Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egypt: Vegetables, fruit and oil
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Fruit and vegetables

Stela of Ahmose, the coppersmith     Many Egyptians had a garden adjacent to their house, where they grew vegetables and fruit. Vegetables - the "crop of the year" - were grown all year round, irrigated by hand and formed an important part of their diet.
    May the king give an offering (to) Osiris, the great god, that he may grant an invocation offering of bread, beer, cattle, fowl, and every good and pure thing, every kind of vegetable...
Stela of Ahmose, the coppersmith

Stela of Ahmose, the coppersmith
(Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Vegetables

    How basic vegetables were on the ordinary Egyptian's menu can be seen in this complaint of striking workers during the reign of Ramses III
    We are starving hungry. Our tongue wasted away in thirst. No cloth is left. We are lacking oil. We have no fish, not even vegetables.
    Onions, which celibate priests were forbidden to eat because of their aphrodisiacal effects, were a staple food.
    On the pyramid (of Cheops) it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent;
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg
    Garlic was highly valued. According to Pliny Garlic and onions are invoked by the Egyptians , when taking an oath, in the number of their deities. Ramses III ordered garlic to be distributed in large quantities in the temples. The Israelites who had become accustomed to the Egyptian diet of bread, fish and vegetables, complained when they were wandering in the desert [3]
    5   We remember the fish , which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick.
Numbers 11

    Leeks [6] are also mentioned in the Ebers papyrus and in the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor the narrator found all kinds of food on his deserted island:
    When I grew hungry and looked about for food, I found all ready for me within easy reach: figs and grapes, all manner of good herbs, berries and grain, melons of all kinds, fishes and birds for the taking.
Melon Egyptian melon, faience
Middle Kingdom
Source: Keimer, op.cit
    Radishes, choriander, cabbages, endive [7], cucumbers, watermelons, melons [13] and raphanus, a wild radish tasting like turnip, were grown widely. According to Athenaeus the Egyptians ate boiled cabbage before all the rest of the food considering it one of the most delicate vegetables. The tubercular Arum colocasia, one of the plants loosely referred to as lotus, was also relished [5]. Mallow was added to soups [12].
    The poor ate the roots of papyrus and other plants gathered in the marshes. The lotos mentioned by Herodotus with its round root was possibly the White Lotus.
    When the river has become full and the plains have been flooded, there grow in the water great numbers of lilies, which the Egyptians call lotos; these they cut with a sickle and dry in the sun, and then they pound that which grows in the middle of the lotos and which is like the head of a poppy, and they make of it loaves baked with fire. The root also of this lotos is edible and has a rather sweet taste: it is round in shape and about the size of an apple.
Herodotus, Histories II, 2.92
Project Gutenberg
    A second 'lily' variety Herodotus describes was probably the Sacred Lotus, Nelumbo nucifera, an import from India, and not the traditionally depicted blue lotus.
    There are other lilies too, in flower resembling roses, which also grow in the river, and from them the fruit is produced in a separate vessel springing from the root by the side of the plant itself, and very nearly resembles a wasp's comb: in this there grow edible seeds in great numbers of the size of an olive-stone, and they are eaten either fresh or dried. Besides this they pull up from the fens the papyrus which grows every year, and the upper parts of it they cut off and turn to other uses, but that which is left below for about a cubit in length they eat or sell: and those who desire to have the papyrus at its very best bake it in an oven heated red-hot, and then eat it.
Herodotus, Histories II, 2.92
Project Gutenberg
    Broad beans, Vicia faba L., the Egyptian used a Semitic loanword, prj,[16] for them, have been a popular food in Egypt for a long time. The oldest known broad beans have been found in 5th dynasty tombs.[14]
    Beans, Vigna sinensis, Egyptian jwr.yt ,[15] have been known since earliest historic times.[14] They were mentioned in one of Ramses II's paeans on himself:
Lower Egypt rowed to Upper Egypt for you, with barley, wheat, salt and beans without number.
Stela of Ramses II, year 8-9 (Kairo CG 34504)
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Historisch-rhetorische Königstexte (19.Dynastie) => Heliopolis => Stele Ramses II. Jahr 8-9 (Kairo CG 34504) => Stele Statuenanfertigung
    In medicine beans were used in remedies against constipation, in a remedy for a sick tongue or a treatment for male urinary complaints.[14] According to Herodotus, who travelled through Egypt in the Late Period, beans were ritually unclean and were not grown for human consumption:
    Beans moreover the Egyptians do not at all sow in their land, and those which they grow they neither eat raw nor boil for food; nay the priests do not endure even to look upon them, thinking this to be an unclean kind of pulse.
Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg
Blackeyed beans Egyptian melon, faience
Middle Kingdom
Source: Keimer, op.cit
    Diodorus thought that the Egyptians were forbidden to eat beans and chick peas in order to teach them the value of abstention. But legumes were found as offerings in tombs. During the times of Ramses III the priests of Thebes and Memphis received donations of beans. Lupins, lentils, chick peas and peas (since the Middle Kingdom) were also consumed. Lentils, easy to keep while dry, were a commodity occasionally used in trading. According to the story of Wenamen's journey 21 measures of lentils were part of the payment the Egyptian ambassador gave to the ruler of Byblos for a shipload of timber.

