The Unicorn and the Ark: A Talmudic Story

As we are the time of Passover for 2015, I have updated the following entry that features a popular topic – the unicorn. Legends of the unicorn are numerous, spreading from China and India, across the Middle East and into Europe, and extending back into Persian and Babylonian history.

Found in the lore of Jewish, Islamic and Christian sources, these creatures have been variously described and depicted, culminating in some versions of  medieval European tales as a composite animal that could be caught only by a virgin with bared breasts.

Unicorn seeking refuge with a virgin, whose bare breasts are discretely blocked from view by the unicorn’s head. Source: British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 10v.

The demand for unicorn horns during the Middle Ages was such that the elongated teeth of narwhal whales was sold throughout Europe as being unicorn horns [see below video]:

As recognized wards against poisoning, one of the functions of these objects [narwhal teeth taken to be unicorn horns] may have been to discourage assassination attempts (Faidutti 1996), indeed Olivier de la Marche refers to the duke’s habit of keeping a piece of unicorn horn close by at meals to test dishes for poison (Cartellieri 1929:68).

Sometimes unicorn horn was used as a raw material – an inventory of the duke records a small piece of unicorn horn carved with the image of the Virgin holding Christ (Faidutti 1996). But the only unicorn products acquired by the duke to have survived are a single narwhal tusk and the duke’s ainkhürnschwert or ‘unicorn sword’ – the hilt, pommel and scabbard incorporating plates of narwhal tusk:

Detail of the narwhal plates incorporated into the hilt and scabbard of the ‘unicorn sword’, Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer), Vienna.  © Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. source. Pluskowski-Narwhals or Unicorns (reference below)

Source: Aleksander Pluskowski – Narwhals or Unicorns? Exotic Animals as Material Culture in Medieval Europe. European Journal of Archaeology 2004 7: 291

Narwhals tusking with their single tusks. They were sometimes called the unicorns of the sea and their single tusks were commonly sold as being unicorn horns. Source: Wikipedia

Narwhals tusking with their single tusks. They were sometimes called the unicorns of the sea and their single tusks were commonly sold as being unicorn horns. Source: Wikipedia

Such confusions between unicorn horns and narwhal ‘teeth’ have figured into analyses of fable ‘versus’ zoology, as suggested here:

It is often difficult to distinguish between the animals of fable and those of zoology. The sphinx, the chimera, the centaur and the hippogriff belong, and always have belonged to the first category. But animals such as the unicorn have long been catalogued and described in works of natural science.

In the seventeenth century, a catalog such as John Johnston’s A Description of the Nature of Four-Footed Beasts, written in Latin, translated into English and published in London in 1678, still distinguishes eight different types [of unicorns] with corresponding illustrations. Indeed, a unicorn is no more improbable than a narwhal, whose horn, incidentally, was long thought to be the unicorn’s.

Source: Roger Caillois and Rosemary Kew – The Logic of Imagination : (Avatars of the Octopus). Diogenes 1970 18: 74

And as mentioned above, legends of the unicorn are found throughout Asia and the Middle East:

In Persia, the unicorn is the total animal of the Bundahish (Ch. XIX). A three-legged ass living in the middle of the ocean, it has six eyes, nine mouths, two ears and one horn. It is as large as Mount Alvand. Its single horn is hollow and like gold. A thousand branches grew from it, large or small, appropriate for the camel, the ass or the cow.

With this horn the animal dissolves and eliminates all evil corruption coming from harmful creatures. Its tiniest movement or softest cries have cosmic effects. Its excrement is grey amber.

According to the Talmud, the unicorn is also a colossal animal. It could not fit in the ark and escaped the Flood by being tied to the outside of the vessel [as depicted below]. It is apparent that this word denotes any animal of fantastic proportions and growing a single horn.

This latter quality is not even always guaranteed or specified. In the Bible, in fact, the unicorn is a monstrous creature, related to Behemoth or Leviathan. The words monoceros or unicornis used to translate the Hebrew word allow for a wide margin of interpretation.

