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)

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)!

New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes

Saudi Aramco World Cover 11/12-12

I am pleased to share with you my new article on ancient Mesopotamian cuisine entitled, New Flavors for the World’s Oldest Recipes” in the November-December issue of Saudi Aramco World.

Click the link above to read the article on the publisher’s website and peruse the other articles in the issue.  I really like the magazine, because its stated objective is to build understanding between peoples by increasing reader’s knowledge of the Muslim world and its peoples and their connections to the west.

Thanks to the editors of the magazine for publishing the article, and thanks to the friends of Silk Road Gourmet who allowed me to submit their photos to illustrate these delicious, ancient dishes.  I hope you enjoy the article as well as the magazine!

Name That Silk Road Ingredient #1: Pistachios

I saw these in the market the other day and I couldn’t resist a few handfuls.  This is an unusual presentation for them, so I’m wondering if you know which Silk Road Ingredient they are.  Hint:  They are soft and slightly sweet when eaten or used at this stage. (Contest closed as of 11/1/2012 – 9 AM EST)

Fresh Pistachio Nuts

I’ll leave it up for a few days and then change the caption and add a comment and more information about the mystery ingredient. Earliest correct answer gets a copy of The Silk Road Gourmet Volume One. (Words and Photo of Fresh Pistachio Nuts by Laura Kelley, Photo of Pistachio Nuts Ripening on the Tree by Stan Shubs, and Pistachios with Skins Removed from Wikimedia).


Pistachios Ripening on Tree

As many who entered correctly guessed, the Silk Road Ingredient in the photograph is fresh pistachio nuts. But the truth of the matter is that pistachios along with almonds and others things we call nuts are not nuts at all – they are drupes – which is sort of fruit with a hard endocarp and enclosed seed.  To attempt to close the gap between correct biological classification and common usage of the term, “nut”, the category “culinary nut” was created that includes true nuts (like hazelnuts and chestnuts), drupes (like pistachios, almonds and sometimes walnuts), gymnosperm seeds (like pine nuts and ginko nuts) and angiosperm seeds (like soybeans and macadamia nuts).

Pistachios with Skins Removed

The usual presentation of pistachio nuts is with the yellow and blush-colored skin removed to reveal a hard “shell” with the edible “nut” inside the shell as pictured here.  However, the mystery picture is how pistachios come off the tree and are dried or processed for oil or pistachio paste.  Our local Persian market had a big box of them so I scored a few for my family and for readers of the blog.

Raw pistachios taste very different from commercial nuts.  They are soft and very subtly flavored with just a touch of sweetness.  The strong flavor we generally identify with them comes largely from the salt or sugar we add to them post processing.

Pistachio nuts or Pistacia vera, was first grown and cultivated in the ancient Near East (Iraq, Syria and Iran) with evidence of their use as a food item going back to 6750 BCE in Jarmo, Iraq.  They are also noted as an ingredient in the mersu recipe from the ancient Mesopotamian city of Mari from about 1800 – 1750 BCE, so our use of them in the kitchen is indeed ancient and ongoing.  For some ancient recipes to use them with, see the mersu post from the Mesopotamian cookoff.  For modern recipes for pistachios, see the Silk Road Gourmet Volume One, which includes recipes for the Iranian, omelet-like Kuku with Green Peas and Pistachios and the Azeri confection Pakhlava   Pistachios are also important ingredients in the Armenian Sweet Orange-Saffron Sauce, and are used along with other ingredients to fill pastries, flavor stews and garnish many other Silk Road dishes with a bit of extra flavor.

For more on nuts and drupes and things like them check out my earlier post:

From Fruits to Nuts