Along with cereal products and vegetables, fruits were an important part of human nourishment in pharaonic Egypt. The fruits were usually sweet-tasting, from trees or bushes, and eaten raw. From the Predynastic period on, they also constituted an important part of the burial goods for the care of the deceased in the hereafter, whatever his social standing. Thus fruits have been found in very simple burials but also in royal ones, such as that of Tutankhamun, which contained a wide range packed in baskets. The botanical determination of these burial goods has provided us with a good overall picture of the fruits used in ancient Egypt.
Several trees and bushes of the Nile Valley supply edible fruits. Among them is Christ's-thorn (Zizyphus spinachristi), whose cherry-sized, apple-flavored fruits (e.g., nbs) have been found in graves since Predynastic times. The flesh of the fruit was also used to make a kind of fruit bread. The tree is still common throughout Egypt. The Egyptian plum (Balanites aegyptiaca), in Egyptian possibly jšd, a tree with oval fruits of 2 to 3 centimeters (1 inch) has become rare. The flesh is sweet, and the Egyptians extracted balanos oil from the kernel. This fruit, too, was a Predynastic burial good.
Finds from the Old Kingdom onward show that the fruits of the indigenous cordia (Cordia sinensis) were also eaten, as well as those of the closely related species Cordia myxa, which is a native of India; the oldest finds of these fruits probably date to the Middle Kingdom. The Egyptians also made use of the orange-colored drupes of the grewia (Grewia tenax), which were found packed in baskets in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the fruits of the Maerua crassifolia, tree, which have a mealy taste. Two palm types with edible fruits are indigenous to Egypt, although only to Upper Egypt. The dom palm (Hyphaene thebaica), in Egyptian, mʒmʒ, was very widespread. It has fan-shaped leaves and a forked trunk; the shiny brown fruits, called ḳwḳw in Egyptian, 7–8 centimeters (2–3 inches) in size, with a gingerbready sort of taste, have been found in Predynastic graves. The argun palm (Medemia argun), in Egyptian, mʒmʒ n ḫʒnnt, is rarer. Nowadays, only isolated instances are found, and we do not know which part of the fruit the Egyptians consumed, the dry flesh of the fruit or the seeds. Evidence for this palm species has been found dating back to the Old Kingdom.
The Egyptians did not only use the fruits of indigenous trees but as early as Predynastic times, they had begun to cultivate foreign fruit types. Economically, the most important of these was surely the date (Phoenix dactylifera), in Egyptian, bnr/bnrt. The native land of the date palm is not known botanically. The very sugary fruits can only be cultivated with the help of artificial pollination. The Egyptians produced a drink from them, called srmt. The second most important cultivated fruit was the sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus), one of the most common grave goods from Predynastic times on. The large tree, nht in Egyptian, was a popular source of shade, with its thick foliage; this is also expressed by its religious significance as a tree goddess, administering cooling water to the deceased or to his ba-bird. The origins of sycomore culture are unknown. The fruits form seeds that can germinate only after pollination by the gall wasp (Ceratosolen arabicus), which is not found in Egypt. There, another gall wasp (Sycophaga sycomore) develops inside the figs but does not initiate any fertilization. Thus in Egypt the tree could only be propagated vegetatively by means of cuttings. In order to accelerate the ripening of the fruit, so that this took place before the development of the gall wasps, the Egyptians notched each fruit with a knife. There is evidence from Old Kingdom for the cultivation of the common fig (Ficus carica), in Egyptian dʒb, which comes from the eastern Mediterranean region.
