Food and Wine Frescoes from the Wei and Jin Tombs

Desert Near Wein-and-Jin Tombs, 2012
Desert Near Wei-and-Jin Tombs, 2012

In an inhospitable area between the Gobi and the Taklamakan Deserts northeast of Jaiyuguan, China a time capsule was buried almost 2000 years ago. Underneath the treeless, grey sand that blankets the region today are a series of over 1000 tombs from the Wei-and Jin period (265-420 ACE). The walls of the tombs are decorated with frescoes that depict details from everyday life in a land that was temperate, fertile and teaming with life. Images of farming, hunting, animal husbandry, cooking, feasting, and playing musical instruments adorn the walls; there is even an image of China’s early pony-express mail delivery that shows a galloping horse and a man carrying a letter in his hand with an urgent look on his face. Paintings filled with the nuances from the everyday lives of the people who lived near one of China’s main Silk Road corridors in the remote hinterlands of the dynasty.

Many of the frescoes have to do with gathering or preparing food. The one depicted below shows a woman and a girl picking mulberries or mulberry leaves. The fruits could have been used to make jams, juice, sauces, desserts or wine; or they could be dried and eaten like raisins. The leaves could have been used to give a sour flavor to food and salads, used to make tea, used as anti-inflammatory medicine, or if of the correct species to feed hungry silk-worms and provide a place for the metamorphosis of next season’s egg-laying moths.

Mulberry Picking
Mulberry Picking

The girl is wearing wearing ribbons and both she and the adult female have short hair which identify them as from the Qiuci ethnic group. The Qiuci were Indo-European settlers in ancient China who spoke an Indo-Iranian dialect, traded on the Silk Road, and eventually became part of the early Uyghur empire. Many historians believe that they arose from the people who first brought Buddhism into China from India and Pakistan. Given the Indo-European roots of the Qiuci, the mulberry leaves could have been used as a flavoring for bread, as is done in some Indian parathas today.


The second fresco presented here show servants preparing a meal. The head cook is picking meat from bones on a board to the right. Possibly recycling meat for another meal from uneaten parts of a roast, or preparing bones for soup. Mutton is hanging from hooks on the ceiling to age, and another cook is stirring a pot to the left. In the foreground and background there appear to be steamer trays lined with dumplings or buns.

Warming Wine
Warming Wine

The third fresco shows a maid warming wine. She holds a tray with cups in her right hand and with her left she reaches for a ladle to fill the cups with wine from the warmer. Grape and raisin production and wine-making is an ancient industry in Xinjiang and Gansu and this painting shows the popularity of wine in the Wei and Jin Dynasty.

Dining on Kebaba
Dining on Kebabs

The last painting shows two men having dinner together. The man to the left is the host of the meal and perhaps a noble because he is sitting on a low-bed or a couch. His guest is someone of relatively equal importance because he is depicted at the side of the host and more or less the same size as the host (other frescos denote a marked difference in the size between master or mistress and their servants). The guest proffers a large trident-like skewer with bite-size bits of meat on it – kebabs. Although evidence for kebab eating goes back to Akrotiri, Greece in the 17th Century BCE, and possibly earlier to Ancient Mesopotamia, this fresco gives a solid date range to the food in western China at almost 2000 years ago. Introduced to China by Indo-Europeans coming across the main track of the Northern Silk Road (the Uyghur word is kewap), kebabs are now enjoyed all across China.

Many other images are captured in the tomb paintings: dancing, raising chickens, a Bactrian camel on a lead, and herding horses. To preserve the paintings, only one or two tombs are open to the public at a time and different tombs are open on a rotating basis to allow for repeat visits. One has to descend almost 30 meters beneath the arid surface to enter the cool, damp rooms of the tombs to view the frescoes, but it is a unique way to experience life in ancient China. Where there is now barren desert, there were rich farms, pastureland, and trading posts teaming with travelers and traders, moving goods, ideas and culture around on the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photos from postcards of the Wei and Jin Tombs by Laura Kelley (photography is not allowed in the tombs)).

Keeping Christmas Real

Tajik Madonna and Child
Tajik Madonna and Child
Every now and then around this time of year I post one of my photographs of a woman and her child to remind myself of the holy family’s humanity. (Click here for one of the Bangladeshi madonnas).

The emphasis on divinity and religous iconography in the two-thousand or so years since the holy family walked the earth has a tendency to eclipse the reality of who they were. They were poor. For a period of time during Jesus’s childhood they were wanderers or fugitives. At other times, they were a solid, salt-of-the-earth, working-class family.