Source: Roger Caillois and R. Scott Walker – The Myth of the Unicorn. Diogenes 1982 30: 1

The unicorn legend explored here is that found in the Talmud, where in spite of (or perhaps because of) etymological difficulties a legend was developed that depicted the unicorn of great size being ridden by a giant:

The Talmud has for “re’em” or , which etymologically recalls the Arabic “ghazal” (= “gazel”), but is said to be the name of an animal of such size that it could not enter the ark of Noah, but had to be fastened thereto by its horn (Zeb. 113b; comp. B. B. 74b; Shab. 107b; Yalḳuṭ Shim’oni, ii. 97d, where it is said that the re’em touches the clouds)…

Source: The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. A charming story, published in 1919, telling of the procurement of a giant unicorn for the ark and of Og (the giant who captured and rode him), together with details on the voyage of the ark and aftermath, is given here: The Giant of the Flood

Og riding a unicorn behind the ark, the unicorn being tied to the ark because it was too big to enter (according to some interpretations of the Talmud).  Certainly, the unicorn looks very amazed at being tied – in other versions it is said that he hooks his horn to the ark.  Picture Source: Landa –  ‘Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends’

Just before the world was drowned all the animals gathered in front of the Ark and Father Noah carefully inspected them. “All ye that lie down shall enter and be saved from the deluge that is about to destroy the world,” he said. “

Ye that stand cannot enter.” Then the various creatures began to march forward into the Ark. Father Noah watched them closely. He seemed troubled. “I wonder,” he said to himself, “how I shall obtain a unicorn, and how I shall get it into the Ark.” “I can bring thee a unicorn, Father Noah,” he heard in a voice of thunder, and turning round he saw the giant, Og. “But thou must agree to save me, too, from the flood.”

“Begone,” cried Noah. “Thou art a demon, not a human being. I can have no dealings with thee.” “Pity me,” whined the giant. “See how my [28]figure is shrinking. Once I was so tall that I could drink water from the clouds and toast fish at the sun. I fear not that I shall be drowned, but that all the food will be destroyed and that I shall perish of hunger.”

Noah, however, only smiled; but he grew serious again when Og brought a unicorn. It was as big as a mountain, although the giant said it was the smallest he could find. It lay down in front of the Ark and Noah saw by that action that he must save it.

For some time he was puzzled what to do, but at last a bright idea struck him. He attached the huge beast to the Ark by a rope fastened to its horn so that it could swim alongside and be fed.

Og seated himself on a mountain near at hand and watched the rain pouring down. Faster and faster it fell in torrents until the rivers overflowed and the waters began to rise rapidly on the land and sweep all things away.

Father Noah stood gloomily before the door of the Ark until the water reached his neck. Then it swept him inside. The door closed with a bang, and the Ark rose gallantly on the flood and began to move along. The unicorn swam alongside, and as it passed Og, the giant jumped on to its back. [29]

“See, Father Noah,” he cried, with a huge chuckle, “you will have to save me after all. I will snatch all the food you put through the window for the unicorn.” Noah saw that it was useless to argue with Og, who might, indeed, sink the Ark with his tremendous strength.

“I will make a bargain with thee,” he shouted from a window. “I will feed thee, but thou must promise to be a servant to my descendants.” Og was very hungry, so he accepted the conditions and devoured his first breakfast.

The rain continued to fall in great big sheets that shut out the light of day. Inside the Ark, however, all was bright and cheerful, for Noah had collected the most precious of the stones of the earth and had used them for the windows. Their radiance illumined the whole of the three stories in the Ark. Some of the animals were troublesome and Noah got no sleep at all. The lion had a bad attack of fever.

In a corner a bird slept the whole of the time. This was the phoenix. “Wake up,” said Noah, one day. “It is feeding time.” “Thank you,” returned the bird. “I saw thou  wert busy, Father Noah, so I would not trouble thee.” “Thou art a good bird,” said Noah, much touched, “therefore thou shalt never die.” One day the rain ceased, the clouds rolled away and the sun shone brilliantly again.

How strange the world looked! It was like a vast ocean. Nothing but water could be seen anywhere, and only one or two of the highest mountain tops peeped above the flood. All the world was drowned, and Noah gazed on the desolate scene from one of the windows with tears in his eyes. Og, riding gaily on the unicorn behind the Ark, was quite happy. “Ha, ha!” he laughed gleefully. “I shall be able to eat and drink just as much as I like now and shall never be troubled by those tiny little creatures, the mortals.”

