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Egypt uncovers brewery that served pharaohs

An American-Egyptian mission recently uncovered an ancient brewery that paints a vivid picture of beer in ancient Egyptian life.

CAIRO — Nearly a century since the world first learned about beer production in the days of the Egyptian pharaohs, a joint Egyptian-American archeological mission found what may be the oldest brewery in the world in the ancient city of Abydos. The mission, led by American researcher Mathew Adams from New York University and Deborah Fishak from Princeton University, made the discovery in south Egypt's Sohag governorate.

Ashraf Okasha, the head of antiquities for the Abydos archaeological site, told Al-Monitor that the discovery marked a breakthrough in understanding beer production in Pharaonic Egypt. The discovery follows over 100 years of excavations in the area — a British archeologist found evidence of beer production in the area in 1912 but did not locate the site.

The brewery most likely dates back to the days of King Narmer, 5,000 years ago. Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Mostafa Waziri was quoted as saying in a Feb. 13 Facebook post by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities that each of eight large sections had contained rows of earthenware pots supported by clay rings.

​The news also included comment from Adams, the American researcher, who said the brewery could have produced 22,400 liters of beer at a time, and its location suggests that the facility supplied funerary rituals for the first kings of Egypt. Evidence was found for the use of beer in sacrificial rituals in engravings found at the site.

Okasha said that the archeological mission that made the discovery found substantial evidence of the brewery in 2013. Clay pots bearing evidence of use in beer production were found during the excavations of tombs constructed during Egypt’s Third Dynasty and the rest of the structure was excavated in recent months.

Okasha explained that the brewery’s high production capacity is illustrative of the kings of the First Dynasty in Ancient Egypt. He added that the excavation uncovered evidence of stages of beer production. Grains like barley were ground, mixed with water and heated in clay pots, where the mixture fermented.

Okasha said that the site will be developed and opened for the public to visit.

Egyptian archeologist Hussein Abdel Basseer said that the discovery sheds light on the lives of ancient Egyptians and their pioneering role in producing beer and shows that the Romans and Greeks did not beat them to the technology.

A 2016 study by Manchester University showed that ancient Egyptians used grains to make beer and bread, which formed a large part of workers’ wages and diet and were used in funeral services and medical practices.

The British Museum commissioned brewers to recreate Pharaonic beer in 2018. Food historian Tasha Marks said that beer was integral to ancient Egyptian life and consumed daily and profusely.

Abdel Basseer said that the discovery completes the picture of ancient Egyptians’ relationship to beer. He noted that in 2014, a Japanese mission found the tomb of prominent brewer Khonsu Im-Heb, in the Ramesside era of the 18th Dynasty in Luxor, though the production process was still unknown.

The government hopes such archaeological discoveries will help the recovery of the tourism sector, which has been struggling since the 2011 uprising and has further deteriorated under the coronavirus pandemic.

Egypt had hoped to attract 12 million tourists in the fiscal year 2019-2020 before the coronavirus pandemic erupted, but received only about 3.7 million tourists between January and December 2020, according to Egyptian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani.

Nevertheless, the government hopes that the discoveries announced in 2020 about Saqqara as well as the upcoming opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum and a royal procession of mummies to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization — an event postponed due to the pandemic — will contribute to the sector's recovery this year.

Okasha said, “Egypt's antiquities capture the world's attention and the discovery of new antiquities is an opportunity to stimulate tourism.”

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