THE GREEKS and Romans popularised wine and beer, but the peoples of the ancient Middle East were tippling off the grape and the grain long before Plato's symposium or Caligula's orgies.
"Drink and Be Merry", a celebration of booze in ancient times, that opened last week at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, traces the first known wine cultivation to the sixth millennium BC in northern Iran and the earliest beer to the fourth millennium in Egypt and Mesopotamia (today's Iraq). Both were consumed in the Holy Land by the third millennium.
Wine was always more expensive to produce. It was reserved initially for cultic purposes, but soon found its way into the banqueting chamber. The cheaper beer was dismissed as the beverage of barbarians. An erotic, 4,000-year-old terracotta plaque from Mesopotamia shows a naked woman sipping beer through a straw while a man is slyly penetrating her from the rear.
The ancients began by adding wine to water (to decontaminate it) and finished by adding water to wine (so that they didn't get too drunk too quickly). A letter, written in brownish ink on a pottery shard dating from the seventh century BC, instructs Eliashiv, the Judaean commander of the Arad fortress in southern Israel, to supply his Greek mercenaries with flour, oil and wine.
The exhibition's curator, Michal Dayagi-Mendels, explains that the oil and flour were for making bread; the wine was not for keeping them happy, but for purifying brackish water. To prove her point, she displays a collection of tenth-century BC hip flasks, with built-in spoons for measuring the dosage.
King Herod, the first century BC tyrant who built the Temple in Jerusalem for his Jewish subjects and a winter palace at Masada overlooking the Dead Sea for himself, was one of the first recorded wine snobs. The contemporary historian Josephus Flavius mentions that he kept a wine butler.
A wine jar is shown inscribed in Latin, "For Herod, King of Judaea", plus the type and vintage, indicating that it was imported from Italy in 19BC. "This country was known for its high-class wines," sniffs Ms Dayagi-Mendels, as if she could forgive his other iniquities, "but Herod had to have Italian."
The Jerusalem exhibition, which runs till the end of the year, traces wine and beer production in the Near and Middle East from cultivation to inebriation. The ancients took their wine red and white, sweet, sour, spiced and smoked. As well as fresh grapes, they used raisins and made grappa from left-over skins.
There are tomb paintings of vine pruning from Thebes in the second millennium BC, a portable pottery wine press from eighth-century BC Ashdod, a pottery jug and strainer with the remains of raisins from 11th-century BC Shiloh.
There are banquets galore, from Armenia, Iran, Syria and, of course, Greece, on belts and goblets, ivories, frescos and urns. The Prophets Jeremiah and Amos spoke of the Marzeah, a kind of wake which began with food and drink and ended in orgies. Men drank together, women drank together, sometimes they all drank together.
And a cautionary note. An exquisite black and yellow Doric plate painting from 480BC depicts a Greek gentleman who has had too much. He is reclining, his boots under his couch, a young man holding his laurelled head, while the gentleman pokes two fingers down his throat and spews it all up.
The Israel Museum, which is not reproducing the booze of antiquity, will be offering tastings of modern wines from the Golan and Galilee. But no orgies. By order.
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