“Be not so sure,” said Noah. “Those tiny mortals shall be thy masters and shall outlive thee and the whole race of giants and demons.” The giant did not relish this prospect. He knew that whatever Noah prophesied would come true, and he was so sad that he ate no food for two days and began to grow smaller and thinner. He became more and more unhappy as day by day the water subsided and the mountains began to appear. At last the Ark rested on Mount Ararat, and Og’s long ride came to an end.

“I will soon leave thee, Father Noah,” he said. “I shall wander round the world to see what is left of it.” “Thou canst not go until I permit thee,” said Noah. “Hast thou forgotten our compact so soon? Thou must be my servant. I have work for thee.” Giants are not fond of work, and Og, who was the father of all the giants, was particularly lazy. He cared only to eat and sleep, but he knew he was in Noah’s power, and he shed bitter tears when he saw the land appear again.

“Stop,” commanded Noah. “Dost thou wish to drown the world once more with thy big tears?” So Og sat on a mountain and rocked from side to side, weeping silently to himself. He watched the animals leave the Ark and had to do all the hard work when Noah’s children built houses. Daily he complained that he was shrinking to the size of the mortals, for Noah said there was not too much food.

One day Noah said to him, “Come with me, Og. I am going around the world. I am [32]commanded to plant fruit and flowers to make the earth beautiful. I need thy help.” For many days they wandered all over the earth, and Og was compelled to carry the heavy bag of seeds. The last thing Noah planted was the grape-vine. “What is this—food, or drink?” asked Og. “Both,” replied Noah. “It can be eaten, or its juice made into wine,” and as he planted it, he blessed the grape. “Be thou,” he said, “a plant pleasing to the eye, bear fruit that will be food for the hungry and a health-giving drink to the thirsty and sick.”

Og grunted. “I will offer up sacrifice to this wonderful fruit,” he said. “May I not do so now that our labors are over?” Noah agreed, and the giant brought a sheep, a lion, a pig and a monkey. First, he slaughtered the sheep, then the lion. “When a man shall taste but a few drops of the wine,” he said, “he shall be as harmless as a sheep. When he takes a little more he shall be as strong as a lion.”

Then Og began to dance around the plant, and he killed the pig and the monkey. Noah was very much surprised. “I am giving thy descendants two extra blessings,” said Og, chuckling. He rolled over and over on the ground in great glee and then said: “When a man shall drink too much of the juice of the wine, then shall he become a beast like the pig, and if then he still continues to drink, he shall behave foolishly like a monkey.”

And that is why, unto this day, too much wine makes a man silly. Og himself often drank too much, and many years afterward, when he was a servant to the patriarch Abraham, the latter scolded him until he became so frightened that he dropped a tooth.

Abraham made an ivory chair for himself from this tooth. Afterwards Og became King of Bashan, but he forgot his compact with Noah and instead of helping the Israelites to obtain Canaan he opposed them. “I will kill them all with one blow,” he declared. Exerting all his enormous strength he uprooted a mountain, and raising it high above his head he prepared to drop it on the camp of the Israelites and crush it.

But a wonderful thing happened. The mountain was full of grasshoppers and ants who had drilled millions of tiny holes in it. When King Og raised the great mass it crumbled in his hands and fell over his head and round his neck like a collar. He tried to pull it off, but his teeth became entangled in the mass. As he danced about in rage and pain, Moses, the leader of the Israelites, approached him.

Moses was a tiny man compared with Og. He was only ten ells high, and he carried with him a sword of the same length. With a mighty effort he jumped ten ells into the air, and raising the sword, he managed to strike the giant on the ankle and wound him mortally. Thus, after many years, did the terrible giant of the flood perish for breaking his word to Father Noah after the flood.]

Source: Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends, by Gertrude Landa.  1919 A few other depictions of the unicorn and of the ark: The story of Noah’s ark and its animals has been celebrated in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Virgin with a wavy-horned unicorn, basilica of San Savino Piacenza, c. 1107. Source: Tagliatesta – Iconography of the Unicorn.