    The lettuce was dedicated to the god Min, and was often protected by a little statue of the god. Its leaves were eaten whole, dipped in oil and salt, and were frequently part of votive offerings, having a reputation for being an aphrodisiac and enhancing fertility.

Fruit

[Image: Date palms]     Since the middle of the third millennium BCE dates were grown, though they were not of high quality. The palmtree, imposing when fully grown, was also planted for shade
    there is a large city named Chemmis in the Theban district near Neapolis, and in this city there is a temple of Perseus the son of Danae which is of a square shape, and round it grow date-palms.
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg
    and its form influenced architecture
    for the tomb of Amasis also, though it is further from the sanctuary than that of Apries and his forefathers, yet this too is within the court of the temple, and it consists of a colonnade of stone of great size, with pillars carved to imitate date-palms, and otherwise sumptuously adorned
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg
[Image: Sycamores]     Apple (tpH–tepeh), olive (Dt–djet), and pomegranate (nhm–nehem) [11], trees were brought to Egypt during the reign of the Hyksos or later. Mulberry trees reached Egypt from Armenia or Persia before or during the New Kingdom. Pears, peaches, almonds and cherries were not introduced until the Roman period, but figs, grapes and the not always very tasty sycamore figs [4] which could be harvested from April to December, were known from early times [2]. Coconuts were an imported luxury fruit affordable only to the rich.
    May I walk every day unceasingly on the banks of my water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I have planted, may I refresh myself in the shadow of my sycamore.
Egyptian tomb inscription, ca. 1400 BCE
    Other fruit trees grown were the Dellach palm tree, mimusops, the shrublike jujube (Chinese date, Ziziphus jujuba ) and the drought resistant balanites which has datelike fruit and succulent leaves that are excellent feed for goats.
    Ramses III allotted the Amen-Re temple figs, grapes, dom-palm fruit, pomegranates. Other items are not as well specified: there are two instances of all (kinds of) fine fruit and of fruit and a number of fruit have not been identified:
Mehiwet: cakes 3100
Khitana-fruit: heket 310
Khitana-fruit: bundles 6200
James Henry Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Four, § 240

    Some of these fruit were only eaten fresh, but many were dried in order to preserve them. Jars of raisins were allotted by the thousands to the Nile god temple by Ramses III, as were dried dates.

[Image: Olive tree]     The Egyptian climate was not favourable to growing olives; and olive oil, known by the Semitic zayit meaning olive continued to be imported.

    The Arsinoite Nome (i.e. the Fayum) is the most remarkable of all, both on account of its scenery and its fertility and cultivation. For it alone is planted with large, perfect, and richly productive olive-trees, and the oil is good when carefully prepared; those who are neglectful may, indeed, obtain oil in abundance, but it has a bad smell. In the rest of Egypt the olive-tree is never seen, except in the gardens of Alexandria, where under favourable circumstances they yield olives, but no oil.
Strabo, Geography, Book XVII, § 35

