The Silk Road at the The Corning Museum of Glass

I love glass and glassmaking. Glass is fire and imagination combined. Long have I loved watching craftsmen at historical sites blow air into a molten mass to form a useful bowl or bottle, or see the artisans of Murano twist and sculpt it into a decorative statue. When I was a child, I played with prisms and suncatchers – throwing rainbows around my room. Years later, I am still in awe of how three opaque substances: sand, soda ash, and limestone are combined at very high heat to form the brilliant rigid-liquid we call glass.

Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE
Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE

After my trip to Ithaca I drove over to Corning, New York and spent a several hours in the Museum of Glass. I could have spent a week. While touring the Origins of Glassmaking and the Ancient Glassmaking galleries, I found a few glass mementos from the Silk Road. There were pieces there from the dawn of glassmaking: a glass pendant from ancient Mesopotamia dated to 1450 BCE, along with slightly younger core-formed cosmetic bottles and vases from Egypt. The collection is stunning, but the pieces that caught my eye were two small seals made in Egypt in the 8th Century ACE that were used in the spice trade along the Silk Road. They are glass seals – of no more than 4 to 6 centimeters a piece – for orders of cumin stamped with with Arabic script to denote the owner of the shipment and the quantity ordered.

The inscription on the first translucent, dark-green glass seal reads: “Ordered [by] the Servant of Allāh, Abdullāh, the Commander of the Believers, a full measure of white cumin.”

The second seal has a bit more of the lip and body attached, is made of slightly lighter green glass, and is a seal for a shipment of black cumin. The inscription on this one is more generic and simply reads: “A measure of black cumin.”

Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE
Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE

It is unclear whether this would have been true black cumin (kala jeera) from the Himalaya or Central Asia (Bunium bulbocastanum) or Nigella sativa used to give a pungent onion flavor to dishes (kalonji). Misuse of the name black cumin to denote nigella persists to the present day, so it is impossible to know.

Despite the confusion in spice names, these two glorious little glass seals have survived more than 1200 years to give us a glimpse of how at least some spices were packaged for shipment. Since the glass originated in Egypt, it is tempting to assume that the orders either originated in a large emporium in Alexandria, or were at least shipped through there from their points of origin. The Abbasids used Alexandria as a major center for trade with India and China, so this is not just simple conjecture. Based on large chunks of green glass found in medieval spice shipments (like those in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology), the spice vessels themselves may have been made from the same green glass as the seals.

Wrapped in burlap or cloth and packed tightly in the hold of a ship or dhow, these spices and their glass seals traveled hundreds or thousands of miles across the known world from origin to end-point. How far people were willing to go for flavor, and how much they were willing to pay for it a millenium ago.

And how much we take for granted today.

Likewise it is with glassware itself. Take another sip from that glass and consider the millions of microscopic sea creatures (foraminifera) from the sand that have been melted together to form that machine-made vessel in your hand. The calcium carbonate of their bodies has been combined with ash and limestone and remade into the glass. Less art perhaps than the seals or the early pendants and vessels in the Corning museum, but still no less of a miracle. (Words by Laura Kelley: Photos of Islamic Glass seals by Laura Kelley; Photo of Foraminifera from Wikimedia.)


Phoenician Dining on the Silk Road

Although we have no recipes definitively attributable to the ancient Phoenicians, and little information about the foods and dishes they ate, we do know from their material culture that they dined in style. The platter below is a beautiful example of Phoenician craftsmanship from the 8th Century BCE.

Phoenician Serving Plate, 8th Century BCE
Phoenician Serving Plate, 8th Century BCE

In the center of the platter, a man stabs a raging lion. The pair are surrounded by a ring of flying ducks and prancing stallions. In the next ring, archers on foot and mounted spearmen advance among trees behind chariots. The design, which may represent a hunting expedition, is encircled by a serpent with delicately patterned skin. One of the most stunning things about the platter is that the musculature of the animals and people is produced by repoussé, or hammering from the reverse side to raise the metal. And speaking as a former anatomist – it is gloriously correct in the highlightling of the stallion’s haunches and the leg muscles of the hunters.