Babylonian unicorn-type beast, with a wavy horn.  Source:

Ark of Noah and the cosmic covenant. 2-4 century AC Catacombes noe et la colombe saints pierre. Source: Wikipedia

16th century Mogul miniature giving a Moslem interpretation of Noah and the Flood. Source: Wikipedia

Noah and the ark on Mt. Ararat. North French Hebrew Miscellany, Ms. 11639, fol. 521a 13th.c. Source: Wikipedia

Noah having arrived at Mt. Arafat. Islamic miniature.  Source:

Animals entering the ark. Jacopo Bassano 1570-1579. Source: Wikipedia

Posted in Bestiary, History-Ancient, Jewish Holiday, Medieval, Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Penmeru: Director of the Dining Pavilion – 1

A number of very interesting features are associated with the mastaba of Penmeru in the Western Cemetery at Giza.  This is just a preliminary blog; I will be following with entries about his mastaba. Below is one of the statue groups of Penmeru and his family.  In this grouping he is shown two times, together with his wife, who is to the far right.  Two children are by his legs.

The two statues of Penmeru shown here is a method of displaying likenesses of a tomb owner several times – and there has been quite a lot of discussion about the multiple figures of the tomb’s primary person.  There are also several other statues of Penmeru from the same tomb and I will talk about them in a later blog.

In this entry, just note the multiple titles that he held – and particularly the title “director of the dining pavilion,” which appears in several other mastabas of the Old Kingdom.

Penmeru (2x(, his wife and his two children.  Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts pseudo statue

Penmeru (2x), his wife and his two children. Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts pseudo statue


  • 1. jmy-rA Hm(w)-kA, “overseer of ka-priests.”
  • Niche. 2. wab nswt, “king’s weeb-priest.
  • Niche. 3. rx nswt, ”royal acquaintance.” Statues 1, 2.
  • 4. Hm-nTr Mn-kAw-Ra, ”priest of Mycerinus.”
  • Niche, 5. xrp sH, “director of the dining pavilion,” (Statues 1 and 2)
Description Painted limestone pseudo-group statue depicting two figures of Penmeru, his wife Meretites, his son Seshemnefer, and his daughter Neferseshemes from G 2197, serdab S (detail of text, niche face, lower proper right): MFA 12.1484
Photographer: Peter Der Manuelian
Posted in Cuisine, Egypt-Ancient, Giza, History-Ancient, Looting | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coptic Easter and A Feast in Rural Egypt – Recipes Included

With Easter upon us, I’m sharing my blog about the holiday in Upper [southern] Egypt:

Villages and hamlets in Egypt have traditionally been compactly built of mud brick, with crop leavings and fuel wood (such as cotton stocks) being stored on the roofs, as here.  In the absence of both space and rain, this is a good policy.  Source - Impresions de Egipto

Villages and hamlets in Egypt have traditionally been compactly built of mud brick, with crop leavings and fuel wood (such as cotton branches) being stored on the roofs, as here. In the absence of both space and rain, this is a good policy. In this picture, a woman is bringing her expectant donkey a serving of barsiim or other succulent greens from her fields.  Source – Impresions de Egipto

During the years that I spent a good deal of my time working and living in Upper [southern] Egypt while conducting  doctoral research, I was invited by friends in a nearby izba [small, extended family-based village, or hamlet] to join them at their church for Easter celebrations. Not having been to a Coptic Easter, I gladly accepted.

Shenouda ii celebrating coptic easter in cairo, 2004. al-ahram weekly 24'3'05

Pope Shenouda ii celebrating Coptic Easter in Cairo, 2004.  Source –  al-Ahram weekly 24’3’05

Afterwards, we enjoyed a huge Easter feast, consisting of the following dishes. Recipes for these dishes are given at the end of the blog.

• Kishk (Cracked Wheat (Burghul) fermented with Milk & Yogurt)
• Mulukhiyyah bil-Firaakh (Jew’s Mallow Greens with Roast Chicken)
• Bamya bil-Gamusa (Okra with Water Buffalo Shanks)
• Arnabit bil-Tomatum (Cauliflower in Tomato Sauce)
• Ruz bil- Sha’ariya (Rice with Vermicelli)
• Gargir wa-Salatat (Salad Greens)
• ‘Aysh Nashif (Crispy Bread)
• ‘Aysh Baladi (Country Bread)

  The izba in which my friends lived was tucked neatly between 2 minor canals of the Nile

Izbas are small settlements that were founded  primarily during the 19th. Century by one extended family, generally operating as overseers of the lands of an Ottoman overlord.

