Bread in Ancient Egypt

Mummified bread loaf

The fondness of Egyptians for bread and the quantities they were produced were so well-known that Herodotus nicknamed them Artophagoi ("Eaters of Bread.") Bread was often used as a synonym for food and hospitality. The New Kingdom scribe Any exhorted his readers: "Do not eat bread while another stands by without extending your hand to him." According to the Instruction of Ptahhotep, sinners would be denied bread in the Afterlife: "Do not scheme against people, the gods punish accordingly. If a man says: 'I shall live by it,' he will lack bread for his mouth." The use of bread and beer as wages and currency meant that they became synonymous with prosperity and well-being. The ancient Egyptians identified them so closely with the necessities of life that the phrase "bread and beer" meant sustenance in general; their combined hieroglyphics formed the symbol for "food." The phrase "bread and beer" was also used as an everyday greeting, much like wishing someone good luck or health.

Mummified bread

So important was their bread to the ancient Egyptians that they gave it up during times of mourning, a custom similar to the Christian period of Lent, a meaningful sacrifice only because of the food's importance. Bread figured in every meal - from the farmer's simple breakfast to the most elegant feast set before the pharaoh. From very early on, bread and beer were central to the nourishment of the Egyptian people, and both were consumed at every meal, by everyone, and no meal was considered complete without them. Bread, nutritionally, provided protein, starch, and trace nutrients.

In the Instructions of Ani the mother "sent you to school when you were ready to be taught writing, and she waited for you daily at home with bread and beer." During the Old Kingdom there were at least 15 different types of bread; by the New Kingdom that number had risen to over 40. Bread was fashioned into a variety of sizes and shapes, such as round and long rolls, spirals, disks, ovals, squares, pyramids, and fans, or even human and animal shapes. Bread, together with beer, oil, and vegetables, were the standard wages workers received from their employers. During the Old Kingdom, a worker's daily ration was ten loaves of bread and two jugs of beer.

Scene from a bakery

The gods, and the deceased aspiring to an eternal life of divinity, were offered bread, some on a daily basis. The pharaoh Sahure gave to the goddess Nekhbet 800 offerings of bread and beer; to Wadjet, 4,800 offering of bread and beer; and to Ra, 138 offerings of bread and beer. On an offering of bread - "The bread is perfect, the bread is warm, well-risen; golden, baked to perfection. The baker cooked these offerings with her own hands. The batter was made from white flour, milk, raisins, and honey."

Sacred animals, such as cats and ichneumons, were fed on bread and milk. Deceased pharaohs were promised "bread which doesn't crumble and beer which doesn't turn sour." Mortuary offerings were sometimes replaced with clay or stone models of bread loaves, to symbolically offer the deceased bread which would never spoil.

Egyptian bread was made almost exclusively from wheat. The preparations for making bread in ancient Egypt were somewhat more difficult than in our modern times, principally because of the distinctive nature of their staple wheat, emmer, which differs in some properties from most modern wheat used to make bread. After harvesting, the chaff does not come off through threshing, but comes in spikelets that needed to be removed by moistening and pounding with mortars and pestles in order to separate the chaff from the grain. The bran was removed and used livestock feed. After being sun-dried, the grain went through a series of winnowing steps, and sieving.

Ushabti models baking bread

The sieves were made from rushes, and were not very efficient and allowed grains of sand and little flakes of stone to remain in the flour, especially when soft mill stones were used. In fact, the last step in the process was the removal of final fragments of chaff which were picked out by hand. The abrasive impurities got the better of the strongest teeth in the long run, and many old men had their teeth worn down to the gums, like horses. This affected all classes and even Amenhotep III suffered badly from such problems.

Next, the the whole grain was milled into flour, usually using a flat grinding stone known as a saddle quern, a simple trough with two compartments. The grain was poured into the top compartment and by rubbing and crushing it with a grindstone, moved into the lower partition. Since the Roman Period rotary mills have been known. Finer flour was made by rubbing the grain between two stones. Usually, only enough grain was milled at one time to fill the needs of a day's meals. If more than was needed was milled, the grain was stored in beehive-shaped silos.

A woman grinding grain

Bread was made by adding water and salt to the ground flour and mixing the dough. It was kneaded with both hands or sometimes with the feet in large containers. Spices, milk, oil, nuts, and sometimes butter and eggs were then added, before the bread was placed in a baking form or patted into various shapes. Leaven was sometimes added - either some sourdough left over from the previous day or some leaven from the last brewing of beer.

At first bread was cooked in open fires or even on the embers. But from the Old Kingdom on, bread-molds were used which were preheated, wiped with fat and filled with the dough. Slowly this process became more sophisticated. The dough was formed into flat, round loaves and left to rise in warm molds. The molds were then stuck to the hot inner surface of the oven (in the manner pitta bread is still baked in Arabic countries.) Sometimes hand-formed bread was baked on a clay disk covered by a lid. The typical stoves used by the ancient Egyptians were about a meter high, conical in shape, open at the top, and made from mudbrick. During the Middle Kingdom, tall, thin bread molds standing upright in the fire came into use, as well as square hearths. Later, a vaulted copper or iron sheet was used. The bread dough was baked on its convex part, while, turned upside down, the concave part served as a sort of kettle for cooking liquid foods.

By the New Kingdom, a new oven was introduced: a large open-topped clay oven, cylindrical in shape, encased in thick mudbricks and mortar. These ovens often had ceramic steps on the inside and their outside was covered with clay. Round imprints made with jar openings prevented cracks forming in this outer layer. The flat disks of dough were slapped onto the pre-heated inner oven wall. When baked, they peeled off and were caught before they could fall into the embers below. These ovens were big enough to bake several loaves simultaneously. When no oven was available, the Egyptians baked wafer-thin bread on the hot sand, as desert dwellers have done since time immemorial.

In the first millennium B.C.E. yeast came into use, replacing the sourdough. Sometimes flat bread was made with raised edges in order to hold eggs or other fillings. Thick loaves were also made, with a hollow center that was then filled with beans, vegetables, or other items. The bread of the rich was sweetened with the addition of honey, spices, or fruit such as raisins or dates to the dough. There was no distinction made between bread and pastries or cakes. Bread for temple offerings was often covered with aniseed, cumin, coriander, or sesame seeds. The dough textures of these loaves ranged from very fine to mealy, from hard to soft. People, as today, probably had preferences in the type of bread they liked to eat. Whole or coarsely cracked cooked grains were often added, creating a texture not unlike modern multigrain breads.

The climate of Egypt, which is very arid in many locations, is responsible for preserving a rich record of organic materials, including bread loaves. Hundreds of specimens have survived, mostly from funerary offerings that have found their way into the museums of the world. These even include fragments from Predynastic graves, loaves over 5,000 years old.