Beer in the Ancient Near East

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor
of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

The Brussels Journal has a review the book A History of Beer and Brewing (Cambridge, UK: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003) by Ian Spencer Hornsey. The book provides a quick worldwide survey of ancient brews. The selection below is a section of the book review dealing with beer and brewing in the Ancient Near East.

Recorded human history begins with the rise of urban literate civilization in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, starting with the Sumerians and the cities of Uruk, Ur, Lagash and Kish in the fourth millennium BC. These civilizations had access to barley and wheat, which by consensus would be regarded as the preferred grains by most brewers. The origin of wheat and barley is believed to lie in the Fertile Crescent. Wild barley grew in Israel and Syria, the Jordan Valley with the extremely ancient Neolithic town of Jericho via eastern Anatolia to northern Mesopotamia and western Iran. Apart from barley, all of the major cereal crops such as wheat, oats, rye, millets, maize, sorghum and rice can and have been used to make beer. Some of the oldest written texts in the world contain lists of grains and ingredients for making beer. Sumerian Mesopotamia produced a great variety of beers, most of which were probably weaker than the European beers of medieval times. Wine was made in the Zagros Mountains in Iran and imported to the main urban sites. Beer was a popular drink in Mesopotamia during all eras and was consumed by all social groups, interlinked with mythology, religion and medicine, synonymous with happiness and a civilized life. Both filtered and unfiltered beers were brewed in the region.

According to I. Hornsey, “Beer that had not gone through any sieving or settlement phase was always drunk through straws, in order to avoid gross sediment. Numerous cylinder seals have been recovered which show individuals (usually two) drinking through straws from a communal vessel, something that supports the notion that drinking beer was a social activity….Drinking straws were usually made of reeds, and hence have long since perished, but one or two elaborate and more substantial structures have survived. Three such items were recovered from a royal tomb at Ur. One was made of copper encased in lapis lazuli; one was made of silver, fitted with gold and lapis lazuli rings, and the third was a reed covered in gold, and found still inserted in a silver jar. The silver tube was an impressive L-shaped structure, being ca. 1 cm in diameter, and some 93 cm long. A number of metal ‘straws’ have also been recovered from Syrian sites. Unfiltered Mesopotamian beer, which was thick and cloudy, was low in alcohol but high in carbohydrate and proteins, making it a nutritious food supplement.”

Beer played an important role in the ceremonial life of ancient Egypt, too. As Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter state in their book Egypt and the Egyptians, second edition, “The most popular drink in Egypt was beer, and we assume that all Egyptians – rich and poor, male and female – drank great quantities of it in spite of advice such as ‘Don’t indulge in drinking beer, lest you utter evil speech, and don’t know what you are saying’ (from the ‘Instructions of Ani’). Wages were paid in grain, which was used to make two staples of the Egyptian diet: bread and beer. Beer was made from barley dough, so bread making and beer making are often shown together. Barley dough destined for beer making was partially baked and then crumbled into a large vat, where it was mixed with water and sometimes sweetened with date juice. This mixture was left to ferment, which it did quickly; the liquid was then strained into a pot that was sealed with a clay stopper. Ancient Egyptian beer had to be drunk soon after it was made because it went flat very quickly. Egyptians made a variety of beers of different strengths.”

All kinds of workers were paid in grain and in grain products such as beer and bread. People at all levels of Egyptian society drank beer, with brewing not as tied to the temples as it was in Mesopotamia, although there was some government interference and regulation here as well. Breweries in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Syria could be large, but in the warm climate the beer would quickly become undrinkable and could thus not be transported too far or exported to distant regions. Baking and brewing often went on in shared quarters on the estates of Egypt since these two processes involved the same raw materials and similar equipment. Artistic evidence suggests a strong link between brewing and bread-making, both being domestic duties usually performed by women. Women made much of the beer in medieval Europe, too, until brewing become a major, capital-intensive industry and gradually became dominated by men. The roles of microscopic organisms in baking and brewing, however, were not fully appreciated until the scientific advances of nineteenth century Europe.

Beer was also consumed by many other ancient peoples, including the Hittites, Hebrews, Philistines, Thracians, Illyrians, Phrygians and Scythians. Some peoples, like the Nubians and the Ethiopians, would appear to have developed their own methods of brewing, making use of indigenous raw materials. The Eskimos drank chiefly iced water and warm blood before they were confronted by Europeans and their alcoholic drinks.

Wine has frequently throughout recorded history enjoyed greater prestige than beer and has often been the preferred choice of the wealthy and the privileged. It is difficult to say why. Maybe it was because wine was usually stronger than beer or that it kept longer. We cannot say with certainty that it always tasted better. Regardless of the reason for this, it is a fact that wine was often valued more highly. This attitude arguably still exists today, when beer is often viewed as the drink of the “common man,” while those eating at expensive restaurants will normally prefer a glass of fine wine rather than a glass of beer to accompany their food.

Wine was widely consumed in the ancient Middle East, and sometimes its effects were enhanced by additives. Along with eating and drinking went song and dance. Egyptians and Mesopotamians found it difficult to grow large amounts of grapes for wine and instead imported what they could not make. Thousands of wine jars were deposited in the tombs of the first pharaohs of Egypt at Saqqara (Memphis) and Abydos, the main centers of the recently united country. The about 700 jars of wine found in the tomb of one of Egypt’s first kings at Abydos, Scorpion I, contain some of the earliest known hieroglyphic writing ever discovered in Egypt, from before 3100 BC. This wine was apparently imported from southern Palestine, and it is quite clear that there was large-scale production of wine in the Levant – present-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan – already at this early date.

If you like beer, this post is for you.

NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to Beer in the Ancient Near East

  1. Joel says:

    >I've often wondered why there's no mention of "beer" in the OT, particularly in light of the clear influence of Egyptian culture. (And I wonder what the evidence is that "beer was also consumed by … the … Hebrews.")There's a word שכר (shechar), but it doesn't seem to mean "beer" specifically.-Joel

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  2. >Joel,Thank you for your comment.The word שכר (shechar) is translated in the NIV as "beer" (Isaiah 28:7). The word sikaru appears in Akkadian as "beer" also. The Hebrew word is generally translated as "strong drink" in the versions.Claude Mariottini

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  3. >Yes, I know that shechar is translated as "beer" in some versions, but I'm not convinced. And even if that is beer, I would have expected beer to play a much more prominent role in the Bible.-Joel

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  4. >Joel,The word shekar is used in the Hebrew Bible to designate "strong drink" or "intoxicating drink." However, the word appear in other ANE coxtexts with the meaning of beer.I do not believe the versions use the word beer to translate shekar.Claude Mariottini

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