Mari Baking mold The Mesopotamians consumed barley bread, onions, dates, fruit, fish, lamb, fowls, honey, ghee and milk. Sometimes the best cuts of meat were given to the gods. The Bible refers to people in Abraham's time eating pottage made from red lentils. Major crops included barley, dates, wheat, lentils, peas, beans, olives, pomegranates, grapes, vegetables. Pistachios were grown in royal gardens in Babylonia. See First Villages Agriculture, Livestock
The oldest known recipe dates back to 2200 B.C. It called for snake skin, beer and dried plums to be mixed and cooked. Another tablet from the same period has the oldest recipe for beer. Babylonian tablets now housed at Yale University also listed recipes. One of the two dozen recipes, written in a language only deciphered in the last century, described making a stew of kid (young goat) with garlic, onions and sour milk. Other stews were made from pigeon, mutton and spleen.
The Mesopotamians ate ghee and meat from goats, sheep, gazelles, ducks and other wild game. Around 30 percent of bones excavated in Tell Asmar (2800-2700 B.C.) belonged to pigs. Pork was eaten in Ur in pre-Dynastic times. After 2400 B.C. it had become taboo.
Sausages made stuffing spiced meat in a animal intestines were made by the Babylonians around 1500 B.C. The Greeks also at them and the Romans called hem salsus , the source of the word sausage.
Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.
Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu ; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/ancient ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia
Ur feast ''The common man in Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi ate very sparingly,'' William W. Hallo, the curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection, told the New York Times. ''Large portions of the population had a subsistence diet. These recipes are for fancy dishes, perhaps even intended for a deity in statue form.'' [Source: Chris King, New York Times, November 18, 2001]
Boiling the meat into stew with spices and other ingredients was the basic culinary technique. A few of the recipes are identified as vegetarian, though -- an ancient precursor, perhaps, to the modern vegetarian who still eats fish or chicken -- some of them contain meat. Garlic, coriander and mint appear in these recipes, as does cumin, a spice that has retained its ancient name to the present day.
Those who enjoy alcohol with their food will be glad to know that, according to Mr. Hallo, beer was a ''crucial component of Mesopotamian cuisine.'' One cylinder seal that has been dated as slightly more ancient than the Larsa recipes depicts beer drinkers tugging directly from the vats through lengthy straws.
Meats was often eaten at festival and after religious ceremonies. ''Large numbers of animals were slaughtered, ostensibly in honor of a deity,'' Mr. Hallo said. ''The priests would then serve the deity in the form of a statue, draw a curtain, and allow it to eat its fill. Then the curtain would be opened and the priests would eat what was left. And, since statues don't eat much in Mesopotamia, the priests and their favored retainers must have eaten pretty well.''
Mesopotamia had its share of legendary feasts. A banquet held in the ninth century B.C. by the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II, according to records found inscribed on a brick, drew 69,574 guests. Over 10 days they consumed 25,000 lambs and sheep, 500 stags, 500 gazelles, 30,000 birds, 10,000 eggs, 10,000 loaves of bread and thousands of gallons of wine and beer.
Yale Culinary Tablets
“Tucked away in a dark room of a Gothic-style library at Yale University, what may be the world's oldest known cookbooks are shedding light on an ancient cuisine,” AP reported in 1988. Known as the Yale culinary tablets, the three small Mesopotamian clay slabs, dating to about 1700 B.C., contain what are probably the oldest known written recipes, according to William W. Hallo, the curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection and a professor of Assyriology and Babylonian literature. [Source: The Associated Press, January 03, 1988]
The tablets, the largest of which measures 7 by 9 1/2 inches, are covered with compact, tiny lines of cuneiform writing. Unlike hieroglyphic panels from ancient Egypt, the recipes are not much to look at. They are three brownish clay tablets, with the two largest being about the size of ordinary sheets of paper, filled with the puzzling geometric shapes that comprise cuneiform. Scholars conjecture that the recipes were preserved in a library that was attached to a temple. Temples at that time were centers of ritual animal slaughter, which provided another context for dining. Although the tablets probably have been in Yale's Babylonian collection for decades, their contents have only become generally known in the last few years. The collection, which has about 40,000 items, recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.