Izbas are small settlements that were founded primarily during the 19th. Century by one extended family, generally operating as overseers of the lands of an Ottoman overlord.

and surrounded by a variety of vegetable crops, clover, maize and barsiim [clover] fields for the water buffalo and other livestock. It had been settled in the mid-19th. century by a Coptic extended family whose farming activities were part of the huge estate of an Ottoman landowner. During the time of Egypt’s President Nasser in the 1960’s, extensive land reform was affected and many of the huge land owners lost most of their vast holdings and/or fled Egypt, leaving many of the izba inhabitants true owners of perhaps a bit of the land that they had been farming for several.

Ploughing on the West Bank in Upper Egypt in the 1976.  Source - africa.focus.database. University of Wisconsin.

Ploughing on the West Bank in Upper Egypt in the 1976. Source – africa.focus.database. University of Wisconsin.

By the 1980’s, the izba discussed in this blog had grown to about 1200 persons – about 1/2 Muslim and 1/2 Coptic, though it was still considered a ‘Coptic’ izba. There was a small mosque, and a very large church that could accommodate the entire Coptic population of the izba.

Shadduf in ancient Egypt, tomb of Ipuy, Deir el :edina.  Source - Wikipedia

Shadduf in ancient Egypt, tomb of Ipuy, Deir el :edina. Source – Wikipedia

Shadduf in use near the Upper Egyptian town of Kom Ombo.  Source - Wikipedia

Shadduf in use near the Upper Egyptian town of Kom Ombo. Source – Wikipedia

I was instructed to wear warm clothing and bring a blanket or two, because April in rural Egypt is still very cold in the evenings. Entering the church I saw that whole families were accommodating themselves for the long night vigil with their blankets, pillows, and scarves.

On entering churches, worshipers can light a candle. - Source: HolyFamlyEgypt

On entering churches, worshipers can light a candle.
– Source: HolyFamlyEgypt

Then began a religious passion in the most traditional sense. All elder men and male heads of families took terms chanting and reading Coptic religious texts. This continued for approximately six hours, by candle light for there was no electricity in the izba. Participants in the church, separated by gender and with younger children tended by their mothers, huddled closer and closer together to keep warm. After a time, a very large icon of Christ was carried in by 2 men, and this was followed by an athletic fellow impersonating the Devil, followed by the Devil’s entourage. As the chanting reached great emotional heights, the icon of Christ alternately was chased down one isle and another – but at appropriate times the icon of Christ chased back the Devil and his pack. This continued until dawn, when Christ conquered the Devil, the service ended, and everyone joined in glorious song and prayers.

Icons are an important feature in all Coptic churches. - Source: copticpainting23

Icons are an important feature in all Coptic churches.
– Source: copticpainting23

Cramped and cold, we all trooped back to the 2-story mud-brick house where Umm M and her married daughters began preparing a huge meal, while the rest of us enjoyed a refreshing snack of dried kishk mixed into hot chicken broth and sautéed onion, followed by sweet tea.  This was a favorite dish of both Muslims and Copts in the Nile Valley, [a kishk recipe is also given, below]. Umm Makram and her daughters prepared a lavish meal, consisting of the following dishes:

 Mulukhiya (leaves of the Jew’s marrow) and roast chicken;
 Water buffalo shanks and okra;
 Deep-fried cauliflower in tomato sauce;
 Rice and vermicelli cooked with lavish quantities of water buffalo butter that has been clarified (semna) ;
 Crisp, large rounds of aysh naashif – a crispy white bread made only in rural Upper Egypt, which had been previously made by the women
 Various fresh greens and onions.

. These are staple fellaheen [Egyptian rural/ peasant] dishes; fancier fare – dishes that are said to be traditional Egyptian – but have been heavily influenced by Ottoman and Greek cuisine – are found primarily in Cairo and other large cities of Egypt.

