Wine

Wine. Drawing of a Theban tomb picture depicting winemaking, from the New Kingdom. On the top right is a small temple to the goddess of the harvest, before whom is placed an offering of grapes and wine. On the left, workers crush the grapes by foot. On the lower right, workers use jugs to fill large wine jars.

The ancient Egyptians enjoyed two major kinds of alcoholic drinks in their daily lives: beer (ḥnḳt) and wine (irp). The term irp (Coptic, erp, elp) refers specifically to grape-based wine, which was already in existence in the Predynastic period, as testified by the wine jars found in sites of this period. As far as can be determined, based on the geographical distribution of wild grapevine, Egypt was not its original home. The technique of wine production was probably imported from Syria–Palestine during the prehistoric period, as suggested by a number of Syrian-style wine jars found in both prehistoric and Early Dynastic period sites.

Our knowledge of the production of wine in Egypt is assisted by a number of tomb paintings from the Old Kingdom onward, which depicted various vintage scenes. First the grapes (iʒʒrt) were put into a large vat, made of clay, wood, or stone, and they were crushed by foot, much as they are today in some European vineyards. When the juice was collected, it was poured into a jar to ferment for a few days. A secondary fermentation followed; the jar would be sealed with rush bung-stoppers, and the entire mouth of the jar would be covered with mud capsules, leaving only a small hole to release the carbon dioxide that could still be produced during this second stage of fermentation. When this stage ended, the jar would then be sealed completely. The wine jars are usually amphora-like vessels, sometimes with two handles attached at the shoulder. Most vessels have pointed bottoms, presumably to gather the residue in the liquid. Thus they needed to be placed on a stand or suspended from a cord if an upright position was desired. Although for daily use wine cups were made in a variety of shapes and sizes, a special kind of round goblet (nw-pot) was proper for the wine-offering ceremony.

Speculations exist about the color of wine produced by the ancient Egyptians. The color of wine is determined by whether crushed red skin is allowed to be mixed with the grape juice and fermented together. In ancient Egypt, the residue in the vat, including the crushed skin, was put in a wine press (made of a sack and two poles) to extract the remaining liquid, and this extract was most certainly mixed with the first juice extracted by foot; the wine produced in this way would be “red”—with various degrees of redness. Mythological and literary allusions indicate that wine was considered red. The wine-press god Shesmu, for example, was depicted as a slaughterer who pressed human heads in the wine press. Undoubtedly, this was an allusion to a scene wherein grape juice was extracted from the wine press, and the red juice was likened to human blood. In an offering liturgy of the Greco-Roman period, the offering of wine symbolized the filling of the Eye of Horus with its blood. This, however, does not exclude the possibility that white wine could also be produced, but the only literary evidence for the existence of white wine in Egypt comes from the Greek author Athenaeus.

Since wine production involved intensive labor, the price of wine was considerably higher than that of beer. One source has it that in the Ramessid period the price of wine was five times that of beer. It was a drink consumed mostly by the elite upper class, in all kinds of festivals, banquets, and funerals. The offering lists in the tomb of wealthy Egyptians would usually list several kinds of wine as a standard offering. Among these are irp Imt (wine of Imet, eastern Delta), irp mḥw (wine of Lower Egypt), irp Snw (wine of Syene, i.e., Pelusium), and irp Ḥʒm (wine of Ham, probably in the western Delta). These geographical names are, presumably, the location of some famous vineyards. Although vineyards in Upper Egypt were mentioned, the majority were located in Lower Egypt and in some of the oases. Besides the royal house vineyards and the noble family estate vineyards, the temples often possessed large numbers of vineyards. Harris Papyrus I mentions that 433 vineyards were endowed to the Theban temples in the reign of Ramesses III. During the Greco-Roman period, the oases of Dakhleh, Kharga, Bahariya, and Farafra seemed to have been very prosperous in wine production. This might actually have been the policy of the Ptolemaic rulers, specifically Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III, who encouraged Greek mercenaries to settle in Egypt and become vintners.

Wine was a prestigious drink; it was used in religious rituals as an offering to Egyptian deities, and scenes of wine-offerings are ubiquitous on temple walls of all periods. In the Pyramid Texts, Osiris was mentioned as the “Lord of Wine,” presumably from his relationship with the annual inundation of the Nile, the seasonal revival of vegetation in general, and the vine in particular. Many Greco-Roman authors noted that the color of the Nile was red during the inundation, and a story mentioned that the Nile water once turned into wine—most likely a mythological interpretation of a natural phenomenon caused by the iron-rich red alluvium washed into the Nile from the Atbara branch during the flood season. Among the deities who received wine as an offering was the goddess Hathor, who had a special relationship with wine. She was often referred to as the “Lady of Drunkenness.” A festival of “the Drunkenness of Hathor” was celebrated at Dendera, and her coming to Egypt was mentioned as coincidental with the coming of the flood, which is another allusion to the wine color of the water, as well as the rejuvenating power of the flood. Wine in daily life was an enjoyable drink, whereas in myth and theology it was symbolic of blood and the power of rejuvenation. See also BEER; and INTOXICATION.

Bibliography

  • Lesko, Leonard H. King Tut's Wine Cellar. Berkeley, 1977. A popular account of wine production and some wine labels of the New Kingdom period. Richly illustrated.
  • Lucas, Alfred A. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. 4th ed. rev. by J. R. Harris. London, 1962. Includes a technical discussion of the production of wine.
  • Lutz, H. F. Viticulture and Brewing in the Ancient Orient. Leipzig, 1922. A general account of wine production in the ancient Near East; dated but still useful.
  • Poo, Mu-Chou. Wine and Wine Offering in the Religion of Ancient Egypt. London, 1995.

Mu-Chou Poo