Food and Honey in Ancient Egypt

Egypt was a land of plenty – the Nile’s yearly inundation allowed for a wealth of food, making enough food so everyone in the country could be fed for a year and still have more left over.

We have a good knowledge of what the ancient Egyptians ate, from inscriptions and depictions in tombs and temples, as well as from actual food remains which have been found in tombs. The main food crops grown in the Nile Valley were emmer wheat and barley, from which bread and beer respectively were made. The beer did not have a high alcohol content but it was nourishing, and there were many varieties of bread. 

Offering bearers relief. Mastaba of Ptahhotep and Akhethotep. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Saqqara necropolis.
Offering bearers relief. Mastaba of Ptahhotep and Akhethotep. Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Saqqara necropolis.

Other staples were fish, fowl and vegetables (especially onions, but also garlic, lettuce and cucumber), which were supplemented by fruits such as the date, fig, dom palm nut and pomegranate. Bread and beer were regarded as the basic requirements of human existence and these, together with fish, fruits and vegetables, would have been available to peasants as well as to persons of higher status.

Meat was eaten, but for all except the elite this would have been a luxury, only to be tasted on rare occasions such as religious festivals. Grapes were harvested to make wine, and honey (from both wild and domesticated bees) was used to sweeten bread to make cakes or added to beer. Wall scenes and models found in tombs show how these basic ingredients were processed by bakers, brewers and butchers to make different types of food and drink.

7 Model showing baking, brewing, and butchering activities. From the tomb of Khety at Beni Hasan. Ashmolean Museum. AN1896-1908 E.2312
7 Model showing baking, brewing, and butchering activities. From the tomb of Khety at Beni Hasan. Ashmolean Museum. AN1896-1908 E.2312

Surprisingly, most Egyptians were basically vegetarian. Meat was expensive and it didn’t last without refrigeration, so those in the middle and lower class couldn’t have it often. It led the majority into a vegetarian diet consisting of bread, beer, chickpeas, lentils, onions, garlic, sesame, corn, barley, papyrus, flax, lettuce, and at Thebes during the New Kingdom, opium poppy.

When meat was eaten, there were a variety of choices. These included cattle, goats, lambs, sheep, poultry, and for those who hunted it, antelope. Fish was a viable option, but it wasn’t commonly eaten as a specific species of fish was considered taboo to eat. In the Osiris myth, when Seth sent Osiris’ body parts down the river, a fish ate Osiris’ penis and consequently became a bad omen. However this explanation is only according to Plutarch – not an Egyptian source.

Honey was something past just food. It was used in nearly everything, by both lower and higher class, leading to the belief that it was mass-produced. The sweet drink was used in sweetening food, of course, but also in wounds to heal and prevent infection.

“According to Egyptian mythology, when the ancient Egyptian sun god Re cried, his tears turned into honey bees upon touching the ground. For this reason, the honey bee was sacrosanct in ancient Egyptian culture. From the art depicting bees on temple walls to the usage of beeswax as a healing ointment, the honey bee was a pervasive cultural motif in ancient Egypt because of its connection to the sun god Re.”

Relief of a honeybee in the Tomb of Seti I (KV17), Valley of the Kings
Relief of a honeybee in the Tomb of Seti I (KV17), Valley of the Kings

The idea of mass-production is backed up by several facts, first being the sheer amount needed to fuel all of Egypt. Beekeepers are mentioned on steles, even a royal beekeeper. Man-made hives are also mentioned, made of mud or clay from the Nile and usually shaped as a pipe. These hives were moved up and down the Nile all year long so the bees could pollinate every month. The last piece of proof is the fact that people today are still doing that, this time with better transportation than a wooden boat.

Jars of honey are also mentioned in divorce forms, of all things. A contract found said, “I take thee to my wife… and promise to deliver to thee yearly twelve jars of honey.” This gives honey a high status, acting as a form of currency along with the wheat staple and gold rings.

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