What did people eat in ancient Egypt?

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Egyptian bread - yellow lump with holes in it

Actual bread from Egypt’s New Kingdom (Vatican Museum, Rome)

Because Egypt is in Africa, but very close to West Asia, what people ate in ancient Egypt was midway between African and West Asian food. Wheat, barley, and olive oil, all originally came from West Asia. Those foods gave Egyptians most of their calories, but Egyptians also ate figs, palm oil, millet and some sorghum, which are originally African.

Egyptian models of clay beer jars

Ancient Egyptian models of clay beer jars (Louvre Museum, Paris)

Egyptian bakers used both wheat and barley to make bread and soup and porridge (like oatmeal). They also fermented barley to make beer. Very likely the Egyptians first started growing grain in order to make beer. They only later figured out that you could make bread with it too. In ancient Egypt, bakeries are often around the back of breweries, so they could share the yeast. This is an Egyptian model of beer jars:  Egyptians put these models in your grave when you died so you would have beer in the next world.

Egyptian Model of a butcher shop showing cuts of meat laid out in a courtyard

Ancient Egyptian model of a butcher shop (from the Louvre, Paris, France)

Egyptians didn’t eat a lot of meat, but their meat also came from animals that had been domesticated further north in West Asia or Central Asia: mostly beef and lamb. You could go to a butcher shop and buy lamb there, just as people do today, or a duck or goose. Only because it rarely rains in Egypt, they could have the meat outside in the courtyard of the store instead of inside. Here is a model of a butcher shop, also from somebody’s grave. Can you see the different cuts of meat all laid out? At the very bottom there is a whole leg of mutton.

In the Old Kingdom, they ate pork, too. From the New Kingdom on, though, most rich people in Egypt would not eat pork, because they thought pigs were dirty and yucky (Poor people still ate pork though). To replace the pork fat in their cooking, Egyptians invented foie gras. Then about 300 BC, when Greek kings were ruling Egypt, Egyptians started to eat a lot of chicken and eggs, which they got from the Persians. Egyptian scientists figured out a way to use artificial incubators to make chicken cheap enough to be affordable.

Doum palm fruits

Doum palm fruits from Ancient Egypt (now in the Louvre, in Paris)

But people in Egypt ate African food, too. They used palm oil for some recipes. Egyptians grew watermelons – native to Africa, and one of the earliest things people farmed – and other kinds of melon. They ate a lot of fish from the Nile River, like tilapia and perch, and from the Mediterranean Sea, like tuna. For dessert, they liked to eat dates and figs and honey. This is a picture of some real doum palm fruits which were put into somebody’s grave; they were traditional funeral offerings in ancient Egypt. The dry climate preserved them for three thousand years until archaeologists dug them up again.

Learn by doing – A project with figs
More about the history of beer
Cooking an Egyptian meal
Go on to medieval Islamic food

Bibliography and further reading about ancient Egyptian food:

More about African Food
More about West Asian Food
More about ancient Egypt
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By | 2017-06-14T11:04:15+00:00 June 14th, 2017|Africa, Egypt, Food|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What did people eat in ancient Egypt?. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 14, 2017. Web. December 17, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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