the former being a preliminary step to the latter. A more popular drink among the upper classes was domestic wine, which came from large estates around the country. The earliest evidence of grape wine comes from the Predynastic settlement of Omari, near Helwan, and a wine-press hieroglyph was used as early as the First Dynasty. Many vintages were known by name. The main wine-growing areas were the Delta, the Fayyum, and the oases of the Western Desert. Representations of viticulture show the gathering, treading, and pressing of grapes of different colors, from which we may infer that the ancient Egyptians knew white as well as red wine. The benefits of long-term storage were known, and wines from vintage years seem to have been prized. Palm-wine, made of the sap of the date palm obtained by making an incision in the heart of the tree, is mentioned in the Pyramid Texts; fermentation rendered it toxic. Date-wine – made by steeping a certain variety of date in water, pressing out the liquid, and leaving it to ferment – is also mentioned.
The Pyramid Texts indicate that ordinary people had three meals a day, while the royal household had five. One wealthy nobleman drew up a list of food items to be inscribed in his tomb. It included “ten different kinds of meat, five kinds of poultry, sixteen kinds of bread and cakes, six kinds of wine, four kinds of beer, eleven kinds of fruit, in addition to all sorts of sweets and many other things.” It is interesting to note that there was no standard offering list tirelessly repeated from generation to generation. They changed with the passage of time to include delicacies as and when they were introduced from countries across the Mediterranean.
The ancient Egyptians dressed to suit their climate of almost constant sunshine. Most garments were made of linen. Silk and cotton were unknown and wool was only rarely used. Women wore a sheath, a close-fitting, ankle-length, unadorned dress with broad shoulder bands. Men wore short, broad, pleated skirts and sandals. Children did not wear clothing. Maidservants and dancers wore only loincloths and girdles, often with blossoms around the neck. The simple effect of the clothing was enhanced by colorful jewelry – both men and women wore elaborate colored necklaces, bead collars of carnelian, turquoise, and lapis lazuli. Bracelets of silver and ivory were worn by women, as well as different types of earrings: hoops, studs, and ear plugs. Girls often wore their hair short or had a pony-tail, sometimes weighted with a pompon or a disk-shaped ornament.
People were fastidious about cleanliness. Women, especially, took great pains with their toilet. They washed their bodies with particular attention before meals, using a basin and a vessel with a spout. They shaved their limbs with bronze razors with curved blades and used tweezers and scrapers. A woman’s skin was rubbed with perfumed oils, her lips and cheeks were colored with rouge, and her palms were stained with henna. She applied a characteristic band of color around the eye with a paint produced from lead ores and known from Predynastic times as a remedy for eye ailments, as well as for adornment. She applied this with the aid of tiny ivory and wooden sticks, using mirrors of highly polished copper fitted with handles.
Special care was taken with the hair, which was washed, anointed with oils, and fashioned into curls and plaits. Even as early as the First Dynasty, there is evidence that women sometimes padded out their own hair with artificial tight curls and braids to make it appear thicker. Both human hair and vegetable fiber were made into wigs when either fashion or age necessitated it. Small plaited locks of hair were treasured. All small items – including locks, hairpins, mirrors, ‘tweezer-razors,’ or hair-curlers – were kept in decorative containers of ebony, alabaster, and marble, sometimes engraved with miniature high relief. Men, too, dressed their hair with oils and fashioned it into different styles. They wore kilts of varying lengths and tended to be clean-shaven, again using razors with curved blades. The famous statue of Rahotep and his wife (Egyptian Museum, Cairo) shows the nobleman with the modest mustache that appears to have been fashionable during the Old Kingdom.
Wealthy households included numerous servants, attending master and mistress punctiliously from the moment they rose in the morning. These were free servants, ancient Egyptians of poorer classes, at liberty to leave service if they so wished. A nobleman had ‘listeners’ for his call, ‘cup-bearers’ to wait his table, and ‘followers’ to bear his sandals, matting, and fly-whisk. Servant girls poured water over the hands of guests before food was brought in, musicians played, and young dancers performed. The tomb of Ptahhotep (one of the highest officials in the land in the reign of Djedkare) shows the seated nobleman with a pedicurist at his feet and a manicurist working on his hands while musicians entertain him and his pet greyhound and a monkey take refuge beneath his chair. Most households included dwarfs and hunchbacks who were employed in the laundry or the kitchen, or put in charge of household pets.
All rich landowners possessed monkeys, gazelle, ibex, and other animals of the desert, which they caught, tamed, and kept on their estates. They had long learned that the dog was a man’s best friend, as well as his hunting companion. Sheepdogs, greyhounds (often on a leash), and salukis were favorites. Greyhounds and salukis were allowed to enter the house and even sleep beneath the master’s chair. There are no representations of a nobleman petting a dog, but they were given names. One dog buried near his master in a First Dynasty burial ground had a tombstone inscribed ‘Neb’ (Lord), with his picture. Cats seem not to have been allowed inside houses in the Old Kingdom. They were depicted only in papyrus groves, raiding birds’ nests. The Nile goose was given special treatment, being allowed into the courtyard and garden. Domestic fowl included ducks, pigeons, geese, and waterfowl; the domestic chicken had not yet been introduced.