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Israel museum traces alcohol habits

The Associated Press

May 26, 1999 JERUSALEM (AP) -- King Herod the Great, who built the ancient Jewish Temple, was a famous party animal who plied his guests with wine imported from vineyards in Italy.

In the land of King Tut and ancient Iraq, the booze of choice was beer -- looked down on by the wine drinkers of ancient Israel, Lebanon and Greece as a barbarian drink.

So say curators at the Israel Museum, where an exhibit on ancient drinking habits and paraphernalia used by imbibers in biblical times opens next week.

``This is sort of a celebratory way to start the new millennium,'' said museum director James S. Snyder. Tuesday night wine tastings and outdoor bashes will accompany the show, which runs through New Year's Day 2000.

Visitors will be able to taste modern Israeli brews and vintages from the Galilee and the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

The museum had considered recreating some of the ancient spirits but decided biblical-era tastes were too different from today's more sophisticated palates, said Michal Dayagi-Mendels, curator of Israelite and Persian archaeology.

``The Romans in particular loved the taste of smoked wine. It was really their favorite,'' she said.

Most off-putting for modern tastes are the additives used to offset the bitter taste and clouded color caused by sediments. These included egg whites and goat's milk added to clarify the wine, and sea water, gypsum, flower petals and spices used to improve the aroma and flavor.

Then, as now, a certain snobbery was associated with wine. The origin and name of the vineyards were written on the ceramic jars of wine. Private collections were imported from the Greek islands, Lebanon and from ancient Italy.

``In fact, the land of wine rejected beer because they thought beer was a barbarian beverage,'' Dayagi-Mendels said.

One new discovery on display is a wine jug found in the winter palace at Masada, where Herod's wine cellar was recently unearthed.

Unwrapping a shard from crinkly tissue paper, Dayagi-Mendels translated the inscription bearing Herod's name, written in faded brown ink. She said research indicates Herod imported the wine from Italy, and must have been a bit of a wine snob since the local wines were of relatively high quality.

``Herod gave big parties, banquets, and had lots of fun. He was very famous for his lavish lifestyle,'' said Dayagi-Mendels, noting that the historian Josephus wrote that Herod even had a ``wine butler.''

Also on display is a dish of 2,000-year-old charred raisins used to make a sweet wine that was cherished in the Holy Land.

The collection features cups found at Qumran, home of the Essene sect who many scholars believe produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, a compendium of early Jewish thought and philosophy.

Although many contend the Essenes were a tee-totaling ascetic group, Dayagi-Mendels says the bone-colored cups were of a type used for wine drinking elsewhere.

A fragment of a newly restored segment of the Temple Scroll on display refers to the festival of Tirosh, when grape juice was made. Dayagi-Mendels maintains that since fermentation occurs so quickly in a desert climate it is likely the Essenes were drinking wine rather than grape juice.

Wine in the Middle East dates at least to the sixth millennium B.C., according to recent discoveries in Neolithic villages in the northern Zagros mountains of Iran.

In grain-rich countries like Egypt and Mesopotamia, beer was widely consumed, with evidence dating back to the fourth millennium B.C. Like the wine, ancient beers were probably sweet, and mugs came with strainers to sift out the debris from fermentation.


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