The Story of Wine

The Story of Wine
We know the Ancient Egyptians drank wine – but what of the Mesopotamians? In this excerpt from The Story of Wine, Hugh examines the evidence for where this great civilization sourced its wines

‘The cities of Mesopotamia knew wine and used it, but where did they get it from? In later times they tried growing it for themselves, but originally it must have been an import from a country where vine-growing was already well established. It could have been the hills to the east in Persia (if vines were grown there then, we don’t know), but the readiest answer is provided by the Greek historian Herodotus, respectfully known as “the father of history”. Two and a half thousand years later he gave an account of the use of the Euphrates for shipping wine to the great city that succeeded Kish and Ur, Babylon.

“But the thing that, next to the city, seems most wonderful to me is this: the vessels that go down the river to Babylon are round and made all of skins. For they make ribs of the willows that grow in Armenia, above Babylon, and cover them with hides stretched over the ribs on the outside to serve as a bottom, making no distinction of stem or stern. The vessels thus made like shields they fill with reeds and use for carrying merchandise down the river, generally palm-wood casks of wine. Every one has an ass on board, and the larger ones more; for after they have arrived at Babylon and have disposed of their cargo, they sell the ribs of the boats and the reeds, then loading the hides on the asses, they return to Armenia by land, the river not being navigable upstream by reason of the rapid current. For that reason they build their boats of skins rather than timber; and when they have driven their asses back to Armenia, they build more boats of the same fashion.”

There are several surprises in this wonderfully graphic account – not least that the vessels to hold the wine were not earthenware jars but barrels. The Romans are reputed to have learnt about barrels from the Gauls, and the Greeks not to have used them at all. But Herodotus, a native of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, then part of the Persian Empire, speaks of wine casks as a matter of course. Can he be right, though, about the wood being palm wood? Palm trunks are almost impossible to saw into planks. Might they have burnt out the centre of a big log to make a hollow cylinder, and found some way of sealing the ends? For that matter, if the wine came from Armenia, where there are better trees, why use palms?

Armenia was not then the little land-locked country that it is today. It was the whole region south of Georgia, now Eastern Anatolia, a part of Turkey – the region where the Euphrates rises in the watershed of Mount Ararat.

But why the wine had to come all the way from Armenia is the question. The Euphrates flows through Assyria, which had wine of its own. Was it perhaps not so good as that from the mountains farther north? By Herodotus’ time, wine had grown for 2,000 years all around the eastern end of the Mediterranean, from modern Turkey south through Syria (where Karkemish supplied Aleppo with a famous wine), through Byblos in the Lebanon and south to Palestine – all this latter part being then the land of Canaan. The Egyptians, proud enough of their own wine, particularly prized the wines of the Canaanites.’

Taken from The Story of Wine by Hugh Johnson published by Académie du Vin Library. It is available here at an incredible 35% off discount for a limited time.
Back to blog