Ancient Mesopotamian foods included a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, and meat. The so-called Fertile Crescent — a crescent-shaped region of the Middle East spanning several modern countries — was home to numerous civilizations such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.

A fertile region watered by the two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, Mesopotamia was suitable for growing various crops which formed the basis of the Mesopotamian diet. It was in Mesopotamia that humans first practiced agriculture on a massive scale and where the world’s oldest recipes were found. Find out more in the article below.

The Humble Beginnings of Agriculture

It is impossible to understand the dietary habits of Mesopotamians and other early civilizations without understanding how humans first began to cultivate plants and how agriculture emerged.

Most historians and archeologists today agree that the transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies was slow and gradual, and varied from region to region. Sometime around 10,000 BC, humans started cultivating plants and using them for food.

However, real agriculture did not appear until several thousand years later and the first developed agricultural societies emerged in Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, the Yellow River valley, and southeastern Anatolia.

Thanks to Agriculture, Early Humans Had a Surplus of Food

The rise of agriculture facilitated a stable population growth, the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle, and the founding of first cities and political organizations. Ultimately, agriculture enabled the first civilizations to thrive. Mesopotamia was one of the earliest and most advanced centers of civilization that practiced large-scale agriculture.

Food in Ancient Mesopotamia

Throughout its long history, Mesopotamia was home to many civilizations which shared a similar language and culture, raised the same kind of crops, and ate the same foodstuffs. As a result, the Mesopotamian diet was similar in ancient Sumer and Babylonia.

– What Was the Main Crop of Ancient Mesopotamia?

The main crop of ancient Mesopotamia was barley, a high-yielding grain that was easy to grow in rich alluvial soil. Barley formed the basis of the ancient Mesopotamian diet and its importance is attested in texts written down on clay tablets in the cuneiform script, which recorded everything from laws, religious hymns, to facts about everyday life.

People of ancient Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria used barley to make bread and beer – the staples of the Mesopotamian diet.

– What Crops Were Grown in Ancient Mesopotamia?

In addition to barley, ancient Mesopotamians cultivated a large number of crops. Wheat was also widely grown, as well as legumes such as lentils and chickpeas, beans, onions, garlic, and leeks, melons, eggplants, turnips, cucumbers, apples, grapes, plums, figs, pears, dates, pomegranates, apricots, pistachios, herbs, and spices.

Much like the ancient Egyptians, ancient Mesopotamians loved beer and drank it in large quantities. While wine was known to them and available, it was much more expensive and would have been available to the upper classes only.

– Everyday Dietary Habits of Ancient Mesopotamians

According to archeologists, everyday meals of ancient Mesopotamians consisted of barley paste or barley cake. They augmented their diet with onions and beans and drank plenty of beer.

The great rivers of Mesopotamia were rich in fish that provided an easy and bountiful source of food for Mesopotamians of all classes. Over 50 different types of fish were mentioned in ancient texts dating back to the 4th millennium BC. Fried fish seems to have been popular in ancient Sumer and Babylonia and was sold by street vendors, often as a snack.

Popular ancient Sumerian foods included onions, cucumbers, freshly grilled goat meat, mutton and pork.

– Did Peoples of Ancient Mesopotamia Eat Meat?

Meat was more readily available in cities than in the countryside, where the diet was simpler and consisted of fruits and vegetables. Animal domestication is as old as agriculture itself and seems to have begun with goats. Ancient Mesopotamians raised sheep, pigs, cattle, ducks, and even pigeons.

Climatic conditions in Mesopotamia meant that meat spoiled quickly, but the peoples of ancient Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria still enjoyed beef and veal, providing that they could afford them. Hunting also seems to have been quite popular.

Mutton was more available than other types of meat in ancient Sumer, forming the basis of Sumerian foods in the earliest times, largely owing to the fact that the first Sumerians were sheepherders.

The Long Lost Secrets of Mesopotamian Cuisine

For a long time, historians and archeologists believed the majority of Mesopotamians survived on gruel, which they thought resembled a pottage made of lentils and chickpeas.

A recent archeological discovery changed the previously-held beliefs about Mesopotamian cuisine, however, providing for the first time a unique new insight into the dietary habits of ancient Mesopotamian peoples.

The evidence came in the form of Akkadian cuneiform tablets dating back to 1900 BC, which contain a dictionary mentioning words for more than 800 food items, including 20 different types of cheeses, and 300 bread varieties.

Have Any Ancient Mesopotamian Recipes Been Preserved?

The deciphering of the Akkadian tablets yielded an amazing discovery: the world’s first recipes used in Mesopotamian cuisine. Many kinds of barley bread were named, further underlying the importance of barley in the Mesopotamian diet.

Meat and vegetable stews were also quite popular, as were turnips. A lot of varieties of fruit were also available, of which apple, fig and grape are frequently mentioned.

Butter and vegetable oil were used in cooking, meats were salted to keep from spoiling, and fish was conserved in honey. Ancient Mesopotamians enjoyed a rich diet that included vegetables, fish, fruits, meat, milk, and cheese. Not so different from today’s diets, right?

What Kind of Bread Did Ancient Mesopotamians Eat?

It is generally accepted that Mesopotamian bread was coarse, flat, and unleavened. The bread-making process was not much different from what it is today. Flour and water were mixed to get a dough that was kneaded and shaped into bread loaves.

Wheat was more difficult to cultivate in Mesopotamia due to the nature of the soil and its higher salinity, which meant that bread was usually made with barley flour. More expensive bread varieties were also available.