Center Detail - Man Battling a Lion
Center Detail – Man Battling a Lion
Snake Detail
Snake Detail

The Silk Roadiness of the object is evident in the use of both Egyptian and Mesopotamian styling. The clothing and hairstyle of the figures is Egyptian while the subject matter of the central scene is a common Mesopotamian theme of combat between man and beast. Phoenician artists frequently worked in the styles of neighboring cultures, in part because they had so much contact with them as a major trading hub between the civilizations in Western Asian and Northern Africa. I just wish we knew what filled the platters!

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Phoenician Platter from Walters Museum by Laura Kelley)

Hail Cleopatra!

Bust of Cleopatra VII

Mother, goddess, harlot, sister, stateswoman, linguist, assassin, daughter, diplomat – Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt. Rarely has a woman been so revered and reviled at the same time, and even more rarely have so many half-truths been handed down through the centuries about one. Ask someone in the west what springs to mind when they think of Cleopatra and they will probably site a scene from the 1960s film starring Elizabeth Taylor. Perhaps they will cite the scene in which she is presented, scantily clad, to the conquering Caesar rolled up in a carpet, or perhaps it will be the scene in which she enters Rome at the head of a parade of elephants with Caesar’s son, Caesarion, at her side. Both thrilling depictions of the Egyptian Queen, both more fiction than fact.Last weekend we took the kids to Philadelphia to see the exhibit on Cleopatra that is touring the states. The exhibit is small, well presented and a wonderful exercise in mythbusting the stories that sully Cleopatra’s immortality. For instance, we learned that the Romans didn’t destroy every trace of the queen that they could find. Rather, a great deal of the city that Cleopatra knew and ruled from sunk in a series of natural disasters and now resides on the bottom of the Bay of Alexandria. This sunken city has been painstakingly excavated over the last couple of decades by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio with assistance from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. To date, Goddio’s work has uncovered remains of Cleopatra’s royal palace, and two sunken cities – Heraklion and Canopus – along with hundreds of artifacts ranging from jewelery and coins to busts of Caesarion and colossal statues of Egyptian kings and queens that adorned the palace.

Of course, while I was walking through the exhibit, I couldn’t help but wonder what the Egyptians ate. The big problem is that although the ancient Egyptians were compulsive communicators leaving excellent records about so many things, there are no recipes. There are representations many things having to do with food, including the types of food people ate, Egypt’s bountiful harvests, activities at a bakery and a brewery, lots of descriptions of commodities paid as wages and several accounts of feasts – but few if any recipes. There are archaeological remains at the bottom of storage vessels, bowls and amphorae; models of servants preparing food and blessedly there are also funerary offerings, so there is some bona-fide evidence on to help us reconstruct the foods enjoyed by Egyptians.

Funerary Offerings from the Tomb of Priestess Henutmehyt containing Ducks and Goat Meat (1290 BCE)

After we returned home I did a little research and was roundly disappointed in the number of books out there that assume that modern Egyptian food was what the ancients ate. Magda Mehdawy’s The Pharaoh’s Kitchen has a lot of good general information about food and feasts. However, given the absence of recipes, she too made the assumption that modern recipes from the areas that would have been ancient Upper Egypt and Nubia made from commodities with documented use in ancient Egypt must be similar to those enjoyed in the ancient world. Unfortunately some of her recipes contain tomatoes, tomato sauce and modern corn – so I think that her assumptions stand on very shaky ground. Also, using the diets of poor farmers in the south to recreate what the queen of a wealthy state might have eaten is so problematic that the comparison is irrelevant for my purposes anyway. Another disappointment was the lack of references or citations for the assumptions presented about Egyptian food. There is a “recipe” floating around on the internet for date sweets that purports to be taken from an ostraca from 1600 BCE – but I believe it is a fake – a Piltdown Man for everyone hoping for a recipe.*

I did find one resource that I think does a pretty good job of showing what food and drink they enjoyed in ancient Egypt, and that is a short but well done booklet by Hilary Wilson called Egyptian Food and Drink. Of course I also consulted Romer’s Ancient Lives which has a nice account of a feast that occurred in about 1204 BCE, but not a lot else about food at Deir-el-Medina. Lastly, I also checked out Herodotus’ Histories for some details on diets from the 5th Century BCE – written only 150 or so years before the Greeks began to rule Egypt.

