Wine (or “irep” in ancient Egyptian) was a status symbol, reserved for the wealthy and for religious occasions. Beer was the staple drink of the everyman in ancient Egypt, and could be made at home from barley or wheat.
Grapes were cultivated in Egypt by as early as 4000 BCE. The earliest evidence of wine production in Egypt dates to around 3000 BCE, during the Pre-Dynastic Period. By the time Egypt was unified under one ruler, winemaking was probably well-established in the region.
Wine in Egyptian culture
Thousands of wine jars (referred to as amphorae by archaeologists) have been found in tombs dating from throughout Egyptian history. Funerary stelae document the offering of wine to the deceased, who were believed to still require sustenance in the afterlife.
Wine was associated with Osiris, the god of the afterlife, and with the red sediments which filled the Nile during the annual flooding. Wine was therefore connected to the life-giving, regenerative forces of the world.
Since ancient Egyptian art and literature exclusively associate wine with the colour red, it was debated whether white wines were ever produced in ancient Egypt. Chemical analysis of residues from wine amphorae in the tomb of Tutankhamun has revealed that the Egyptians produced white wine as well as red. The earliest explicit description of white wine in ancient Egypt comes from the 3rd Century CE, when Egypt was a Roman province.
The Graeco-Roman philosopher Plutarch recounted an apocryphal Egyptian legend about the origins of wine:
“The beginning of their drinking dates from the reign of Psammetichus; before that they did not drink wine nor use it in libation as something dear to the gods, thinking it to be the blood of those who had once battled against the gods, and from whom, when they had fallen and had become commingled with the earth, they believed vines to have sprung. This is the reason why drunkenness drives men out of their senses and crazes them, inasmuch as they are then filled with the blood of their forbears. These tales Eudoxus says in the second book of his World Travels are thus related by the priests.”
(Plutarch, Iside et Osiride, 6:25)
Plutarch’s legend is probably mostly fabrication, but wine did have its own dark connotations in Egyptian culture. Wine’s red colour led to an obvious association with blood.
The bloodthirsty god Shezmu was associated with wine and oil presses. Shezmu could be a benevolent deity, bestowing strength upon the Pharaoh and exhibiting generosity, but he could also be a force of violence and bloodlust. Shezmu was said to punish evildoers in the underworld by squeezing blood from them like wine from grapes.
One papyrus from the 21st Dynasty (1069 – 945 BCE) depicts Shezmu with a wine-press full of human heads instead of grapes. However, Egyptian traditions also credited him with providing humans with grape juice, oils, and perfumes.
The ancient Egyptian winemaking process
After harvesting, the grapes were pressed to release their juices. This meant pouring huge amounts of grapes into a vat which was then stomped by barefoot men. Afterwards, the pressed grapes were poured into a bag and squeezed again to release the last juices.
The traditional method of grape-stomping is still used in places today, although most wineries have moved to mechanical wine presses.
The collected grape juice was poured into amphorae which were sealed with clay. Small reeds were inserted or holes were punched in the lids of wine jars to allow gases to escape during the fermentation process. Most ancient Egyptian amphorae were long and handleless, and came in sizes of 10, 20, or 30 litres.
Analysis of ancient Egyptian winejars has revealed that some were flavoured with tree resin. The practice of resinating wine was common in the ancient Mediterranean, and is still used to make retsina, a traditional Greek wine.
Much like modern wine bottles, Egyptian amphorae were labelled with information about the vintage. Ancient Egyptian wine labels typically included information about the wine’s age, its quality, the winemaker’s name, and where it came from.
These labels tell us a lot about the ancient Egyptian wine industry. Archaeologists have surmised that the Pharaohs almost had a monopoly on the wine industry, since most wines came from royal vineyards.
A special type of sweet red wine, known as “shedeh”, was very highly regarded by the Egyptians. For nearly a century, Egyptologists theorised that shedeh was a fermented pomegranate wine. Modern analysis of shedeh jars has since revealed that it was a red grape wine made through a complicated process of filtering and heating.
Near Eastern influences on the Egyptian wine industry
Around 1670 BCE, Egypt was invaded by Semitic-speaking peoples from West Asia, probably Syria-Palestine. These people, collectively referred to as the Hyksos by Egyptians, occupied parts of the Nile Delta and Middle Egypt.
The Hyksos brought their cultural love of wine with them, and Egyptian wine production seems to have increased in volume during this time. The Hyksos had strong ties to the region of southern Palestine, as evidenced by the importation of Canaanite and Levantine wine amphorae during this time.
During the New Kingdom (c. 1550 BCE – 1000 BCE), after the Hyksos had been expelled from Egypt, wine production was much greater than it had been in the Middle and Old Kingdoms. Overall, wine was a more popular drink in elite Egyptian circles at this time.
Wine in Graeco-Roman Egypt
Egypt was increasingly tied to Greece through cultural and economic exchange after being conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. The settlement of large communities of Greek immigrants in Egypt created a high demand for wine.
The Ptolemaic Greek dynasty invested heavily in planting vineyards in Middle Egypt, most importantly in the Fayyum region which had previously been mostly uncultivated. These royal agricultural projects served a double purpose; they created a local supply of wine and plots of vineyards could be given as rewards for Ptolemaic soldiers. Some individuals were even paid partially in stipends of wine.
Vineyards soon dotted the Egyptian countryside, especially the Nile Delta and the Oasis communities. Some Ptolemaic winemakers imported vines from Greece and Asia Minor to plant in Egypt, but these did not replace older Egyptian grape varieties.
Papyrological evidence has revealed that many Greek vintners struggled at first with Egypt’s unfamiliar soil, climate, and grape varieties. The wine produced during this period was made with a combination of techniques from Greece and Egypt, and represented a unique winemaking tradition.
Wine was also imported in large quantities from regions like Greece, Asia Minor, Italy, and Spain. This imported wine was mostly consumed in Egyptian cities like Alexandria, Ptolemais, and Naukratis which had large populations of Greek immigrants.
Ptolemaic Egypt’s conquest by the Roman Empire in 30 BCE only led to an increase in the appetite for wine. The Graeco-Egyptian author Athenaeus of Naukratis wrote that in the 3rd Century CE:
“The quantity of vines planted along the Nile matches the river’s size, and many of the wines have unique colours and flavours.”
Unfortunately, there is not much surviving evidence about the different varieties of Egyptian wine or what it tasted like. Ancient texts do not often describe Egyptian wines, and when Egyptian wines are mentioned it is only in passing.
Roman Egypt exported large amounts of cheap wine vinegar to other parts of the Roman Empire. Surprisingly, Egypt did not export large amounts of wine. This might be because there was simply not enough wine produced for exportation, but it may also be that Egyptian wine was not particularly well regarded by Graeco-Roman wine aficionados.
Sources and Bibliography
McGovern, Patrick E. and Mondavi, Richard G. Ancient Wine: The search for the origins of viniculture. Princeton University Press.
Poo, Mu-Chou. Wine and Wine-Offering in the Religion of Ancient Egypt. Routledge.
McGovern, Patrick E. and Fleming, Stuart J. and Katz, Solomon. The Origins and Ancient History of Wine. Routledge.
Nicholson, Paul T. and Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology.Cambridge University Press.
Hart, George. The Routledge Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Routledge.