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Hilde Lee: Fertile Crescent foodways shaped our own

Hilde Lee: Fertile Crescent foodways shaped our own

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Do we still eat some of the same vegetables and meats that people did 5,000 to 9,000 years ago? Yes, but with variations, since the lifestyles and the raising of food were entirely different. There were no modern conveniences.

What were some of the first domesticated animals and the first foods cultivated in quantity? About 10,000 years ago, the people of the Fertile Crescent — an arc of land covering what is today Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel — domesticated plants and animals. Goats, sheep, and cows provided not only meat and milk but also hides, transportation and manure for fertilizer.

At that time, about 9,000 to 7,000 B.C. a wild ancestor of wheat was growing all over the Fertile Crescent. Some other starches — rice, potatoes, sorghum and wheat — also were being grown in parts of Europe, weather permitting. Growing plants and keeping animals led to a more sedentary life. Thus, more people lived in close proximity with a structured lifestyle.

By 7000 B.C. agriculture had reached Greece. A thousand years later, food crops were being grown in southern Europe, as well as in Britain.

Little by little, this agriculture changed the lifestyle of the people. Food was being grown on nearby plots. Rituals, both social and religious, were being observed. An upper class was established and religion became part of daily life.

Now that we have basically established the framework of these early civilizations, what did the people eat? Much of their plant food depended on the weather. Wheat and other staples, like barley, chickpeas and lentils, were grown in plots. These foods were high in protein and provided mostly starch. The first civilizations also ate cabbages, lettuce and a small amount of meat from sheep, pigs and cows.

In 7,000 B.C. dairy products were almost totally new to the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent. They were produced under strictly controlled conditions using the good bacteria of the foods’ makeup. In this way, humans invented a whole series of new foods, including wine and beer, cheese, and pickled or cured vegetables and fruits.

With new crops, new methods of preparation and cooking had to be devised. Safe food storage had to be provided. However, many more crops could be grown. Wild fowl had to be cared for by building chicken houses. Eggs became an important part of the diet.

Fish remained primarily caught wild until modern times. However, shellfish was either caught as needed or raised in controlled areas.

Now that we have established some of the principals of food consumption in ancient times, let’s see what life was like in the Fertile Crescent around 4000 to 3500 B.C. It is the first place that we have that documents archaeologically the domestication of animals, a cuisine and medicine.

Luckily, there are extensive writings and paintings, many in tombs, of foodstuffs, so that modern man can put together a history of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent.

Grain was of great importance to the Egyptian diet. Much of it was stored after every harvest to provide for lean years. Often, grain from Syria was stored in warehouses a part of a welfare system. This grain was first offered to the gods and then redistributed to the population.

Barley also figured prominently in the Egyptian diet. Since the plant dies and the seed goes dormant and sprouts again, barley was a symbol of the afterlife. Mummies were often buried with barley necklaces.

The Egyptians ate different kinds of bread made from barley and spelt for the lower classes and wheat for the upper classes. Bread was the staple food for the Egyptians, and they were buried with it.

Hunting was a favorite pastime. The Egyptians loved beef and developed a large-scale cattle industry, and tomb paintings depict milkmaids. However, the priests always kept the sacred bulls. By-products of the cattle were used in medicines.

Sheep and goats also were domesticated. They had been introduced into Egypt from Asia, along with mountain goats. Pigs were not the Egyptians “in thing.” Like the Hebrews, they avoided them. Pigs were forbidden to be used as sacrifices.

Egyptians loved fowl — geese, ducks, cranes, pigeons and quails. In addition to food, fowl also were used for temple offerings. Cooked geese were often offered as funerary offerings. Domestic chickens did not appear until Roman times, when they were used as temple offerings.

Fishing was a sport with spears, hooks and lines, or commercial nets and traps. Since there were few remains of fish or tomb paintings of fish it is difficult to identify species of fish. They were usually dried.

The only beans the Egyptians had were fava beans, black-eyed peas and chickpeas. However, they also had some lentils.

Just as wheat was introduced into Egypt, so were grapes. The wealthiest people owned vineyards and these often had pictures of their vineyards painted on the walls of their tombs. They expected to drink the best wines in the afterlife.

The Egyptians were gourmet cooks. They used many spices, including cumin, anise, garlic and onions. Garlic and onions were fed to the slaves who were building the pyramids.

Many fruits, such as peaches, cherries and pears, were grafted onto trees. Later, olives were grown, eliminating the need for importation of olive oil. Sesame oil had been used for cooking, but animal fats remained the ones most commonly used.

That’s basically what Egyptian food was like and still is. It was probably the best and most advanced of the ancient cuisines of the Fertile Crescent.

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