Divine Wine

'Drink and Make a Happy Day'

Winemaking, Tomb of Ipuy (ca. 1279–1213 B.C.) by Charles K. WilkinsonThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Types & Uses of Wine

Over their long history, ancient Egyptians have made and consumed grape wine—both red and white—but it is also possible that they made wine out of dates, figs, and pomegranates. Wine was produced from as early as the Predynastic Period (ca. 5500–3100 BCE) and was a valuable commodity, mostly consumed by the elite but distributed amongst the masses on special occasions such as feasts. It was also given as a reward to soldiers or as a bonus to workers.

Wine Production & Classification

Tomb scenes show a great deal of detail about wine production: harvesting and pressing the grapes; filling the jars, transporting and storing them; serving wine; and finally, the excessive drinking of wine. Wine vessels would have carried inscriptions or labels serving the same purpose as modern wine labels. Wine had different grades; nefer nefer nefer denoted wine of excellent quality, while nefer nefer indicated a lesser wine, and just nefer a wine of far lesser grade, nefer being the ancient word for ‘good’.

Wine and Papyrus for the Treasuries of Amun, Tomb of Rekhmire (ca. 1479–1420 B.C.) by Charles K. WilkinsonThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wine for the gods...

This scene shows the transport of wine jars (and also papyrus bundles) into the treasuries of the god Amun, the foremost Egyptian deity at the time.

...and for the elite

Wine was made exclusively for royalty and the élite, who could afford to maintain vineyards. Viticulture required abundant resources and labourers, making it a commodity of prestige.

...and even for the masses

Wine was mostly consumed at banquets and religious and public feasts. The masses received their share of wine during such feasts, along with meat, another luxury.

Clay Wine Jar (-3300/-2960)RAWI Publishing

Storage vessels

Wine was stored in amphorae with conical bases. This allowed for the remains of grapes or impurities to sink to the bottom. When the wine was refilled or served, the dregs would thus remain at the bottom of the container. Shoulders or handles of wine vessels were often inscribed, stamped, or  closed off with mud seals. They often carried labels similar to modern ones. Labels that survive today provide a considerable amount of detail: the date (in ancient Egypt that would have been the regnal year of the ruling king and his name), the particular variety of wine, the original vineyard or estate where it was grown and pressed, the vintner and the wine owner.  

Strainer Strainer (ca. 1279–1213 B.C.)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Refined Accessories

Wine-drinking gained unprecedented popularity amongst the elite during the Ramesside Period. This wine strainer, made of gold, is intended for removing sediment as it is poured out of jugs, jars, or flasks into bowls and goblets for drinking.      

StrainerThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ceremonial Festivities

The gold strainer from the previous image was found alongside an assemblage of silver and gold vessels, which suggests they all had the same function: serving wine. Because these were found within a temple, it is likely that this very refined and valuable set was used in connection with a temple festival of some sort.

Food Offering Scene | Tomb of Menna (-1400/-1352)RAWI Publishing

This offering scene of food presented to a nobleman called Menna and his wife Henuttawy shows foodstuffs piled atop a table. 

Beneath the table, four vessels are depicted. These are probably wine: they have conical bases, typical of wine, and are adorned by grapes, a further pointer to their contents. In addition to red and white grape wine, Ancient Egyptians possibly made wine from dates, figs, and pomegranates.

Cul Afri Egypt Life Occupations, Trades EtcLIFE Photo Collection

Excessive drinking of wine was frowned upon and warned against. Scenes on tomb walls have shown people being ill at banquets and others being carried away after having consumed too much wine.

Women at a Banquet, Tomb of Rekhmire (ca. 1479–1425 B.C.) by Nina de Garis DaviesThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Banquets and celebrations were very common in New Kingdom Egypt. Guests wore their finest clothing (usually delicately pleated linen dresses and kilts) and beautiful jewellery (especially collars). Fat cones, perfumed lumps of fat that were worn on top of people’s wigs, were commonly seen in banquets, and would have imparted a beautiful scent.

This banquet scene shows two women with fat cones on their heads being served wine by a servant. The young servant holds a little vial in her left hand, which may have held some herbal mix that would have increased the wine’s effects. 

The hieroglyph inscription is one that still resonates today: 'Make a happy day!' Perhaps an ancient equivalent to 'Cheers' or 'Have a Good Day!'

For more of what ancient Egyptians ate and drank, check out this story on food for the afterlife.

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