And yet many believe that Jesus’s words and deeds made him special. That he was an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. He said he was the son of God. Over the years this was taken to mean that he himself was divine. I wonder sometimes if it is possible that he was trying to say that we were all sons and daughters of God. That is to mean that he was not divine, but that we are all special or divine and capable of great love, great deeds and great sacrifice. Then I wonder if we would recognize such a prophet if we encountered him today.

The photo I chose this year is of a woman and her child who I met along the Tashkorgan highway earlier in the year. She is poor and a wanderer who sells amber and garnet jewelery and artifacts to tourists and travelers. For Tajik women, a fair complexion is most desired, but the trader’s dark skin tells us that she spends a lot of time outside under the high-altitude sun. She is young and her beauty has not yet been marred by her harsh lifestyle. Her teeth are stained by high-mineral content ground water, a badge she will wear for the rest of her life. Her lovely, chubby baby is clothed in unmatched remnants, much like her mother, but she is happy and playing with a large chunk of milky yellow amber on a string.

So, I guess the point is that the madonna and her child is not a gold-encased painting in an alcove or on an altar or mantle in a private home, they are on earth all around us. The paintings are just representations, not of one particular mother and child pair but of every single one. Try to remember that the next time you encounter a poor, wandering family. They might have something important to say. (Words and photo of Tajik Madonna and Child by Laura Kelley).

A Feast for the First Christmas

At this time of year when cuisine blogs are awash with recipes for cookies and roast beast for the Christmas feast, I thought it would be a nice idea to create a notional menu for what the first Christmas feast might actually be like. In truth, that concept was brough to me by a writer from Bon Appetit magazine who wrote a great short piece based on my input. This post will look at the First-Christmas menu in more depth and discuss the reasons behind some of the choices.  It will also examine some of the issues that influence our ideas regarding the birth of Jesus and hopefully dispel some myths about the event.

To start, we have to get Jesus’s birthdate right, which was probably during the  Feast of Sukkot in the first few years BCE.  The feast is celebrated today according to the lunar calendar, but it usually falls in the early autumn.  In 2012, it was celebrated from 30 September to 7 October, so Jesus was a Libra not a Capricorn.  The temperature at this time of the year in Bethlehem was between 70 and 80 degrees Farenheit in the day and down into the 50s and 60s at night – so it was a comfortable time of year.  Bethlehem was a fertile area at a good altitude and with more rainfall than in much of the rest of the country, so food would be plentiful.

September-October is a time for harvesting grapes, figs, pomegranates and olives in Israel, so these would have figured heavily into the meal, regardless of the social class of the family.  Which brings me to another point, we know that Joseph and Mary were poor, because Joseph brought two doves to the temple to sacrifice after the birth of Jesus instead of the more traditional  lamb.  By extension, his family would probably have been poor or working class, so there would be no royal feast for the Nazarene – at least not at home.  Also, keep in mind that Joseph and Mary were Jews and as such they probably would have observed Kosher dietary laws.  This would have been particularly true for Mary because she was with child.


There is a lot of information in the bible about the individual foods that people ate, but not a lot of information about how they put ingredients together.  With no recipe “tablets” to work from,  I have prepared a notional menu for a feast that is based on these lists of ingredients, other historical knowledge, and a lot of creativity on my part. It is rooted in Sephardic tradition and in that respect breaks us out of the European cultural mindset that dominates most Christmas celebrations in the west.

Mixed-grain Bread
–  Olive oil with za’atar or other herbs for dipping
–  Plate of fresh herbs
Lentil salad with cracked or sprouted grains
Plates of Dates and Figs
Mixed local olives, salted, cured and brine marinated
Wine served throughout the meal

Main Courses
Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey
Roasted Pigeon or Doves with Herbs and Pomegranate Syrup
– Fish sauce garum to use as a table condiment
– Small bowl of salt
– Citron or Rose-petal Jam to eat with meat
Roasted Barley or Millet Pilaf

Sweet Endings
Honey-Sweetened Herbal Tea or Raisin Wine
Date and Pistachio sweets
Dried apricots and raisins


Mixed Grain Sourdough
Mixed Grain Sourdough

Examining some of the menu choices in more detail, I chose a mixed-grain bread as written in Ezekiel 4:5: “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof.”  Fitches are black onion seeds (nigella sativa, or kalonji from Indian cuisine). It wouldn’t be necessary to use all of these ingredients at once, but the idea of mixed grain and spices (onion seeds) is important.  Bread could have been flat or sourdough.  For a celebratory feast in an extended family home, I would choose sourdough as pictured here.

Za’atar is a local herb (Origanum syriacum) that is mixed with other ingredients – notably sumac, and sesame or pine nuts and a litany of other choices. This would have been mixed in olive oil and used to flavor bread as a dip.  Plates of herbs, like dill or fennel, might have also offered flavor to the bread and would have been served as fresh as possible.

