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Food and Diet in Assyria

We will try in this small article to shed some light on the subject of food and diet in Assyria and Babylonia since it is a subject seldom covered in most conversations.

While the quantity and variety of vertebrate animal remains, and in particular those of the mammals, show how important protein foods have been to man since his emergence. Early communities made full use of the whole range of mammals, and indeed all-animal life, found in their territory. Some animals—or parts of them –would, no doubt, have been considered ‘delicacies’, but in hunting and collecting economies there is no place for a genuine food bias. The distribution of mammal groups today is of course not necessarily a guide to that of the past, and on this score man himself has markedly altered the spread of some such populations—usually to their detriment, if we except domestic animals.

The earliest evidence of domestic sheep comes from the site of Zawi Chemi Shanidar (Iraq), and projects their history back to about 9000 BC. The bones showed that this early community was killing a large part of each year’s young for food and skins before the end of each year. By about 2000 BC, a number of domestic varieties are in evidence in Assyria and probably all were derived from wild urial sheep stock. The remains of cattle from the Halafian site of Bandahilk (Iraq) seem very likely to be of a domestic stock and not a small wild population, suggesting that the domestication of different species and varieties of cattle were known going back even 7,000 years ago. First, there was bos primigenius. This was widely distributed and was the most common breed and was the ancestor of the oxen of modern Mesopotamia. The Second variety was bos bubalus, or the buffalo, a native of Asia Minor and reached Mesopotamia at the time of the Akkadian dynasty. A third variety, now extinct, was the huge and savage bison. The great winged bulls, the tutelary genii that guarded the gates of the Assyrian capital city Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin), represented a memory of the bison, which was by far the most dangerous animal in Mesopotamia. The last variety was Zebu or hump-backed ox were bred in Mesopotamia by about 3000 BC, as it seems from art evidence.

We judge from other textual evidence from the time of the Assyrian King Sargon II that the economy in Babylonia was based at least partially on animal husbandry and on agriculture. Horses, mules, oxen, sheep, and goats were captured from the Aramean tribes and a percentage of the annual increase of their flocks was designated for tribute to Assyria which was growing in population and needed as much sources for food and transportation as possible.

Milk and milk products are perishable, therefore, their history is patchy, depending for the most part on literary, ceramic and art evidence. Early representations of milking include that in a frieze at Ur (c. 2900 BC). Probably cow and goat milk have been the most generally used by early communities. The use of butter, sour milk and cheese must have quickly followed the regular milking of animals, for by accident alone this milk product must have occurred again and again. Butter would be very easily produced merely by the action of transporting milk from place to place in containers. Certainly in Mesopotamia it was of great importance. The milking scene from Ur demonstrates the method used by the shepherds: a man is seated rocking a large narrow-necked jar lying on its side, and to his left two men are straining the resulting liquid in order to take off the butter. In Assyrian all fat was described simply as ‘fat’. When the phrase is unqualified or is accompanied by some term implying excellence, it meant butter. Other forms of fat like that derived from the sesame plant were explicitly described. There is some doubt, however, which has been cast on the use of the word ‘butter’ and later translators have substituted ‘curds’ as a more accurate description of the product. In Mesopotamia cheese making was an important task, and some cylinder seals found there depict the shepherd with his flocks, and rows of little circles probably representing cheeses. Numerous cheese-moulds were found in the dairy of the Palace of Mari (3rd millennium BC).

Our knowledge of the early domestication of birds is still very meagre. Fowls were known for a long time though, it appeared on Assyrian seals by the 8th century BC. The wild birds, which were however sometimes kept as pets, included the ibis, the crane, the heron (of which 7 varieties have been counted), which frequented the marshes, and the pelican, which was trained for fishing, while the fields were the home of thrushes, blackbirds, sparrows and larks. Quails were rare, but partridges and francolins bred in the country and we can see the latter being hunted with the bow on a bas-relief from Khorsabad (Dur-Sharrukin) of the time of King Sargon II, now in the Louvre Muesum.

Fish was popular to the Assyrians and the rivers following through Assyria were a good source for them. Their knowledge of the breeding habits of fish was considerable and fertilized eggs were collected and placed in special lakes or vivaria. The Assyrians maintained an ample supply of fish in the dams they built. The canals were also useful as a source of edible fish, and fishing is often referred to as an occupation. An Assyrian bas-relief shows a little round pond fed by a stream and the sculptor has been careful to make clearly visible the fish, which it contains, as though they were on the surface. Fishing was generally done on a line, but various kinds of net were also employed. The pond depicted on this particular relief is so regular in shape that it may well be a special stew fed by a branch stream from a canal. Fish, eaten both fresh and dried, was an important element in Assyrian diet. The larger fish were dried gutted, filleted, and hung on a line, as is still done in Norway. Smaller fish were left in the sun and then compressed into a solid block, from which the required quantity could be cut off. Discoveries at Tello recognized fragments of this dried fish.