Loaf of Bread from a New Kingdom Tomb

Wilson’s book rightly notes that the staple of the Egyptian diet was bread in one form or another. They had flatbread and crispy wafers, loaves, conical-shaped breads, cakes, biscuits and pastries – some filled with dates, berries or palm nuts. Yeast was known and used both beer and bread making – allowing for at least some loaves to be leavened, and texture could be controlled by covering a bread mold for a softer consistency. Bread was molded into a wide variety of shapes – my favorite being the triangular one pictured here – and sweetened with honey and dates. Generally bread was made from emmer wheat, but a coarser bread could also be made from ground barley. Most of the barley in Egypt, however, went to make the people’s drink – beer. Egyptian beer was thick and could be adjusted for potency with red being the most popular and black the strongest brew. Dates and other fruits and vegetables were also sometimes used to flavor beer.

As to vegetables, onions and garlic – both sweeter than those eaten today – were widely eaten and used in cuisine. Lettuce, cucumbers, squash and long gourds and melons of many types – including watermelons were also cultivated and eaten. With salt available – there is speculation that many vegetables could have been pickled to provide for ready-to-eat food year round. Lentils and chick peas, pigeon peas and yellow split peas were also enjoyed as well as a spinach-like plant both eaten and used to thicken broths and stews. Wilson states that fava beans were also widely enjoyed throughout a large swath of Egyptian history, but by the 5th Century BCE, we will see that Herodotus suggests that they had fallen out of favor at least in the priestly class.

The Egyptians had a large variety of fruits that they ate – including sycamore figs, true figs, dates, grapes, raisins and pomegranates which were introduced to Egypt in the Second Intermediate Period (1782-1570 BCE). Tigernuts were cultivated domestically, but almonds and walnuts were imported as were apples. Citrus was introduced as a cultivated fruit in the Greco-Roman period, but may have been imported earlier.

Basket of Fruit from the 18th Dynasty

As far as meat is concerned, fish and wildfowl were the most commonly consumed. Cattle were also eaten, but much more rarely. Oxen were eaten only by the wealthy or on very special occasions. Pigs were eaten by working-class Egyptians on a fairly common basis as judged by heaps of remains at Armana. Wild game such as antelopes or gazelle were also enjoyed by the wealthy and noble of Egypt. A wide variety of birds were eaten with ducks and geese forming the bulk of those consumed. Wild birds such as egrets, storks, cranes and pigeons were also enjoyed. Eggs of ducks and geese were also eaten.

The milk of sheep and goats was also available in ancient times and fatty residues from a jar in a First Dynasty tomb have been identified as cheese. It is probable that yogurt was also eaten, although no firm evidence of its production or use has been found. Clarified butter may have been used, but grease was widely available from roasted animal fat as well. Several oils were also used including olive, castor, linseed and safflower plus a few unique to Egypt such as the oil from Egyptian balsam and the ben tree.

Herbs and spices cultivated in Egypt included flat parsley, cilantro, celery, rosemary, mint and sage. Cumin and coriander, fenugreek, and black mustard were also grown domestically. Cinnamon was brought in massive amounts from Sri Lanka (perhaps via Syria) and it’s possible that dill and fennel were imported from Western Asian and Central Asia as well.

In Romer’s account of the feast, based in part on ostraca Cairo 25504, shows that the tomb-builders of Deir-el-Medina were provided with a bounty of food to celebrate the Opet Festival because the Pharaoh was pleased with their work and progress. The ostraca details the 9000 loaves of bread and 9000 fish that were brought into the village as well as generous supplies of salt, beans and barley mash for beer. Ten oxen on the hoof were also provided for slaughter which would have provided everyone in the village with several fine meals of meat – and one not had every day by the tomb builders at this time. Romer also notes that there were vineyards near the village and that on feast days it was likely that grape wine was enjoyed as a special treat.