Oil

    Olive oil [1][8] was used for lighting, but one may surmise it was used in the preparation of food as well. Olive oil jars were labelled
[.... olive oil from the great] olive tree plantation(?) of the House of the Million [Years belonging to the king of Upper and Lower Egypt ...... in the temple of Amen lying on the banks(?) of   Ka : [...] jars.
Inscription on an olive oil jar fragment
Ostracon Qurna 619/5
    Other trees were grown for oil before the introduction of the olive, among them the Moringa. From the little that we know, it appears that Egyptian ointments were made with nut oil, but it is probable that animal as well as vegetable grease was employed for this purpose too. The common people, both men and women anointed themselves with the oil of the kikki (castor-berry, Ricinus communis[9].
    And for anointing those of the Egyptians who dwell in the fens use oil from the castor-berry, which oil the Egyptians call kiki, and thus they do:--they sow along the banks of the rivers and pools these plants, which in a wild form grow of themselves in the land of the Hellenes; these are sown in Egypt and produce berries in great quantity but of an evil smell; and when they have gathered these some cut them up and press the oil from them, others again roast them first and then boil them down and collect that which runs away from them. The oil is fat and not less suitable for burning than olive-oil, but it gives forth a disagreeable smell.
Herodotus, Histories II, Project Gutenberg
    Oils were also pressed from almonds, sesame (since Ptolemaic times), linseed (flax), raphanus, selgam (cole-seed), and seemga.

Seasonality

    A small number of fruit and vegetables like garlic, onions, carobs, dates, or nuts, kept for quite a while, some could be preserved by drying, a technique known to the ancient Egyptians, although the frequency of its implementation with perishable food stuffs is unknown. But most had to be consumed when they were ripe or processed into a product that would keep. Surplus produce could also be marketed locally, but few vegetables could be sent far afield without spoiling. Therefore, people mostly had to make do with what they themselves or their neighbours grew in their gardens, which resulted in their choice being much more limited than a list of fruit and vegetables known to have been grown in Egypt [10] might suggest.
 
SummerAutumnWinterSpring
figs
sycamore figs
plums
water melons
lettuce
colocynth
leeks
melons
tiger nuts
cucumbers
fenugreek
melons
sycamore figs
tiger nuts
cucumbers
fenugreek
dates
pomegranates
grapes
olives
cumin
ziziphus
carobs
carobs
lettuce
garlic
celery
radishes
lentils
black cumin
coriander
peas
sycamore figs
garlic
celery
radishes
lentils
black cumin
coriander
peas
broad beans
onions
chick pea

 


Bibliography:
Joan Pilsbury Alcock Food in the Ancient World, 2006 Greenwood Press
Hames H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago 1906, 5 volumes
Herodotus, Euterpe
Ludwig Keimer, Sur quelques petits fruits en faïence émaillée datant du Moyen Empire, BIFAO 28 (1929)
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume One
Pliny, Natural History, (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
Strabo, Geography

 
Picture sources:
[  ] Stela of Ahmose, the coppersmith: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
[  ] Photos of date palm, olive tree and sycamore: André Dollinger
 
