Israel museum traces alcohol habits
By NICOLAS B. TATRO
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
``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
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
``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
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.