Although writing closest in time to Ptolemaic Egypt of all the references selected, Herodotus’ account offers only a little color and a few details to what has already been noted about the Egyptian diet. Still, it is important to note that the Greeks would have food and drink that suited their tastes imported or made, and this would not be recorded in Herotodus’s writings.

His account called the Egyptians the healthiest men of his acquaintance next to the Libyans and attributes this in part to their diet. Herodotus noted that they ate loves of “maize” (emmer wheat), brine cured fish, all manner of birds including ducks and quail and made wine out of barley (beer). He notes that meats were consumed after curing, boiling or roasting and that this varied by types. He describes the Egyptians living in the fenlands (delta area?) as eating lotus by pounding its heads and roots into flour and by making bread and by eating the flowers and seeds. These same people, he notes, also consume a lot of papyrus by baking the tender stems in a red-hot oven. Other bounties of the Nile seen on the tables of Egyptians in the city of Elephantine were crocodiles.

Herodotus also noted that the diets of the priestly class were different from those of ordinary Egyptians in both quantity and in type. He noted that every day, the priests had sacred bread baked for them and they have each great quantity of flesh of oxen and geese. The priests also drank wine of grapes, but were not permitted to eat fish. Moreover, he notes that beans were not consumed and that the priests would not even endure even to look upon them, thinking this to be an unclean kind of pulse. So it’s possible that beans had fallen out of favor amongst the priests by the 5th Century BCE.

So, what did Cleopatra eat? This far into the essay, I have to admit that I’m not sure. I can say that there is good evidence to suggest that she had a world of food and flavorings available to her and that a queen of one of the world’s wealthiest countries she exploited all of the opportunities that she had to try and taste foods from far flung shores. She also traveled – to Rome and Tarsus and many other places in between and would have had dishes that she became fond of on the road reconstructed for her at home.

There is some good scholarship out there to show us what the domestic production and consumption of food was like in ancient Egypt, but popularly available evidence is sparse in regards to the foods imported and how the trade routes and traders that got the good to Egypt’s already bountiful shores. There is scholarly work crying to be done on this subject that I hope some able soul undertakes someday. Ancient Egypt was powerful, rich and connected and yet there is little evidence of it even in the better popular references consulted. In Wilson’s book we are told that pomegranates are introduced in the 18th to 16th Centuries BCE and soon became cultivated, but there is no mention of where they come from (Western Asia) or how they were acquired. Romer, in Ancient Lives, does mention that although olive trees grew in Thebes, olive oil was also imported from Syria and Crete. Wilson also notes that wealthy citizens also imported certain types of beer from Syrian and Nubia.

We also need modern archaeological methods and tools to be brought to bear on the production, importation and consumption of food in ancient Egypt. As we saw at the Cleopatra exhibit, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities under the leadership of Zahi Hawass is questioning a lot of accepted knowledge about Cleopatra. The ongoing work of Franck Goddio is evidence of that as are the findings at Taposiris a city about 50 Km south and west of Alexandria. There, Hawass has uncovered many coins and artifacts from Cleopatra’s time, leading him to question whether she really committed suicide as history and Hollywood has shown us – or whether she escaped and fled to a nearby city. Whether a tantalizing possible discovery or showmanship to raise funds for further science – he is questioning the conclusions of earlier scholars and I wish him the best in his efforts for his bravery. God willing, he will continue to stand long-held conclusions on their heads. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of Cleopatra Bust from the Antiquities Museum in Berlin; other photos from the British Museum.)

*(I could find no reference of such an ostraca in either the Aberdeen, Ashmolean or British Museum collections. I will, however, continue looking and if I find a reference for the recipe, I will add to this post or post it anew.)

