In English, the term vegetable covers a range of widely differing plants that, cooked or raw, are used as food. In pharaonic Egypt, they formed an important part of the staple diet of the population, as indicated by both the representations of agricultural work and the lists of offerings. Texts also note the deliveries of numerous types of vegetables to the temples, even though it has not as yet proved possible to identify them all. The most important source for investigating vegetables are the remains from tombs and other archaeological sites. Tomb offerings were supplied for the eternal nourishment of the deceased. Not all the vegetables that were eaten were regarded as suitable for this ceremonial purpose, and special choices were made. For this reason, the vegetable remains found in settlement excavations, which have become known since the 1970s, are of particular interest; they reveal what was really consumed. Because of the dry climate, most of the plant remains in Egypt, although sometimes several thousand years old, have been so well preserved that botanical identification is possible.
Cultivated vegetables became important in pharaonic times, but in times of need, edible vegetables that grew wild were certainly collected as an important food reserve. Because wild vegetables were not employed as burial offerings, however, we do not know the extent to which they were used. Among them was the water caltrops (Trapa natans), which today occurs only in the upper reaches of the Nile River, in Ethiopia, but which is described as an Egyptian plant by classical authors. The lowermost stem of the papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) served as food and, usually bound together in bundles, can be seen among the offerings. The rhizomes of the two native Egyptian water lilies (Nymphaea coerulea and Nymphaea lotus) are also edible. In the drier areas of Egypt, the caper bush grew (Capparis aegyptia), whose elongated, green fruit can be eaten as a vegetable. (A leafy caper branch with a fruit is depicted on a faience tile from Tell el-Amarna.) It is not clear whether the Egyptians made use of the Abyssinian banana (Ensete edule), which now only grows to the south; some authors regard this as the inspiration for the “Naqada plant” painted on many prehistoric pots. The cooked inner part of the pseudo-trunk of the ensete was eaten as a vegetable, but no finds of ensete have yet been made.
Crucial for the nourishment of the large Egyptian population, however, were cultivated vegetables, which were usually grown in gardens and sometimes in the fields. The tomb paintings show these vegetable gardens—plots of land divided into small squares and watered by an agricultural worker, who wore a yoke with a pottery jug on each side.
Only a very few cultivated vegetables are descended from native Egyptian flora. Among them is the salad vegetable cos lettuce (Lactuca sativa), in Egyptian ʿbw, whose parent plant Lactuca seriola grows throughout Egypt. There is evidence for lettuce from numerous Old Kingdom illustrations, which either show it as an offering or being cultivated in gardens. Substantial securely dated remains, however, are only available from the Roman period. The lettuce, whose stem and leaves contain a milky juice, was important in the cult of the ithyphallic god Min and was often depicted with him. Another cultivated vegetable indigenous to Egypt is the tiger nut (Cyperus esculentus), in Egyptian wʿḥ. The rhizomes are about 1 to 1.5 centimeter (0.5 to 1 inch) in size and because of their high levels of sugar, starch, protein, and fat are particularly nourishing. They were often used as tomb offerings from Predynastic times onward.
All other vegetables used in pharaonic Egypt did not develop in the Nile Valley but were adopted from abroad, most often from the eastern Mediterranean region. Judging by present-day finds, the individual vegetables probably came to Egypt at different times. Yet it is only possible to say when this occurred for each with reservation, because archaeological excavations are always finding new plant material. Paleobotanical work in the Nile Valley is nowhere near complete.
At a very early stage, probably Predynastic, the Egyptians adopted the cultivation of alliaceous vegetables; onions (Allium cepa) were often depicted among the offerings, as was their cultivation in vegetable gardens. Actual finds, however, are first known only from the New Kingdom. In the cult of the Sokar festival, strings of onions had to be worn around the neck. Finds of garlic (Allium sativum) are also known only from the New Kingdom. Small Predynastic pottery models from el-Mahasna and Naqada, however, probably depict garlic bulbs and point to Predynastic cultivation. The third cultivated allium type was the leek. Finds dating from the New Kingdom do not enable differentiation to be made between Allium porrum (leek) or Allium kurrath (kurrat), which are botanically close.
Perhaps the most important cultivated vegetable in ancient Egypt were pulses (lentils, peas), numerous varieties of which were eaten. From Predynastic times, there are finds of lentils (Lens culinaris), everlasting pea (Lathyrus sativus), and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum graecum); from the Old Kingdom, the broad bean (Vicia faba), and from the New Kingdom, the chick pea (Cicer arietinum) and probably the pea (Pisum sativum). As yet, when the Egyptians began to cultivate the lupin (Lupinus termis) as a vegetable plant is unclear, possibly as early as the Middle Kingdom.
The cultivation of these pulses was adapted by the Egyptians from the Palestine region. They made use of two other types, however, whose native region was to the south of Egypt; they are the cow pea (Vigna unguiculata), known since the fifth dynasty, and the cajan or congo pea (Cajanus cajan), known from a seed find from the twelfth dynasty. Only in Roman times did the Egyptians first become acquainted with the cultivation of the vegetable types so widely known today: broccoli rape or rabe (Brassica rapa), kale (Brassica oleracea), and the common radish (Raphanus sativus).
- Brewer, Douglas J., Donald B. Redford, and Susan Redford. Domestic Plants and Animals. Warminster, 1994.
- Germer, Renate. Flora des pharaonischen Ägypten, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo, 14. Mainz, 1985.
- Helck, Wolfgang. Materialien zur Wirtschaftsgeschichte des Neuen Reiches. 5 vols. Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur in Mainz. Wiesbaden, 1961–1970.
- Keimer, Ludwig. Die Gartenpflanzen im Alten Ägypten, vol. 1 Hamburg and Berlin, 1924; vol. 2, edited by Renate Germer. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo, 13. Mainz, 1984.
- Zohary, Daniel, and Maria Hopf. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. 2d ed. Oxford, 1993.
Renate Germer; Translated from German byJulia Harvey and Martha Goldstein