• Weird History

What Did The Ancient Egyptians Actually Eat?

Ancient Egypt dominated the Mediterranean for three thousand years, from 3100 BCE until Alexander the Great arrived in 332 BCE. The Pharaohs of the Nile River established one of the oldest and most powerful empires of the ancient world. Along with their great political power, the Egyptians built a vibrant and distinct culture that, thanks to the determined efforts of archeologists, remains more accessible than any other ancient civilization. We know about their burial rites, ancient sex practices, and religious ceremonies.

Western civilization, descended from the Greeks, has always been fascinated by the powerful and mysterious Egyptian culture and their seemingly strange behaviors. One of the things the Greeks were particularly interested in was the Egyptian diet. In fact, the Greek historian Herodotus spent an inordinate amount of time in his writings on Egypt tracing the exact dietary patterns of the ancient empire.

So what did these people eat? What gave them the strength to build the pyramids, to spread out from the Nile, to forge one of the most influential empires the world has ever seen? The answers might surprise you.

  • Photo: Keith Schengili-Roberts / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Honey Was One Of The Most Prized Foods In Ancient Egypt

    For the ancient peoples, honey was probably nothing short of miraculous. It can sweeten anything, moistens any dish that it’s baked with, and lasts forever, even when completely unpreserved. And ancient Egyptians thought of honey as something close to sacred.

    Honey - and the bees that made it - played a huge role in the religious and political life of ancient Egypt. So much so that the bee was the official symbol of the king of the Lower Egyptian Kingdom.

    Even the lower classes had some access to honey, which presumably means ancient Egyptians produced honey in vast quantities.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Some Ancient Egyptian Laborers Were Paid In Beer

    For the ancient Egyptians, beer wasn't just an intoxicant, it was a source of nutrition and an essential part of everyone's diet - even children drank it. In addition, it was prescribed for dozens of ailments, as the Egyptians thought evil spirits caused diseases, and beer would confuse them and force them out of a person’s body.

    If there's one thing that demonstrates beer's central place in the Egyptian diet, it's that laborers were often paid in beer for their work. Beer-based payment records are one of the ways we now know the Pyramids were not built solely by enslaved people, but instead by paid labor. Laborers who worked on the Giza Plateau were given three rations of beer every day as compensation for their work.

  • Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Egyptians Used A Wide Variety Of Spices, Most Of Which Had Special Meanings

    As befits a wealthy civilization, Egypt had access to the best the ancient world had to offer. In those days, spices were a luxury product. The Egyptians made great use of spices like cumin, coriander, and cinnamon; and as with their other foods, each spice had a medicinal or cultural significance.

    Coriander represented romantic love and was considered to be an aphrodisiac. Cumin was a digestive aid and was considered a sign of faithfulness, often kept by those going on long journeys. Cinnamon was used in the embalming process for its preserving properties, but only sparingly, as it was one of the most expensive of the spices.

  • Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Egyptians Both Produced And Imported Large Amounts Of Wine

    Though there isn’t conclusive evidence to prove the origins of wine in ancient Egypt, historians believe the product was imported to the kingdom before 3000 BCE, and then quickly became a major agricultural product. While some wine was brought in from communities in Canaan and Mesopotamia, the ancient Egyptians produced a variety of wines, each with specific qualities.

    Roman writers would later describe such Egyptian vintages as follows:

    The white Mareotic from the Alexandrine region, pleasant, fragrant, diuretic.

    The pale and somewhat oily Taeniotic, aromatic, superior to the Mareotic, mildly astringent.

    The Thebaid, easily digested and suitable for fever patients.

    The Sebennys, blended from various kinds of grape, among them the sweet Thasian which was known as a laxative.