Mixed Local Olives
Mixed Local Olives

Lentils or fava were very common source of food and might be eaten with sprouted or cracked wheat or barley for flavor and texture.  Cumin and coriander would be likely flavorings as would leek or onion.

Plates of dates and figs would be set out and would be fresh from the harvest.  Olives might be from the current year’s harvest if enough time had elapsed between picked and curing or fermenting and brining, otherwise they would have been from last year’s crop.

Grape or mixed fruit wine would be served throughout the meal.  It would have the resiny overtones of a modern retsina and would be sweetened with figs in the amphorae or herbs like rosemary.  It might be diluted with water, especially for the women.

Roasted Pigeon or Dove
Roasted Pigeon or Dove

Looking at the main courses, we find the option of Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey that is based on Luke 24:41-43, in which Jesus as a grown man eats fish with honey.  The fish would probably be a mullet, or sea cod (cheap and easy to catch as surface-water fish), but it could also be a grouper, sea bass or sea
bream.  Depending on the fish, thyme and/or dill with cilantro could be used as herbs. If it was a large fish it could be cooked on a spit or open fire.  Smaller fish or fish slices or filets would be cooked in an oven if the family had one or if a communal oven was available for use.

After fish and eggs, pigeon or dove was the most commonly eaten meat in ancient Israel.  Lamb was for the wealthier or for holidays and cow/oxen/bull was for the feast of the wealthy.  I can see pigeons spitted and covered with herbs like mint and cilantro or spices like cinnamon and then roasted and basted with pomegranate syrup as a delicious entrée.

Citron Jam
Citron Jam

Since Augustus was still on the throne in Rome, the use of garum in Roman Palestine would be likely.  The archaeological record tells us that Jews had special garum made by the Phonecians using fish allowed by Kosher dietary laws.  This could be a table condiment and mixed with herbs (such as oregano) or mixed with water, honey or wine.  This would, of course have enhanced the flavor of food as regular readers of this blog well know.

Since it is the Feast of Sukkot, citrons would be available.  A common way to eat them is to make jam out of them and use that to flavor meat. Another option is rose-petal jam.

The meat would be served with (or on) a pilaf of roasted barley or millet with herbs and spices.  Of the two grains, millet would be fresher at this time of year as it was just harvested in August.

Barley Pilaf
Barley Pilaf

For a sweet ending to the meal, people in the ancient Levant drank all manner of sweet herbal teas and could have enjoyed some after the main meal. Alternatively, a sweet, raisin-based wine could be served to clear the palate and end the meal.  Tea would be sweetened with local honey made by imported Anatolian bees that were fed on citrus blossoms and wild desert flowers.

Any manner of sweets made from pounded and rolled dates covered with pistachios could be served or simply a plate of dried apricots and raisins.  A sweet spread of nuts and dates like modern charoset could have been enjoyed with bread or all by themselves.

Dried Apricots and Dates
Dried Apricots and Dates

A few more cultural points in closing: Bethlehem would have been bustling with lots of out-of-towners (like Joseph and Mary) because of the census. Forget what you have learned about,” no room at the inn”, there weren’t many inns (or even any) and Mary would not have stayed in one as a woman. The only women in “inns” were working there. They would have stayed with Joseph’s relatives and would have been greeted and treated as extended family. Because other visitors also sought the family’s hospitality at the time of the census, there was probably no room for Mary and Joseph in the family’s “guest room”.

Mary probably gave birth in a cellar off of a central courtyard that was used to store supplies for the family and prized animals in the evening or in times of bad weather. A private and isolated area was chosen because of the physical mess of childbirth and because of Jewish cultural practices separating men and women at this time. She was probably attended by a midwife or older women from the family.

If Jesus’s birth was celebrated at all, it would have been in with wine and a bit of noisiness by the men of the family as was custom after the birth of a child. If there was a celebratory meal, there were no tables or chairs, a floor cloth or mat (or both) would be laid down and communal dishes with food placed upon it. Guests would sit or recline around the “table” and converse as they ate and drank. There were no individual plates; food went from communal bowls or platters – to hand – to mouth.

It’s also possible that Mary would not have taken part in a feast because women are considered “unclean” for one week after the birth of a boy and for two weeks after the birth of a girl. She might have had food brought to her by birth attendants or female family members, at least in the hours or days after the birth.

I hope this post brings some fresh ideas to your Christmas table, I’ve got some other ideas up my sleeve for the kinds of foods the three kings might have brought to an epiphanal feast to share as well. Remember, however you chose to celebrate, enjoy the time with famiy and friends and reflect on why you come together at this time.