Venice and the Silk Road: Lace

Burano – Lace Maker

Long ago a Venetian seafarer brought his beloved a gift of seaweed from the far, distant seas. She wanted to preserve the memento forever, so she painstakingly copied the delicate outline and patterns using her needle and thread. . .

So goes the legend of how lacemaking began in Venice and its surrounding islands, now renown for the art. Once, Venice and Burano Island were the lacemaking capitals of Europe. Other than its lacemaking, Burano Island is known as a fishing community. It is easy to see how the women of Burano – accustomed to sewing and repairing fishing nets – could take to the fine art of lace. Together, Venice and Burano filled orders for coronation robes and papal vestments as well as personal adornments for aristocrats and wealthy merchants across the continent. Once, large workshops of women worked long days and nights like armies of spiders to create their diaphanous web-like creations. Today, sadly, handmade needle-lace is a dying artform. A few, often older women, sit stooped in their chairs with a pillow on their laps working on intricate borders and sewn ornaments.

Like most legends, the fisherman’s gift of seaweed to his paramour has a kernel of truth in it, but that kernel has been embellished with a dash of romanticism and a splash of whimsy. The kernel of truth is that lacemaking came to Venice from across the Mediterranean Sea – from Cyprus. The missing bit is that the origin of lacemaking can be traced to more than two millennia earlier in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty.

Mummy Cloth

The earliest (and simplest) precursor of lace can be found in Egyptian mummy cloths. There sheet-like garments were used to wrap the dead in preparation for their journey to the afterlife and were usually made of finely woven linen decorated with fringes. Some mummy cloths had drawn thread work on them in which warp threads had been removed and embellishments added in the holes left by the missing threads.

Herodotus tells us that Pharaoh Amasis of Egypt (570 BC – 526 BC) sent finely woven linen to the Spartans, which, was made of no less than 360 threads (iii. 47); the figures woven on this cloth (drawn-thread or open work) were partly of linen and partly of gold thread. Herodotus also mentions a wonderful pallium sent by the same king to the shrine of Athene at Lindus. Amasis is also important in the lacemaking story for incorporating Cyprus into his kingdom.

By the Greco-Roman period, beginning in the 4th Century BCE, intricate selvedge borders routinely decorated the edges of mummy cloths and sometimes, complex beadworking decorated the hems of the cloths. It is easy to see how the patterning of the beads could be translated to stitch patterns for later lace borders.

Mummy-Cloth Beadwork

Flash forward a thousand years and the Arabs are producing woven macramé. It is difficult to determine Cypriot Lefkara lace is a direct descendant of Egyptian drawn and open work or whether the Arab macramé tradition was an important influence on that development.


Either way, Venice begins its control of Cyprus as early as the late 12th Century. Although this is often called the “Frankish period”, Venice was the hidden hand in ruling the island, until taking direct control in 1481. It is probably during the Frankish period that the art of lacemaking is introduced.

As early as the end of the 14th Century, the Dogaresse Morosini (Doge Michele Morosini) begins to promote the art of lacemaking by forming a workshop of more than 130 women to create personal lace adornments for her and the nobility of allied states and countries in the form of gifts. Another Dogaresse, Giovanna Dandolo, wife of Doge Pasquale Malipiero protected and encouraged lacemaking in 1414 and soon lace had spread throughout Europe and become a fashion necessity for those who could afford it.

Today some five stitches are routinely done on Burano Island: Venetian, Rose Point, Point de Gaze, Alencon, and Argentan. This indicates a decrease from the 20th Century when Flowered Lace (Tagliato a fogliami) and Brussels point were also commonly used.

So, a artform that began in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty persists to this day in Venice’s nearby Burano Island. It is an art that is hanging on ‘by a thread’ and may soon be gone given the age of its masters both in Venice and Cyprus. To me, however, it is a voice from the Western Silk Road that continues to echo today. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Burano Lacemaker by Laura Kelley, Photos of Mummy Cloths and Beadwork from the British Museum, Photo of Modern Macrame from Google Images and Photo of Lefkara Lace from Wikimedia.)