Footnotes:
[3] This reference from the bible should not be considered a contemporary historical source, but rather a reflection of the traditional view the Hebrews had of their sojourns in Egypt. Even if there is no direct historical evidence for this, the assumption that the semi-nomadic Israelites reached the Nile occasionally in their wanderings seems reasonable.
[4] Sycamore figs do not ripen properly unless a little fly enters them. In the absence of these flies, notching the fruit a few days before picking will cause it to ripen, a fact known since the Middle Kingdom at least:
I found figs and grapes there, all sorts of fine vegetables, sycamore figs, unnotched and notched
The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
M. Lichtheim, p. 212
Pliny described the sycamore in his Natural History not always quite accurately (the fruit does contain seeds of course, it is sweet during spring, but not very much so in summer and autumn, etc.):
It bears fruit, not upon branches, but upon the trunk itself: the fig is remarkable for its extreme sweetness, and has no seeds in it. This tree is also remarkable for its fruitfulness, which, however, can only be ensured by making incisions in the fruit with hooks of iron, for otherwise it will not come to maturity. But when this has been done, it may he gathered within four days, immediately upon which another shoots up in its place. Hence it is that in the year it produces seven abundant crops, and throughout all the summer there is an abundance of milky juice in the fruit. Even if the incisions are not made, the fruit will shoot afresh four times during the summer, the new fruit supplanting the old, and forcing it off before it has ripened.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XIII, chapter 14
Faience sycamore fruit
Faience sycamore fruit, Middle Kingdom
The fruit itself is reddish-brown, the excised part black, a truthful rendering of what happened to real fruit where the originally white sap coloured the cut (and the hand cutting it) black.
Source: Keimer, op.cit , plate I
Nowadays the incision is generally made near the ostiolum, on some Middle Kingdom faience sycamore fruit, on the other hand, the cut is indicated on the side of the fruit (Ludwig Keimer, op.cit , p.52)
[5]
Among the varieties of the bulb, too, there is the plant known in Egypt by the name of "aron." In size it is very nearly as large as the squill, with a leaf like that of lapathum, and a straight stalk a couple of cubits in length, and the thickness of a walking-stick: the root of it is of a milder nature, so much so, indeed, as to admit of being eaten raw.
Pliny, Book XIX
[6] The Egyptian soil, enriched by the annual Nile flood, seems to have rewarded the efforts of the leek growers with outstanding results:
It is a remarkable fact, that, though the leek stands in need of manure and a rich soil, it has a particular aversion to water; and yet its nature depends very much upon the natural properties of the soil. The most esteemed leeks are those grown in Egypt, and next to them those of Ostia and Aricia
Pliny, Book XIX, 33
[7] Pliny gives a list of Egyptian edible plants, not all of which have been identified:
the wild endive is known as "cichorium," the cultivated kind being called "seris." This last is smaller than the other, and the leaves of it more full of veins.
Pliny, Book XX, 29
In Egypt, next to the colocasia, it is the cichorium that is held in the highest esteem, a plant which we have already spoken of under the name of wild endive. It springs up after the rising of the Vergiliae, and the various portions of it blossom in succession: the root is supple, and hence is used for making withes even. The anthalium grows at a greater distance from the river; the fruit of it is round, and about the size of a medlar, but without either kernel or rind; the leaves of the plant are similar to those of the cyperus. The people there eat the fruit of it cooked upon the fire, as also of the oetum (the earth pistachio), a plant which has a few leaves only, and those extremely diminutive, though the root is large in proportion. The arachidna (possibly a kind of vetch), again, and the aracos have numerous branchy roots, but neither leaves nor any herbaceous parts, nor, indeed, anything that makes its appearance above ground.
The other plants that are commonly eaten in Egypt are the chondrylla, the hypochoeris, the caucalis, the anthriscum, the scandix, the come, by some persons known as the tragopogon, with leaves very similar to those of saffron, the parthenium, the trychnum, and the corchorus (Corchorus olitorius L.); with the aphace and acynopos, which make their appearance at the equinox. There is a plant also, called the epipetron, which never blossoms; while the aphace, on the other hand, as its flowers die, from time to time puts forth fresh ones, and remains in blossom throughout the winter and the spring, until the following summer.
Pliny,Book XXI, 52
[8] Pliny considered Syrian olives superior to the Egyptian variety
In Egypt, too, the berries, which are remarkably meaty, are found to produce but very little oil
Pliny, Book XV, 4
[9]
A third oil is that made of the fruit of the cicus, a tree which grows in Egypt in great abundance; by some it is known as croton, by others as sili, and by others, again, as wild sesamon...Our people are in the habit of calling it "ricinus," from the resemblance of the seed to that insect. It is boiled in water, and the oil that swims on the surface is then skimmed off: but in Egypt, where it grows in a greater abundance, the oil is extracted without employing either fire or water for the purpose, the seed being first sprinkled with salt, and then subjected to pressure: eaten with food this oil is repulsive, but it is very useful for burning in lamps.
Pliny, Book XV, 7
[11] tpH (19th dynasty) , Dt , nhm (Middle Kingdom) are semitic loanwords.
[12] Alcock 2006, p.58
[13] Seeds of melons and watermelons were (and still are) eaten as snacks in the whole Near East.
[14] Lise Manniche, An ancient Egyptian herbal, University of Texas Press, 1989, p. 154
[15] MdC transliteration jwr.yt, Wb 1, 56.14-15
[16] MdC transliteration prj, Wb 1, 531.12. Arabic ful, still a staple food in Egypt.

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-[1] Farming at Karanis (University of Michigan)
-[2] History of Horticulture by Jules Janick (Purdue University)
-[10] Fruit and vegetable species from selected sites (University College London)
 

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