(Words by Laura Kelley. The major points of this post first appeared in an article on Bon Appetit online entitled, What Would Jesus Eat. Photo of Sourdough Bread by Djauregui@Dreamstime; Photo of Mixed Olives by N. Larina@Dreamstime; Photo of Roasted Pigeon by Zhiqian-Li@Dreamstime; Photo of Citron Jam by Reika7@dreamstime; Photo of Barley Pilaf by Richard-Semik@Dreamstime; and Photo of Dried Apricots and Dates by M.

Traveling the Roads of Arabia

Ha’il Stelae, ca.3500 BCE

For the past forty years, archaeologists on the Saudi peninsula have been piecing together a pre-Islamic past featuring great city-states that had cultural and commercial connections with the cities of ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Greece and Rome. These ancient trade cities are one of the foci of a new exhibit at the Sackler in Washington, DC, called Roads of Arabia. The other set of “roads” treated in the exhibit are the later Islamic-era pilgrimage roads to Mecca and the influence of the people traveling those roads on the Arab world. With 320 objects spanning more than one-million years, from Paleolithic petroglyphs to the rise of the modern Saudi state, the exhibit is a showcase of treasures never seen in the United States until now.

The exhibit is laid out chronologically and begins with three rock stelae with individual faces carved on them recovered from Found near Ha’il in the north-central region of Saudi Arabia. They date to around 3500 BCE, and starkly lit, the stelae glow against a black background, and invite you to approach and ponder the people who made them. Other early objects are those from Tarut, an island on Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast that was the center of the Dilmun civilization that was later to move to the island now known as Bahrain.

Singing Man, ca. 2500 BCE

Objects from this era include black, gray and white stone jars, cups, and bowls that may have originated in SE Iran or may have been made on Tarut. Items of similar design and manufacture have been found in Syria, Mesopotamia, and as far east as the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan, indicating the extent of the trade network that the people of Tarut were part of in antiquity.

Another statue of definitive Tarut manufacture is of a man singing a prayer that shows evidence of Near Eastern influence. It is a large, limestone piece, slightly over 3-feet in length. His rounded head, right hand clasping his left to his chest, as well as his triple-banded belt are all found in Mesopotamian statuary from a similar period around 2500 BCE.

Gold Death Mask

Although I preferred the earlier items on display because of the evidence they provided of connections with other ancient cultures, there are some stunning things to see in the later part of the exhibit as well. One such item is a gold funerary mask from the tomb of a young girl from Thaj that is around 2000 years old. The mask is serene and beautiful and reminds me of the “Mask of Agamemnon” found at Troy that dates to 1500 BCE. Also in the tomb was a large amount of gold jewelry with semiprecious stones such as amethysts, carnelian and pearls that would have adorned the girl in the afterlife. The design of the mask and the jewelry both show contact with Greco-Roman civilization, and are evidence of the wealth that trading brought to ancient Arabia.

From the period of about the 4th Century BCE to the 16th century, there are fine examples of molded and blown glass that have somehow survived the passage of time. Some of these are locally made, and others are of foreign manufacture – all are beautiful and of a variety of colors and iridesence. One of my favorites was a small medicine bottle shaped and colored like a date.

From the second part of the exhibit depicting the roads to Mecca, there is a breathtaking display of tombstones of pilgrims who died at Mecca or on the way and were laid to rest there. The stones are carved from local basalt that often has its natural shape. The Arabic calligraphy that adorns the stones is highly designed to fit the shape of the stones and the space allowed for the epitaths. This section of the exhibit is both beautiful, sad and very human and reminds us that people and their stories lay behind each and every object.

Tombstones of the Faithful

There is also an unspoken message of the exhibition to western ears that I “can’t not” mention, and that is that the Saudis and other Muslims embrace their pre-Islamic history. The deplorable crimes against history and humanity that have been committed in Bamiyan and in many other places are not based in Islam or the Koran and are product of unfortunate, closed minds.

So, in closing, the exhibit does a good job telling us how ancient Arabs traded indigenous goods such as incense and aromatic spices, but it doesn’t show us how Arabs were global dealers in goods from many shores. Arabs dealt in timbers from Africa and South Asia and spices from India and Indonesia and brought these items to the far reaches of the world. Without Arab merchants, the Silk Road might not have been the engine of globalization that it was. I hope that future archaeological finds help tell this missing part of the story and further fill in the past of these great peoples.

The exhibit runs through February 24th in Washington and then travels to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and venues in Chicago and Boston through early 2015. If you are near any of these venues or will be passing through, make time to see this exhibit. You will learn a lot and see many, “wondrous things.” (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Ha’il Stelae, Gold Death Mask and Gravestones of the Faithful from exhibition website; photo of Singing Man from Tarut from pamphlet, Tarut Island by Murtadha Al-Ruwaie.)

Click on the YouTube video below for the official teaser-trailer of the exhibition (its great)!