''Three of our clay tablets are by far the most ancient collections of recipes from anywhere in the world,'' Hallo told the New York Times. ''There are no competitors in sight at the moment.'' Scholars date these clay tablets from the 18th century B.C., roughly during the time of Hammurabi, and situate them in the Kingdom of Larsa, territory that now falls within southern Iraq.''They are written in a mix of first- and second-person,'' Mr. Hallo said, ''suggesting that we have a kind of record made from the oral dictation of a master chef to an apprentice.'' The texts are written in Akkadian using cuneiform, the wedge-shaped script used widely in ancient Mesopotamia.
''They are recipes and as such practically a unique genre that one simply has not encountered before in cuneiform literature,'' Mr. Hallo said. The common Mesopotamian rarely, if ever, tasted the dishes described in the tablets, Mr. Hallo said. He cited the quality and quantity of the ingredients as well as the elaborate instructions for their preparation. ''It's clear they are festive meals of some kind of presumably the elite of the population,'' Mr. Hallo said. Much of the Babylonian population ''subsisted on the barest necessities,'' he said.
Nor were the tablets intended for uses similar to today's common cookbook, according to scholars. ''A cook - who along with almost everyone else, was illiterate - would not have had the slightest idea of writing books for other cooks, who were as unlettered as he,'' Mr. Bottero wrote. ''I don't know whether they had a scribe sitting there in the kitchen and saying, 'First you take a pigeon and split it in half,' '' said Ulla Kasten, museum editor of the Yale Babylonian Collection.
Hand copies of the Larsa recipes first appeared in print in 1985, in Volume 11 of the Yale Oriental Series-Babylonian Texts. Mary Inda Hussey's copies of the recipes were presented in a collection titled ''Early Mesopotamian Incantations and Rituals,'' though Mr. Hallo acknowledged that the recipes were not quite either. Mr. Hallo later assigned translations of the Larsa recipes to a French scholar, Jean Bottéro. His French translations appeared (with an introduction in English) in 1995 as ''Mesopotamian Culinary Texts.''
In the article on the Yale culinary tablets, AP reported: “Although damaged to different degrees, they provide cooking instructions for more than two dozen Mesopotamian dishes, among them stews of pigeon, lamb or spleen, a turnip dish and a kind of poultry pie. Written on the best-preserved of the tablets are 25 recipes, 21 for meat and 4 for vegetables. Instructions call for most of the food to be prepared with water and fats, and to simmer for a long time in a covered pot, Mr. Bottero said. [Source: The Associated Press, January 03, 1988]
There are 35 recipes in all. Most are for more meat stews, part, which suggests that the recipes were designed for the upper classes, the only people that could afford meat.
The tablets ''have revealed a cuisine of striking richness, refinement, sophistication and artistry, which is surprising from such an early period,'' Jean Bottero, a French Assyriologist, wrote in Biblical Archaeologist magazine in March 1985. ''Previously we would not have dared to think a cuisine 4,000 years old was so advanced.''
Mr. Bottero, who is a gourmet cook, has expressed doubt, however, over the dishes' palatability for modern tastes. Mesopotamians ''adored their food soaked in fats and oils,'' he wrote. ''They seem obsessed with every member of the onion family, and in contrast to our tastes, salt played a rather minor role in their diet.''
Meats included stag, gazelle, kid, lamb, mutton, squab and a bird called tarru. Frequently mentioned seasonings included onions, garlic and leeks, while stews were often thickened with grains, milk, beer or animal blood. Salt was sometimes mentioned. Scholars have not been able to identify all the ingredients, including tarru and two seasonings called samidu and suhutinnu.
''What is striking about all this is the multiplicity of condiments that were added to one and the same dish and the care with which they were combined into a blend of often complimentary flavors,'' Mr. Bottero wrote in a 1987 issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society. ''These combinations obviously presume a demanding and refined palate - even when far removed from ours - betraying an authentic preoccupation with the gastronomic arts.'' ''I thought Hallo said when Bottero “tried to cook some of these recipes, he said he wouldn't serve that food to his worst enemies.''