Fellaheen dishes are rich in oils and clarified butter in which many cloves of garlic and onion slices are sautéed, and contain mellow spices: cumin; coriander; cardamom… sometimes a little hot pepper and splashes of lemon or vinegar.

For our feast, in the early afternoon a large, round table was placed in the center of the main room of the two-story, mud brick house – a low table, about 2′ high, around which we all sat on little stools; about 12 of us. Dishes were served on large trays and platters, and everyone had a soup spoon by which to select bites from the different trays and bowls.

Before eating one must wash the right hand, which is the only hand used in eating. Meat is eaten by the hand, and bread in used in taking up mulukhiyya and rice. A spoon may be used to take up broth from the mulukhiyya, the spoon then being filled with a bit of rice.

Most rural areas of Egypt now have standpipes where water can be collected and carried to the homes.  Traditional methods of collecting water from nearby canals and transporting it home are now quite rare. - Source: Egypt (first batch)

Most rural areas of Egypt now have standpipes where water can be collected and carried to the homes. Traditional methods of collecting water from nearby canals and transporting it home are now quite rare.
– Source: Egypt (first batch)

After the meal is finished, hand-washing again takes place, and a glass of water can then be drunk. Water is never consumed with the meal as this is though to result in indigestion.

All food that remained was given to poor families in the izba. Then, throughout the rest of the day, friends and relatives visited one another, Muslim neighbors from the quarter also visited to wish a good holiday, lingering on benches outside the house to chat.

By the evening everyone dropped totally exhausted into their beds, with visitors accommodated on piles of quilts and bedding that had been prepared in advance and smelled pleasantly of the camphor wood trunks in which they had been stored.

Village and izba homes are generally constructed one against the other, and roads can be very narrow. In a country that lacks land both for homes and cultivation, this is an important strategy. In the evenings, families and friends promenade about the village, resting a few minutes on the mastaba – or benches that are built outside the main entrance of a house – to exchange news and greetings.

Mud brick or cement benches always feature at the entrance of village houses, as seen here  – a place for family and visitors to congregate in the evenings. - Source: Adventure Travel Tales

Mud brick or cement benches – mastaba – always feature at the entrance of village houses, as seen here – a place for family and visitors to congregate in the evenings.
– Source: Adventure Travel Tales

 * * * * *

Food in rural Egypt has evolved to satisfy the appetites of hard-working farmers. It tends, therefore, to use quite a lot of semna [clarified butter] and oil, as well as quite large amounts of garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, and cardamom. Not much meat, however, except for holidays. Hot pepper spices are occasionally used, but do not feature into the dishes. Dishes of Muslims and Christians are basically the same, although during fast days Copts will rely on non-meat recipes and during the fasting month of Ramadan Muslims consume large amounts of dry and fresh fruits and also prepare nut and fruit-based recipes as part of fast-breaking.

Copts fast approximately 200 days per year, 60 of which are completely vegetarian meals. During the remaining fast days, fish are allowed. Here are my own recipes for the Easter meal that we ate, as explained to me by Umm Makram; if the levels of butter and garlic do not suit you, by all means reduce the quantities! Some recipes are adapted from written sources and so noted.

Kishk (Cracked Wheat (Burghul) fermented with Milk & Yogurt) Kishk is a powdery substance made of bulgur [cracked wheat], which is fermented with milk and yogurt. The 3 ingredients are mixed and fermented for about 9 days – each day the substance is thoroughly kneaded. Thereafter, it is spread out on cloths in the sun to dry, and once dry it is carefully rubbed between the fingers into a powder that is stored for months of future use. Although I doubt this process is still practiced in Upper Egypt as it was during my time there.

