When someone mentions Egypt’s King Tut, most of us think of his dazzling god mask. But did you know that his tomb also held an impressive stash of wine? Here’s more on the cultural significance of wine in ancient Egypt.
In ancient Egypt, wine, referred to as irp, was enjoyed almost exclusively by kings and their families and stockpiled in quantities meant to sustain them and their relatives in the afterlife. It was principally used in religious ceremonies and celebrations as an offering to deities and as an accompaniment to meals for the aristocracy. On special occasions, such as the feast days of certain gods and goddesses, ordinary citizens were also allowed to consume wine.
Wine was also used as a base for medicine as it was known to enhance the effect of drugs, and it certainly tended to improve the taste of any prescription. The antiseptic properties of wine were also recognized, although not understood—pharaohs believed a prayer of thanks to Osiris, “Giver of the Wine,” plus the sacred nature of the wine itself prevented disease when added to drinking water. Wounds were routinely blessed, and consequently disinfected, with wine. Large quantities of palm wine were even used as part of the mummification process.
Egyptians made wine from at least 3500 BC. In their earliest winemaking endeavors, they used figs, dates, palm trees, pomegranates—virtually any native plant from which a sweet, fermentable sap or juice could be extracted. Grapes also were used, but they had to be imported from regions corresponding to present-day Georgia, Iran, and Armenia. Grapes were not indigenous to Egypt and initially proved almost impossible to grow there due to the climate and terrain. However, by 3000 BC, grapes were thriving in the Nile Delta—thanks to creative viticulturists—and over the centuries, grapevines were acquired from many foreign sources. Kings established vineyards next to their palaces and, as wine became increasingly essential to the royals and the wealthy, expansive vineyards and wineries adjacent to the Nile were set up to keep up with demand.
The oldest examples of Egyptian wine come from the tomb of King Scorpion I in the city of Abydos. A chamber in the tomb contained some 700 sealed wine jars from approximately 3150 BC. King Djoser’s pyramid near Memphis, constructed between 2667 and 2648 BC, also contained stored wine as well as paintings of his vineyards. Other murals and drawings from the funerary complex illustrated the winemaking process, including images of grape presses and in-ground storage vats.
An impressive wine stash was also discovered in 1922 in the tomb of Egypt’s King Tutankhamun. Twenty-six clay jugs were found, each with labels detailing the wine’s name, origin, vintner’s name, and description of quality. Chemical analyses of the wine residue conducted in 2006 revealed that both red and white wines were available in King Tut’s lifetime. Prior to this discovery, white wine was not known to have existed in ancient Egypt.
Picture shown is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic carving showing two priestesses carrying wine and food offerings for the gods. Temple of Ramses, Abydos, Egypt.