Honey was apparently known but not used so widely as date syrup, and it seems that honey was brought in from the land of the Hittites, for it is a known fact that the Hittites were ardent bee-keepers. The date, meanwhile, to the Assyrians, was, in the words of Herodotus, their ‘food, wine and honey’. Fig-syrup was also used in Assyria. We read from the textual evidence from the time of the Assyrian King Sargon II that as a tribute date palms belonging to the Arameans were cut down by Assyrian troops to use as food and other parts of the annual tribute was to be paid in grain.

Few major variants of wheat are known to have been used in Assyria. The Emmer wheat, Jarmo, has provided grains strikingly like the wild ancestral forms. Club wheat has been identified at a Mesopotamian site dated to 3000 BC. Barley and wheat are the cereals that occur most persistently in Mesopotamian archaeological sites. More is known of six-row barley, the lax-eared form being present in those sites. Barley was not only the most common of the useful natural products but also the most abundant, and in the absence of money as a medium of exchange, barley grain served as the accepted standard of value. The starchy grain known as spelt was indigenous in Mesopotamia, but was never as common or as important as barley. Following Alexander’s invasion of India in 320 BC, the Greeks mention the rice as being indigenous to India. Moreover Aristobulus, writing about 280 BC, notes that rice was grown in Babylonia.

Bread and onions formed the basic diet of the people of Assyria and Babylonia. The bread was sold by volume, which is some reason for thinking that it may have been a kind of crustless floury substance, like the Italian polenta. Bread was baked in the form in which it is still found in the East, namely, in a kind of lightly-cooked pancake, the two sides of which separate in the heat of the oven. Sticking flat pieces of dough to the walls of a hot brick oven to which they adhere until they are fully backed does this. It is possible too that the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians ate bread baked in the shape of large pancakes on a convex metal surface. This is placed slantwise over the fire with the curved surface upward and the extremely thin layer of dough bakes very quickly. The onion was regarded as a peasant food. Accounts dating from the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (early 2nd millennium BC) state that on one day each month various persons received a ration of about a ‘gallon’ of bread and some onions. They were usually eaten raw with bread and were sold in strings. Gardens in fertile Mesopotamia flourished, and onion leeks and garlic were amongst the most frequently cultivated plants. They were grown in the gardens of King Merodach-Baladan II of Babylon, and Ur-Nammu of Ur (2100 BC) records that by constructing a temple to Nannar he saved his garden, wherein grew onions and leeks. A good meal consisted too of vegetables such as lentils which, like beans, have always been grown in the area, boiled millet, barley prepared as we prepare rice, and possibly maize; while some botanists have expressed the opinion that sorghum can be identified in the clumps of plants of the corn family depicted on certain Assyrian bas-reliefs. Other common vegetables included pumpkins, cucumbers and melons.

Whatever we choose to believe about the fungi’s nutritional value to the Mesopotamians, they knew both poisonous and edible mushrooms as well as truffles and have been appreciated there at least as early as 1800 BC, as letters found in excavations at Mari show. Locusts, then as now, were considered to be edible in the regions which lay in the path of the Assyrians’ invasion, and a relief from Khorsabad (Dur Sharrukin) shows servants serving them on skewers, just as frogs are served in France today.

It is hard to be precise about when the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians knew and drank beer and wine, but large numbers of tablets recording wine trade were discovered. These were regular vintages, whose popularity varied according to their district of origin, those which aged without fermenting being especially highly esteemed. Drink was distributed at the rate of just over a gallon a head. This consisted not only of a kind of beer derived from a barley base, but also of palm-tree wine, obtained by tapping the top of the trunk of the palm tree and collecting the sap. At this stage it is comparatively innocuous, but it ferments and becomes extremely intoxicating after a lapse of two or three days. They made a distinction between fermented and unfermented liquor. In the poem of the Creation, during a banquet the gods, under the influence of alcohol, bacame talkative and excited. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild man Enkidu, destined to become Gilgamesh’s companion, requests the drinking of fermented liquor. ‘He drank of the beer: he drank thereof seven times: his spirit was liberated and he cried out with a loud voice: his body was filled with well being and his face lit up.’

The varieties of fruit most commonly eaten, other than dates, included grenadines, medlars, apples, pears, apricots, plums, and pistachio nuts—varieties which flourished in Assyria. We do not know whether the Assyrians knew of the banana, but it is a least possible, for there are bas-reliefs which show, among the food on the tables, an object which appears to consist of a number of finger-like sections joined at their base, somewhat resembling a bunch of bananas. If so, they were probably brought from present day Syria, which was part of the Assyrian Empire, where bananas were grown on a large scale.

In conclusion, and speaking in general, it is truly amazing how little difference society in Assyria and Babylonia has changed its eating and diet habits for the last 3,000-4,000 years. 

Fred Aprim

References:
Don Brothwell and Patricia Brothwell, “Food in Antiquity”
Georges Contenau, “Everyday life in Babylon and Assyria”

 
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