On the Menu in Ancient Egypt: Fish

From fish to oysters and bottarga, seafood was a mainstay of the ancient Egyptian table

Facsimile: Scene of Fish Preparation and Net Making (ca. 1479–1458 B.C.) by Norman de Garis DaviesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

From as early as 15000 BCE, Egyptian hunter-gatherers relied on Nile fish and oysters. The river provided a steady source of freshwater fish, while marine fish from the Red and Mediterranean seas was also occasionally available.

Almost a hundred species of fish were eaten, including bulti (tilapia)catfish, and Nile perch, which are consumed until today. Many of them are depicted in detail in tomb scenes allowing for an accurate identification of the various species. Remains of fish bones are also immensely common on archaeological sites. 

Fish would have been gutted and then grilled, salted, or dried. Fisikh, a pungent dried fish commonly eaten today for Egyptian Easter probably has its origins in ancient Egypt. Fish extracts were even used for medicinal purposes.

Fishing techniques were varied. This man is using flax or some other vegetal fibre to make a net, which was a common way of catching fish. Net weights, small doughnut-shaped bits of fired clay, would have been tied to the edges to weigh it down.

Fish hookThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fishing hooks tied to a line of flax or vegetable fibres were also commonly used to catch fish.    

Detail from a Fishing Scene, Tomb of Qenamun (ca. 1427–1400 B.C.) by Hugh R. HopgoodThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Harpooning or spear fishing were other common fishing methods.

Many scenes depict the practice in shallow waters, such as papyrus marshes.

Model Sporting BoatThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ancient Egyptians loved their excursions on the Nile marshes where they could fish and hunt birds. Papyrus rafts or light boats such as this one were used for these trips.

In the centre of the scene, you see a fisherman kneeling to remove a harpoon from a tilapia fish.

Here, you see a man aiming his spear or harpoon at some fish.  

Model Sporting BoatThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

A closer look at the people depicted in this detailed boat scene shows a large Mormyrus fish and a bunch of coots (a type of waterbirds) that were caught in a clapnet.      

Men Preparing Fish, Tomb Puyemre (ca. 1479–1458 B.C.) by Hugh R. HopgoodThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Batarekh (mullet roe) and salted fish were exported from Egypt throughout the Mediterranean. 

This scene shows the process of gutting fish and hanging them to dry.

Other fish processing scenes from different tombs show the removal of the fish spine and even details such as fish hanging with its roe for drying.

For more of what the ancient Egyptians ate, check out these stories on meat and poultry.

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