Module 2: Food Culture of Ancient Mesopotamia

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On last week's episode of the Kitchen Survival Guide, we learned what our ancient ancestors ate as hunter gatherers, but how did we evolve to become modern societies that are so food-focused? Well, the first emergence of agricultural societies completely transformed humanity as we know it. The first recorded agricultural society appeared in the Fertile Crescent: a civilization called Mesopotamia, an Ancient Greek name meaning "the land between two rivers." It is here that culture, religion, food and government became forever engrained in our cultures and societies around the world.

There is a region of land that stretches in a crescent shape from the west end of the Mediterranean Sea, to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what we now know as Iraq, down to the Persian Gulf. We called this area of land the Fertile Crescent. It was named the fertile crescent due to its fertile soil, wetlands, and abundance of water, in comparison to the otherwise generally arid Middle East. As we touched on in the last episode, hunter gatherers tended to migrate along with herds of animals for water, salt, and food resources, as well as in search of favourable climates. Just above the fertile crescent and a small piece of land near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in an area called the Levant, were also fertile lands called the “hilly flanks.” These hilly flanks is where the ancient Mesopotamians domesticated and cultivated first grains around 10,000 B.C., evolving from Epipalaeolithic hunter gatherer groups to Neolithic agricultural societies. As a result, livestock such as sheep, cattle and goats also settled in this area. Without the combination of livestock and agriculture, city states would not have been feasible. The area just below the fertile crescent was where the fertile soils seep into the desert, which the Mesopotamians used to graze animals post-domestication. This also occurred in the area of the Jordanian Steppe. These two areas were some of the most productive areas outside of Mesopotamia.

But humans weren’t very interested in sedentism in this area until the Ice Age, which occurred along with a small dry period called the Younger Dryas event. During this period, the small fertile regions within the fertile crescent decreased in size, due to the hot and dry climate. People were forced to cultivate foods like cereal grains to ensure a proper food supply. Previously, humans typically did not dabble with cereal grains, since they would take hours of grinding and baking to render them edible food products. Rather than hunting, these humans began to invest more in their food supply by herding animals to domesticate.

A study by Ginger R. H. Allington from Saint Louis University, focused on the “fertile islands” or fertile areas of land dispersed across arid climate deserts. Allington took soil samples from different regions and concluded that, “Our empirical data and literature review suggest that the fertile island pattern may be an artifact of grazing rather than an inherent property of arid shrublands. Further, we suggest that the grazing history of a site needs to be explicitly considered when documenting spatial patterns of soil nutrients in arid systems. This has significant implications for our understanding of soil nutrient dynamics in arid systems, the management of rangelands, and the potential for reversal of desertification.” It is possible that the fertile crescent emerged as a result of animal grazing.

However, Dr. Rivka Amit, at the Geological Survey of Israel, and her team were looking to figure out why some soils around the Mediterranean were thin and why are some were thick. According to the Geological Society of America, “Their investigation led them to discover not only that dust deposition played a critical role in forming thick soils in the Levant, but also that had the source of dust not changed 200,000 years ago, early humans might have had a much tougher time leaving Africa, and parts of the Fertile Crescent wouldn’t have been so hospitable for civilization to take root.”

The fertile crescent was the place of conception of one of the earliest modern civilizations, and why it is also referred to as the Cradle of Civilization due to the humanity altering innovations and literature created within the region. Within this region was Mesopotamia, which meant “between the rivers,” and this ancient civilization began approximately 5,000 years ago, in 3,000 B.C. Mesopotamian cities were enclosed by defensive walls, and it contained another small walled city that was called “the temple.” Contained within the temple was the Granary, which held the city’s grain stores. Priests would honour the Gods day and night by preparing feasts.

Since many people from all different areas migrated to the regions contained within the Fertile Crescent, there was a new-found necessity for order and organization. This is how almost every ancient civilization in recorded history became centered around food, faith, and government. The Code of Hammurabi was one of the first written legal codes as proclaimed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, the sixth king in the Babylonian dynasty ruling central Mesopotamia who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C. Mesopotamia is what we now know as present day Iraq, and the Hammurabi encompassed the city-state of Babylon to the Euphrates River, uniting all of southern Mesopotamia. The Code of Hammurabi was a collection of 282 laws and standards for commercial interactions. These laws set fines or punishments for breaking the laws that were carved into large black stone pillars. The laws controlled every area of a Mesopotamian’s life, including: marriage, divorce, adoption, building and irrigation canals. In many cases, the penalty for breaking a law could be a cracked or broken bone, removal of the tongue, hands, breasts, eye or ear. depending on the offense. The fine for theft of an animal from a shrine was twice that of the fine for theft from another person. If a man stole an ox, he was required to repay thirty times its value. These laws outlined the standards for all three classes within Babylonian society: the propertied class, freedmen, and slaves. For example, if a doctor accidentally killed a rich patient, his hand would be removed, but if he killed a slave, there would only be a fine.