Re-creating Babylonian Cooking
At least one modern cook has tried to recreate one of the recipes. Alexandra Hicks, an officer of the American Herb Society and a food historian at the University of Michigan, prepared a stew of kippu, a type of fowl, for 150 guests at a meeting of the American Oriental Society, Mr. Hallo said. ''The results,'' Mr. Hallo told the New York Times, ''were adjudged to be not only historic but also, what shall we say, delicious.'' [Source: Chris King, New York Times, November 18, 2001]
Chris King wrote in the New York Times, “Certain key elements to a helpful recipe were not provided, such as the amounts of the ingredients or how long any stage of the dish should simmer before proceeding to the next step. It is presumed that oral tradition filled in those gaps. Scholars also are left to guess how to translate many of the ingredients, though various fowl seemed to be favored, and it is known from other contemporary texts that sheep and pigs also found their way into Mesopotamian pots.
''Unfortunately,'' Mr. Hallo chuckled, ''we're not quite sure what 'kippu' means. There are many candidates. We didn't think it was cormorant, so we decided on chicken.'' Though kippu was likely fowl, it could not have been turkey. According to Andrew F. Smith, a food historian who is writing ''a history of turkey as a cultural artifact,'' domesticated turkey was introduced to the Near East via Spain following Hernando Cortés's expedition in the Americas -- some 34 centuries after the Larsa recipes were inscribed.
''Delights From the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine” was written by Nawal Nasrallah, a former professor of English literature who fled Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war in 1990. She traces Iraqi cookery back to the dawn of recorded history and the civilization that sprang up about 6000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where Sumerian mythology placed the mythical mound of creation and a tree of life in a garden that became known as Eden, and incorporated recipes from the 3,700-year-old Yale culinary tablets. [Source: Ralph Blumenthal, New York Times, April 2, 2003]
Pickled locusts and boiled heads of sheep aside, Ms. Nasrallah found a wealth of recipes for no fewer than 300 types of bread, 100 kinds of soup, medieval sandwiches that existed long before the Earl of Sandwich, and a fried eggplant casserole, al-buraniya, which she calls ''the mother of all moussakas.'' Her recipes include a flatbread described ''as ancient as the Sumerian civilization itself.''
Mesopotamian Beer and Wine
Lion-shaped rhyton Evidence of winemaking from forth millennium B.C. (the late Uruk period) has been found in the city-states of Uruk and Tello in southern Iraq and the Elamite capital of Susa in Iran. The Babylonian and Egyptian found that if they crushed grapes or warmed and moisten grain, the covered mush would bubble and produce drink with a kick. Ancient beer was thick and nutritious. The fermentation process added essential B vitamins and amino acids converted from yeast.╒
Mesopotamians drank beer and wine but seemed to have preferred beer. By some estimates forty percent of the wheat from Sumerian harvest went to make beer. Thus lends credence to the beer theory, that man switched to agriculture so that people could to settle down and grow grain so they sit around and drink beer together on small villages.
It has been argued that beer was preferred over wine because beer-producing barley grows better in the hot, dry climate of southern Iraq than wine-producing grapes. Cylinder seals from the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.) show monarchs and the courtiers drinking beer from large jars with straws. Another beverage, possibly wine, was consumed from hand-held cups and goblets.
Cuneiform tablets show allocations of beer and wine for royal occasions. One tablet from northeastern Syria allocates 80 liters of the "best quality beer" to honor "the man from Babylon." By 700 B.C., the Phrgyians in present-day Turkey were drinking a alcoholic beverage made from wine, barley beer and honey mead.
Genie poppy at
Dur Sharrukin The Egyptians and Sumerians were probably using opium 4,000 years ago. Poppy extract was used ancient Egypt to quiet crying children. The oldest known opium cultivators were people who lived around a Swiss lake in the forth millennium B.C.
Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian texts refer to the medicinal uses of opium beginning around 4,000 years ago. Some believe the Sumerian had opium around 3,000 B.C. suggested by the fact they seem to have an ideogram for it which also meant joy or rejoicing.
The first written record of opium use was in a 5,000-year-old Sumerian text.
LSD, a man-made drug, was first synthesized from ergot, a common fungus, also known as rye mold, in 1938. The Assyrians used ergot in ancient times as a treatment for controlling bleeding caused from childbirth.
