Over the course of successive dynasties in ancient Egypt, a wide variety of foodstuffs were both cultivated and imported for domestic consumption. The quality and abundance of available vegetables developed in tandem with the advent of agricultural techniques, and the availability of fertile land in connection with the annual flooding of the Nile River.
Vegetable and Fruit Examples
Vegetables the ancient Egyptians ate included green peas, leeks, lettuce, chickpeas and beans. Garlic and onions were also consumed for their purported medical qualities. Fruits such as grapes, pomegranates, dates and plums were also harvested. Other crops that came to be planted by the Egyptians originated in East Africa, the Near East and parts of Asia. One example is celery, which historians speculate came from Southwest Asia or Europe; traces have turned up in archaeological digs of sites dating as early as the 18th Dynasty, the time of Tutankhamun.
Throughout the different dynasties, Egyptians supplemented their vegetable intake with a variety of grains and meat. Egyptians hunted game such as quail and waterfowl within the marshes of the Nile delta, and also domesticated animals such as geese, ducks, cattle and even antelope, but the poorer classes ate meat only rarely. In Upper Egypt during the Predynastic Period, pigs were associated with the god Seth and avoided, while Egyptians in Lower Egypt during the same time slaughtered and ate them. Fish were also a staple for Egyptians, though often considered unclean by the upper classes. Grains such as barley and wheat were used to make bread and brew beer, a nutritious foodstuff that was thicker than the beverage known today.
Food and Status
The poorer an ancient Egyptian was, the more his or her diet depended on vegetables. Poorer Egyptians relied on small household gardens and small game brought in by hunting to supplement their diet, and ate choicer meat infrequently at festivals. They also consumed papyrus roots or other edible marsh vegetation. Wealthier Egyptians were able to hunt as a leisure activity, and consumed domesticated oxen although they were prohibitively expensive to raise. Beer was consumed by all regardless of class, and flavored with dates.
Religion and Medicine
The ancient Egyptian religion also influenced the type of vegetables consumed. Onions were considered to possess aphrodisiac qualities, and were forbidden among celibate priests despite being a common staple. Lettuce leaves were also regarded as an aphrodisiac or fertility enhancer, and frequently used for religious pledges or offerings. Ancient Egyptians of every status entombed their dead with many ritual objects believed to be necessary for the next life, including beer, vegetables and more luxurious foods depending on the means of the entombed. The auxiliary chamber to King Tutankhamun's tomb contained ornate plates and dishes intended to hold food offerings during the pharaoh's funeral ceremony.
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