The production and sale of wine was also regulated by the Code of Hammurabi. If a tavern owner overhead customers speaking about attempts to topple the government, the owner would have to record them. Writing was invented in Mesopotamia, called cuneiform, meaning “wedge-shaped.” Symbols were pressed into wet clay with a stylus and once the clay hardened, the symbols became permanent within the clay. The writings included: recipes, correspondence, songs, poems, laws, and business records. Cuneiform ceased to exist in the first century B.C. and shortly after, tablets disappeared altogether.

According to Scholar Jeremy Black, "Beer was a staple in Mesopotamia and its surroundings from prehistoric times, as the fermentation process was an effective method of killing bacteria and waterborne disease. Its manufacture was recorded and controlled by scribes even in the earliest written records, from the late fourth millennium BCE. Beer was consumed by people at all levels of society and offered to Gods and to the dead in libation rituals." The Hymn to Ninkasi was sung by Sumerian brewers, which effectively preserved the recipe for beer brewing. Beer was considered the "drink of the gods" and was controlled by the Goddess Ninkasi. This is where the name of the Ninkasi Brewing Company comes from. Beer was also used to pay labourers and this form of payment later trickled into Egyptian culture as well.

Records were kept of offerings to the deities, who were supposedly meant to eat four times per day. These records display the abundance of food within Mesopotamia. The deities were said to prefer bread and the god And, and goddesses Antu, Ishtar, and Nanaya, were each presented with thirty loaves of bread per day, as well as the nicest figs and grapes. Meat was also offered. The bakers, butchers and millers would pray in gratitude to the deities while the grains were ground, the bread was kneaded, and the animals were slaughtered. The food would be placed onto golden plates by the priests to serve to the gods. There are forty written recipes from Mesopotamia. The aromatics used were typically onion, leek, garlic, and the occasional use of mint. The spices used were cumin and coriander, which were often used as a garnish. Foods were preserved using salting or drying techniques, and some foods were preserved in oil. Dairy products were made into clarified butter or cheese.

In ancient Mesopotamia, cooks were seen as a professional class within society and would require apprenticeships to acquire the skills of the trade. The service of these cooks was only affordable for the elite or nobility, wherein a noble family may have employed up to 400 cooks and pastry chefs at once. Gods also had cooks, which were seen as minor versions of the Gods themselves.

The Mesopotamians wanted to show off their power and the wealth of their government, so they would hold elaborate banquets, one of which was a feast that lasted ten days to celebrate the construction of the king’s palace and almost 70,000 people were invited. Food items were served at the banquet in enormous quantities, including over 47,000 animals, 10,000 eggs and thousands of jugs of beer and wine.

Once a month, on the final day of the Mesopotamian lunar calendar, a memorial meal would occur. All family members, alive and deceased, would partake in the meal during the dark of the moon. The name of the ritual meant, “to break in pieces and distribute,” which played a role in two of the main spiritual beliefs of Mesopotamians: although the deceased are dead, they still need to eat, just not as much and even after death, family is always there in spirit. It is often referred to modernly as a funerary.

Mesopotamians invented three important things that were revolutionary in the evolution of humanity and the food industry: the wheel, the plow, and the sailboat. Carts with wheels could allow horses or oxen to move food and other goods to the marketplace faster and with less human labour. The wheel also allowed for wars by chariot. With animals pulling plows to till the soil, agriculture became a sustainable way of supplying the granary. The wheel was also used to create carts for a species of sheep, called fat-tailed sheep, whose tail is four and a half feet long. The fat from the tail of this sheep is still highly prized in contemporary times. And sailboats allowed for food trade with other countries, such as India. Soon after these inventions, Mesopotamia became a trading hub, wherein each of its cities had approximately 30,000 people. Our Earth contains tens of thousands edible species of plants and grains, but approximately only 600 of those plant species have been domesticated by modern humans. The first instances of these foods being domesticated began in the Fertile Crescent. Today, only ten percent of the marshlands have survived due to the dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The rest, is desert.

Allington, Ginger R. H., and Thomas J. Valone. “Islands of Fertility: A Byproduct of Grazing?” Ecosystems, vol. 17, no. 1, 28 Sept. 2013, pp. 127–141, 10.1007/s10021-013-9711-y. Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.

Civitello, Linda. Cuisine and Culture : A History of Food and People. Hoboken, N.J., John Wiley And Sons, 2011.

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“Ten Ancient Mesopotamia Facts You Need to Know.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

Whelan, Ed. “New Study Proves How Desert Dust Deposits Created The Fertile Crescent.”, Accessed 3 Nov. 2020.