Mesopotamian Clothes and Footwear
Clothes made from leather, wool and flax. The Egyptians used linen to wrap mummies.
Queen of Night Beads of various kinds were worn on necklaces and other adornments. Over the years they evolved from mollusk shell lips drilled for pendants, found in 9th millennium B.C. Syria; stone stamp seals found in northern Syria, dated to 7000-4000 B.C.; tubular bone beads with loops found in northern Syria, dated to 3000 B.C.
Based on images in sculptures and statuettes, Sumerian men wore kiltlike skirts, and were naked above the waist. Based on images in reliefs, Babylonian and Assyrian men wore fringed robes, heavy make up and jewelry Gods. were often depicted wearing horned crowns.
Sumerian women wore long dresses and left their right shoulder bare. Babylonian women in 1500 B.C. wore dog-collar necklaces, bracelets and rope-like belts.
< Sandals were the primary form of footwear in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. The first boots were developed by Assyrians around 1100 B.C. primarily for use in warfare. They came up to mid-calf, and had a laced leather front. The soles and were reinforced with metal. There is evidence that the Assyrians and Hittites made both right and left boots.
Hebrews and Assyrians pledged a sandal as symbol of good faith when making a deal. Tossing a shoe onto a piece of land meant that you claimed it.
Mesopotamian Beauty and Hairstyles
headgear necklaces There was evidence of manicuring among nobleman found in tombs in Ur. Based on images in sculptures and statuettes, Sumerian men had both shaved heads and long hair and beards. They also shaved their faces. On Sumerian sculpture hair looks the foam pads on which a carpets are laid. Sumerian women often had shorter hairstyles than the men or wore their hair in long elaborately- entwined braids.
The Assyrians are regarded as the first true hair stylists. Their prowess at cutting, curling, dying and layering hair was admired by other civilizations on the Middle East. Hair and beards were oiled, tinted and perfumed. The long hair of women and the long beards of men were cut in symmetrical geometrical shapes and curling by slaves with curl bars (fire-hearted iron bars).
The Sumerians and Assyrians as well as Egyptians, Cretans, Persians and Greeks all wore wigs. In Assyria, hairstyles often defined status, occupation and income level. During important proceeding high-raking Assyrian women sometimes donned fake beards to show they commanded the same authority as men. Queen Hatshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs of Egypt, did the same thing.
Mesopotamian Hygiene, Perfume and Sex
In the dry climate of Mesopotamia and Egypt, cleanliness, washing and bathing was not given a high priority. Sumerians washed themselves in alkali solutions while the Hittites cleaned themselves with ash of the soapwart plant suspended in water. Soaplike material has been found Babylonian clay jars dated at 2800 B.C. The first true soap, made of boiled goat fat water and ash with a lot of potassium carbonate, was developed by the Phoenicians around 600 B.C.
The ancient Mesopotamians used almond oil as a body moisturizer, perfume and hair conditioner. Sumerians are believed to have created the first deodorant about 3500 B.C.
The word "perfume," a Latin word meaning "through smoke" comes to use from the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, who used to burn the resin from desert shrubs such as myrrh, cassia, spikenard and frankincense for their aromatic fragrance or simply toss them in a fire.
Queen of Night The earliest perfumes were not used for cosmetic purposed but rather as offering to god. In some cases they were used as a kind of deodorizer for sacrificed animals. By 3000 B.C., Egyptians and Mesopotamians were using perfumes as body scents and bathing oils rather than incense. They were also used in exorcisms, healing treatments, and after sex.
Cuneiform tablets recorded erotic poetry. One part of the Gilgamesh story describes the main character’s father meeting his wife-to-be: he “could not resist kissing her on the eyes, could not resist kissing her on the mouth, and also taught her much about lovemaking.”
Eunuchs existed in Mesopotamia. A small 8th century B.C. ivory statue from Nimrud shows a woman rather suggestively holding up her breast. It was excavated from the woman’s quarters of the royal palace at Nimrud. One remarkable piece from third millennium B.C. depicts a double image of a woman and a woman’s body with the breasts becoming eyes and the mouth serving as her crotch.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011