The Egyptians adopted viticulture from Palestine during Predynastic times. “Red grapes,” jʒrrt in Egyptian, were eaten as fruit and were also made into the alcoholic drink “wine,” jrp in Egyptian. Wine, however, was a drink for the upper classes only and was often used as an offering to the gods. The vineyards were located mainly in the Nile Delta and in the oases. Among the vegetal grave goods known since the Old Kingdom was often the fruit of the persea (Mimusops laurifolia) in Egyptian probably šwʒb. Nowadays the tree grows wild only in Yemen and Ethiopia, but in pharaonic times it must have been quite widespread in Egypt. The yellow, sweet-tasting flesh of the fruit surrounds two or three large, shiny brown seeds. The fruits are about 3 centimeters (1.5 inches) in size and are almond-shaped; on the lower end is a green calyx with four to six points. Only from the eighteenth dynasty on is there any proof for the cultivation of the pomegranate in Egypt. The pomegranate (Punica granatum), in Egyptian jhnm, comes from the eastern Mediterranean region. Various types of gourds were cultivated in the Nile Valley, the origins of which are supposed to lie in regions to the south of Egypt. The elongated fruit of the cucumber (Cucumis melo) is depicted on offering tables from Old Kingdom times, and faience models served as burial goods; the physical remains of cucumbers have not as yet been found. The second gourd type cultivated in Egypt was a small fruiting variety of the watermelon (Citrullus lanatus). The flesh of this fruit is not edible, however, only the seeds; they appeared frequently in burials from Predynastic times on. In Greco-Roman times, a whole series of new fruits once again reached Egypt: the peach (Prunus persica), the apricot (Prunus armeniaca), the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus), and the pear (Pyrus communis) were cultivated, as well as the true service tree (Sorbus domestica) and the citron (Citrus medica).
The fruits found in burials and in settlement sites indicate, however, that in addition to the types mentioned here several others were also used as foodstuffs, albeit in more modest quantities. From the New Kingdom, olive trees were cultivated in Egypt (Olea europaea) and an olive stone has been found that dates back to the Middle Kingdom. The Egyptians imported pistachios (Pistacia vera) from Palestine, and from the regions to their south, the fruit of the baobab (Adansonia digitata). The contents of a pot from an eighteenth dynasty tomb have been identified as banana puree, but otherwise there is no proof for either the cultivation or the import of bananas for pharaonic Egypt. According to textual sources, the apple tree (Malus sylvestris) may have been planted during the New Kingdom, but thus far there have been no finds of this type of fruit. Furthermore, it is also unclear whether the Egyptians planted the mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), indigenous to Palestine, in their gardens, and perhaps even ate the fruit. The depictions of yellow egg-shaped fruits with pointy calyxes are not usually specific enough to be able to differentiate whether they are mandrake fruit or persea fruit; there have been no actual finds of mandrake fruit.
Substantial finds and texts provide information about the cultivation, medical uses, and economic significance of fruit. Above all, the texts list the deliveries of various types of fruit to the temples; the offering lists in the tombs mention the amounts of each fruit needed for the care of the deceased in the hereafter: dates, Egyptian plums, sycomore figs, figs, Christ's-thorn fruit, grapes, and wine. Tomb paintings and the reliefs on temple walls provide information about fruit cultivation and use. The representations of offering goods show the same fruits that are listed in the offering lists, including from the New Kingdom on pomegranates and yellow fruits, which are either persea or mandrake fruit. In the agricultural scenes of the tomb art, the harvesting of various fruits can be seen, most often the grape harvest and wine making.
The Egyptians planted fruit trees in agricultural estates and in their private gardens next to their houses. In the representations, they are usually growing near a pond and surrounded by flowers. Fruits trees were also cultivated in the gardens in front of the burial enclosures. The various shapes of the fruits inspired craftsmen to work them into jewelry as decorative motifs, particularly in the large faience collars. Paintings of flower garlands and of stick bouquets very often included depictions of fruit. Some vessels were made in the shape of fruits, the most popular being the pomegranate; many served as ceramic receptacles for the black eye paint, kohl. A particularly precious vessel made of silver in the shape of a pomegranate was found among the burial treasures of Tutankhamun.
See also DIET.
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- Zohary, Daniel, and Maria Hopf. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. 2d ed. Oxford, 1993.
Renate Germer; Translated from German by Julia Harvey