Animal and vegetable fat, as well as milk, butter, and cheese were used for added flavor. The importance of barley in ancient Mesopotamia is well-attested. A clay tablet dating to the Sumerian era (2350 BC) mentions a ration of 30-40 pints of barley for adults and 20 pints for children.

The Date: Mesopotamia’s Most Important Fruit Crop

The peoples of ancient Mesopotamia were familiar with a wide variety of fruits, the most important of which were dates. This hardy fruit thrived in southern Mesopotamia and was one of the first plants to be domesticated by Mesopotamian farmers.

It was rich in sugar and iron and could be easily preserved, which made it extremely popular in the more sparsely populated rural areas. Apples, figs and grapes were also popular, but the latter did not seem to feature prominently in Mesopotamian cuisine and, as we saw before, wine was not the favorite beverage of Mesopotamian people.

Mesopotamia was famous for its vast gardens irrigated by wide canals, lush with fruits and vegetables. More exotic fruits such as melons, mulberries, cherries and pomegranates were cultivated and found their way to the tables of the wealthy.

Mesopotamians Were No Strangers To Luxury Foods

Thanks to the archeological evidence, we now know that the ruling class enjoyed a rich diet consisting of meat, fish, waterfowl, and game. Record of deliveries to the royal kitchens of Ur, a prominent Sumerian city in southern Mesopotamia, list suckling pigs, wood-pigeons, ducks, lambs, and geese. Mesopotamia’s intricate irrigation system also made it possible to raise fish in reservoirs.

John Lawton provides a list of the most popular Sumer foods:  “Mesopotamia was much more fertile in ancient times than it is today. Chickpeas and lentils — still important crops in today’s Syria, Iraq, and Jordan — head on the Sumerian listing of foods that grew there.

But the cornerstone of the Mesopotamian diet appears to have been the onion far — including leeks, shallots, and garlic. Sumerians also ate lettuce and cucumber and apples, pears, grapes, figs, pistachios, and pomegranates were widely grown.”

The Sumerians also used a wide range of spices and herbs, including coriander, cumin and watercress,” says Belgian scholar Henri Limet.

Did Ancient Mesopotamians Invent Cooking?

The discovery and the deciphering of a large number of clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform script in the ancient Akkadian language enabled archeologists to gain new insight into the Mesopotamian culture. T

he earliest written recipes date back to the 2nd millennium BC, but the first usable recipes are of much more recent date and are thought to have originated from southern Mesopotamia in the 7th century BC.

Rather than being recipes in the modern sense of the word, most of these simply provide a list of ingredients used in cooking dishes. The Mesopotamians did not invent cooking, but were one of the first peoples — along with the ancient Egyptians — who wrote down recipes and described their cooking methods.

Food as Means of Honoring the Gods in Ancient Babylonia

Babylonians food has been a subject of research for several decades, based on the study of cuneiform tablets dated to the Old Babylonian period (1900 – 1600 BC). The tablets, which were found in southern Mesopotamia, contain a collection of recipes that some scholars believe were intended for use in religious ceremonies.

The practice of offering food to the gods at temples was a common one across the ancient world. The food served to the gods in their temples included a meat-in-sauce dish, barley bread, and date cakes. Gods ate behind closed curtains and were attended to by their priests.

A Simple Recipe From Ancient Mesopotamia

We bring you a genuine “Sasqu” (porridge with dates) recipe from ancient Mesopotamia. Sasqu is a creamy porridge that can be made from ground emmer or barley and cooked with milk, oil, or water. The recipe is described in the place record of Mari. This is what you need to make Sasqu:

  • 2 cups of milk or water
  • ¾ cups of barley flour
  • Salt and date syrup
  • ¾ cup of chopped dates

Put the barley flour in a saucepan, slowly add in the milk and make sure you stir it constantly. The milk should be boiling. Cook for about five minutes.

Add salt and date syrup as seasoning. Serve in cups and scatter with chopped dates.

Beer: A Gift From the Gods

In addition to being a popular beverage, beer was considered a gift from the gods and used to pay people’s wages. As already noted, Mesopotamian beer was usually made from barley and tasted quite different than most beer types we’re familiar with today.

Mesopotamians consumed their beer with a straw to filter out residue from the fermenting process. It is likely that beer was used in religious ceremonies and public festivities. Historians believe that the world’s earliest beer was brewed in the Sumerian cities on the Tigris and the Euphrates.

The Legacy of Mesopotamian Cuisine

Without a doubt, Mesopotamians were among the first peoples to cultivate a wide variety of crops and to have a rich diet consisting of grains, meat, fish, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables. Their cuisine must have influenced later civilizations, such as the Persians and Caananites. From Sumerian to Babylonian and Assyrian times, Mesopotamia gave a huge contribution to the world’s cuisine.

Conclusion

Mesopotamia’s fertile soil and favorable climate created the ideal conditions for the emergence of complex agriculture. Just like us today, the people of ancient Mesopotamia enjoyed a rich and varied diet. Here are the key takes on ancient Mesopotamian food:

  • Barley was a staple crop of farmers in Mesopotamia.
  • Wheat, rye, legumes, beans, onions, and various other vegetables were grown.
  • Fish, fruit, and meat were consumed and used to make complex dishes.
  • Recipes listing ingredients used in cooking were preserved on cuneiform tablets.

Mesopotamia’s favorable geography and climate created an environment in which agriculture could thrive, which in turn led to the building of the first great civilizations.

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