Ancient roots of fermented drink

SUN JOURNAL

Alcohol: Recent discoveries in the Middle East suggest wine was made there more than 7,000 years ago, 2,000 years before the first beer was brewed.

July 27, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The Greeks and Romans may have introduced the fruit of the vine to the Western world. And the French may have perfected the art of viticulture. But the lands of the Near and Middle East appear to be the center of the enological map.

In the ruins of an ancient village in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran, archaeologists recently discovered six clay jars carrying sediment traces of tartaric acid -- a substance found only in grapes, therefore suggesting that the jars had held wine.

The vintage find was dated to the second half of the sixth millennium B.C. -- a couple of thousand years before the first beer. That can be traced to the fourth millennium B.C., when common folk in Egypt and Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) produced the inexpensive brew from wheat or barley.

Information about the origins of alcoholic beverages in the Middle East has been assembled by archaeologist Michal Dayagi-Mendels, curator of an exhibit at the Israel Museum called "Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times."

Pottery jugs with long snouts and baking pans believed to be used in beer-making were found, she says, in an Egyptian settlement dating from 3100 B.C. There were goddesses of beer-brewing and recipes for beer handed down by the gods. And our word "beer" is from the Latin "bibere" -- to drink.

Wine, however, was much more plentiful in ancient times, Dayagi-Mendels says. It was the choice of kings and noblemen, the beverage associated with merriment and religious rituals, the offering made to the gods. "Nothing would make the gods happier than bringing them wine."

The pharaonic vineyards at Luxor, Egypt, were reputed to be so bountiful that grapes, according to the museum catalog, were "more plentiful than the water of the Nile at its highest mark."

The Mishna, a collection of oral Jewish law and legal commentary compiled around 210 A.D., describes a tradition in which young women of Jerusalem donned white garments and danced in the vineyards to attract suitors.

The first biblical mention of wine is less charming:

"Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk." This was after the flood.

Michael Ben-Joseph, an accredited wine master knowledgeable about Israeli wines, says the early Jews were the first to use wine in their sacraments -- a glass of wine welcomes the Sabbath, and drops of wine are used to soothe the 8-day-old Jewish infant who undergoes a ritual circumcision.

"And they were the first to write the laws as to what is wine and what is kosher wine," says Ben-Joseph, author of "The Bible of the Israeli Wines."

Dayagi-Mendels says that the Talmud, the early authoritative writings of the Jews, mentions 60 types of wine -- dark wines, bitter wines and so on. She stops before a 2,500-year-old clay jar dating to the late days of the Judean monarchy. Written in ink on its side are the Hebrew words for "smoked wine."

"In antiquity," she says, "they use to say that grapes that were harvested first would be the best quality. Those harvested last would be the sweetest. The Romans were great admirers of raisin wine and sweet wines." Carbonized raisins were found in an 11th-century B.C. wine jug and strainer found in Shiloh, an ancient settlement located in the hills of the present day West Bank.

That would have been in the time of the biblical King David. His wine stores were reputed to be so vast that he designated a court official to oversee them.

In the time of Jesus, King Herod fancied himself a wine connoisseur. Four wine jars were excavated from Masada, the mountain- top fortress that holds the ruins of Herod's palace. Latin inscriptions on them functioned as shipping labels, listing the type of wine, date of shipment and consignee -- Regis Herodis Judaici (King Herod of Judea).

"This is a unique discovery," gushes Dayagi-Mendels. "We know wines here were very good. But he liked better wines so much that he imported his wine from Italy for his court."

The Israel Museum exhibit is full of curious and interesting facts about wine and beer. For example, Egyptians drank wine from shallow bowls and goblets. And they chose not to dilute it with water, as was the custom in ancient Greece, Rome and Israel. Greek noblemen served wine after the meal at a "symposium" where only the men gathered.

"The only women who were present were the courtesans to sing and dance," says Dayagi-Mendels.

The exhibit traces the art and culture of wine from the origin of vineyards to the evolution of wine jugs to the marketing of wine. Artifacts range from harvesting tools to ancient wine presses, wine seals to fourth-century glass decanters, wall paintings to a stone relief that depicts the transport and consumption of wine.

Also featured in the exhibit is the silver and bronze wine set used by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. The exhibit artfully presents visual scenes of wine lore juxtaposed against examples of the objects depicted within.

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