Archive for the ‘Ancient Mesopotamia’ Category
The next time you’re stuck in gridlock on the highway, spending hours in traffic to get to your destination, remember… the ancient Persians had it better than you. Despite the enormity of the Persian Empire in 5th-century BC, the Persian Royal Road was built for speed and efficiency. And it actually worked!
The Persian Royal Road was a reconstruction and rebuilding of an existing ancient highway by Darius I (also known as “Darius the Great”), king of the Achaemenid Empire from 522 BC to 486 BC. The intent behind constructing the road was so that rapid communication between corners of the vast empire—from Susa to Sardis—could be facilitated as effectively as possible.
Moving along the road, couriers on horseback were able to travel 2699 kilometers in just seven days (1677 miles)! Even the famous Greek historian Herodotus was impressed by this feat, writing that “there is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers.”
Through archaeological research, historical records, and Herodotus’ writings, most of the ancient highway’s route has been reconstructed, and it’s thought that there would have been many outposts—also known as caravanserai—along the route, where travelers could rest and refresh during their journey.
And the couriers definitely needed places to rest, because the road didn’t always follow the easiest route between cities! Rather, there were sections of road that Darius I reconstructed which likely had been built by Assyrian kings, since it heads through the heart of their empire—and like today’s road construction projects, it’s often easier to just fix a road than try to build a brand new one.
That said, Darius I’s reconstruction efforts were so good that the road continued to be in use until the Roman period, whereupon the Romans made some improvements of their own. The Romans used improved paving technology—ie. a hard-packed gravel surface held within stone cubing—and new posting stations to ensure travelers had access to fresh horses, particularly when messengers had to travel with an urgent message from one side of the empire to the other.
The most famous feature about the Persian Royal Road actually comes from Herodotus’ writings… a quotation about the Persian messengers and their travel speed along the reconstructed highway:
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
And you thought he was talking about your mailman! Come on… 2699 kilometers in seven days? Next time your mail arrives late, tell that mailman he has no excuse!
In a recent dig in Israel, archaeologists working on a large winepress from 500 A.D. made a surprising and delightful discovery. They found a church-shaped lamp that appears to be an actual model of a Byzantine-era church, about the size of a loaf of bread.
The find indicates that the owner of the winepress was likely a Christian, as the lantern has patterns on the roof and walls that would have shone flickering crosses of candlelight onto the walls of a darkened room. On one side of the lantern is an opening, just large enough for an oil lamp.
Finding a miniature church is rare, according to the librarian for Byzantine studies at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks research center. However, it’s not unusual to find 2D renderings of churches in mosaics from the period.
As for the winepress, the site worked on by archaeologists revealed six compartments for fermentation, along with a treading floor for a screw press, two collecting pits, and a setting vat. These were spread along over 84 square meters of space!
The location of the ancient winepress and the lantern discovery is near Hamai Yoav, along what used to be known as the ancient road to Ashkelon’s port, where wine was exported to places like North Africa and Europe.
Part 2 of this series introduced Ninkasi, the Sumerian goddess of beer, and the hymn of praise dedicated to her. But when was this hymn written, and what relevance did beer actually have in the everyday life of the Sumerians?
It’s thought that the hymn was written around 1800 BC, though it may be much older—brewing evidence dates as far back as 3500/3100 BC at a Sumerian settlement called Godin Tepe, which is one of the locations where archaeologists found chemical traces of beer inside pieces of a broken pottery jar (as mentioned in Part 1).
Godin Tepe was an important stop for trade along the Silk Road trade route, and another Sumerian city called Ebla is where many of the clay tablets containing administrative lists of beer-making ingredients were found. The tablets date from 2500 BC, and show that Ebla was brewing a hearty selection of beers at its height. They used fresh water and boiled it, making beer a healthier (and safer) drink than water, which could be contaminated by animal or human waste.
Because it contained plenty of nutrients, every indication is given in the tablets that beer was a staple of the Sumerian diet—even laborers were given beer as part of their rations when on the job, and was consumed with… a straw.
Yes, a straw. While that may be a ludicrous concept to the modern beer-drinker, this Babylonian invention helped the beer drinker to avoid ending up with the bitter brewing residue in his mouth. These straws were made of metal, bronze, or gold, and were rather long—one on display at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago is around 40” long.
And while this ancient beer was traditionally brewed by women on a daily basis in the home, it didn’t take long for beer to turn commercial—a tablet from 2050 BC called The Alulu Tablet (Ur) contains an ancient receipt for beer delivery by the brewer named Alulu.
Although most people today are more familiar with the concept of singing a rousing shanty over a tankard of ale—or stepping up to the karaoke machine after a few too many Coronas—the concept of singing and drinking being intertwined has been around for thousands of years.
In fact, as mentioned in Part 1 of this series, the Ancient Sumerians had their very own hymn dedicated to a special deity, the Goddess of Beer. “A hymn to Ninkasi” is a poem that describes the goddess’ recipe and process for making beer, and praises her for doing things like putting piles of grain in order, and setting up the fermenting vat.
In Sumerian mythology, Ninkasi is the daughter of Enki and Queen Ninti, and is one of eight children created to heal her father’s wounds. Along with being considered the goddess of beer, she was made “to satisfy desire” and “sate the heart”… probably through the beer-making process, which she performed daily.
Too bad for the Sumerians, though—Ninkasi’s beer was made for the other gods, who apparently liked to get their drink on before ruling for the day. Or maybe they drank on the job, considering Sumer’s history… but regardless of the technical details, clearly the Sumerians had a very high regard for their beer.
Here are a few select phrases from “A Hymn to Ninkasi”, but you can read several versions of the full translation here or here.
“Born of the flowing water (…)
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag,”
“You are the one who handles the dough, [and] with a big shovel, Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,”
“Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the oven, Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,”
“Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,”
“Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat, It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.”