Diet; Meat and Fish

The Egyptians hunted game in the marshes of the delta and near the oasis in the desert. Game hunting was a leisure pursuit for the wealthy and a source of extra food for poorer Egyptians. They domesticated ducks, geese, pigs, cattle, and antelope (until the New Kingdom), but, as this was expensive, the meat was largely the preserve of the wealthy classes and the temples. Poorer Egyptians did eat meat, but only occasionally as part of a festival, and oxen and fowl were two of the standard goods which appeared in the offering formula.

Domesticated cattle in ancient Egypt

Temples often had their own estates to rear the animals and fowl necessary to feed their staff, to provide offerings to the gods, and to distribute to the hungry. They were also given generous donations of cattle by kings and wealthy nobles and bureaucrats. It is thought that only the priests who sacrificed animals to the gods ate beef.

Although they domesticated ducks and geese (from Middle Kingdom) they do not seem to have used their domestic stock to produce eggs. They did occasionally eat eggs, but usually those collected from the wild birds of the Delta marshes.

Meidum Geese

During the Predynastic Period pigs were considered unclean in Upper Egypt but were domesticated and eaten in Lower Egypt. During the Dynastic Period pigs were thought to be unclean in some areas and among the wealthier classes. Herodotus states that people who raised and ate pigs were shunned but archaeological evidence suggests that although technically unclean, pork was still popular with many poorer Egyptians.

Likewise, fish was a fairly common element of the Egyptian diet, despite the fact that they were often considered to be unclean by wealthy Egyptians and the priesthood. Herodotus states that priests were not allowed to eat fish, and fish were rarely given as offerings to the dead. In certain areas and at certain times eating certain kinds of fish was proscribed and the Ethiopian pharaoh Piankhi (Twenty-fifth Dynasty) apparently refused to dine with the fish-eating noblemen of Lower Egypt because of their diet.

Yet, the craftsmen at Deir el Medina had their own dedicated team of fishermen who supplied them with an amount of fish determined by their rank, and few species of fish were considered sacred. Egypt also had a lucrative trade in dried and salted fish.

Because of the heat, meat and fish had to be eaten immediately or preserved by salting and brining, drying, smoking or by the addition of honey, beer and (occasionally) fish roe. Herodotus confirms that “Quails, ducks and smaller birds are salted and eaten uncooked; all other kinds of birds, as well as fish, excepting those that are sacred to the Egyptians, are eaten roasted or boiled”.

Copyright J Hill 2010