1. Using Kishk:


1 C. Kishk [Available on-line or in Middle East shops]
1 T. Clarified butter
4 cloves Garlic
1 lg. Onion
4 C. Chicken stock
To taste Salt & pepper

Method: • Melt butter • Saute Onion & garlic • Mix in Kish; cook a few minutes • Remove from heat & add liquid slowly, stirring • Return to heat & cook, stirring, until the dish thickens • Add salt & pepper to taste • If too thick, add a little more liquid

  • Source: Mallos: The Complete Middle East Cookbook

2. Using flour: If you do not have authentic kishk, you can make a dish that resembles it using flour, yogurt and stock, a method taught me by a Cairene friend: Ingredients:

1.5 oz. Clarified butter
2 T. Oil
3 T. Flour
3 med Onions
3-4 cloves Garlic
450 g. Thick Yogurt
1 L. Stock
To taste Salt & Pepper

Method: • Fry onions until brown in oil • Cook garlic in butter • Add flour to garlic & butter and blend • Add yogurt, a few spoons at a time and mixing well • Add stock slowly & onions, mixing well • Simmer until thick • Add salt & pepper • Add more stock or water if too thick

Mulukhiyah bil-Firaakh (Mulukhiyah Greens with Roast Chicken)


1 –2 Chicken, whole
5 oz dry, or 1# fresh Mulukhiyah [Jew’s Mallow] – or use spinach
12 cloves Garlic
8 med Onion
5 T Clarified butter
6-8 C Water
1 T Coriander
6 Cardamom pods
4 Lemons
To taste Salt & Pepper

Method: • Put chicken in a large casserole to which ½ the onions [quartered] ½ the garlic & all of the cardamom pods have been added; cover with water • Simmer chicken until tender • Remove from heat; set chicken aside; keep warm • Meanwhile, if using fresh mulukhiyah, chop in very fine pieces with a makhratah (2-handled, curved knife) or a regular knife; if using dry mulukhiyyah, rub to fine pieces with fingers • Strain chicken stock [or not, as you wish] • Add more liquid if necessary, to make 6-8 cups • Add mulukhiyyah to the broth, together with salt and pepper – cook no more than 5 minutes [overcooking results in the mulukhiyah sinking to the bottom of the pot – you want it to remain suspended in the liquid] • Melt 3 T. clarified butter in a large pan, and brown chicken/s evenly • Make a taqliyyah by mashing garlic, salt and coriander together, and frying in 2 T of clarified butter • When mulukhiyyah is nearly done, add the taqliyyah and mix; • Add salt & pepper • Simmer a bit longer • Add juice from 2-3 lemons – or, quarter lemons and serve separately • Check spices To Serve: • Cut Chicken in pieces • Pour mulukhiyyah in a large serving dish • Place chicken pieces on a separate platter, or combine with the mulukhiyah • Slice any remaining lemons into quarters and serve separately

Bamyah bil-Gamusa (Okra with Water Buffalo Shanks)


2 kg Water buffalo shanks [forearms; sliced horizontally into 1 – 2 in. pieces
1.5 kg Bamyah – fresh okra – very small and whole
6 + 3T Clarified butter
2-3 Onion 6 cloves Garlic
1.5 t Cumin 1.5 t Coriander
4 Tomatoes, chopped
3 T Tomato paste

Method: • Brown and sear meat in 6 T. clarified butter; set aside • Fry onion and garlic – sliced – in the drippings • Add tomatoes and sautée until soft • Add meat & Spices • Add stock with tomato paste, to cover • Simmer until tender – 2-3 hours Meanwhile: • Carefully trim tops of okra – do not cut into the okra as this results in sliminess • Soak ½ hour in vinegar to cover; rinse (This helps also to reduce the sliminess) • Saute okra in 3 T. clarified butter; set aside When meat is nearly done: • Mix in okra [or place it on top of the meat]; cover & continue cooking until okra is done • Squeeze in juice of 1 or so lemon Dried okra can also be used: The product is dried in rural Egypt by threading the okra fingers onto a long thread and hanging in the sun. The resulting product can be stored for long periods of time, and when cooked has a pleasingly pungent flavor and is less gelatinous than fresh okra.

 Arnabit bil-Tomatum (Cauliflower in Tomato Sauce)


1 1 large or 2 small arnabit (cauliflower), broken into flowerets
4 T. Clarified butter 1
5 lg. Tomatoes, chopped
2 Onion, chopped
6 Garlic cloves
2 t Cumin
To taste,  Shatta – hot pepper
To taste, Salt & Pepper Oil for deep-frying

Method: • Deep fry cauliflower until crisp-done • Sprinkle with some cumin; salt; pepper & set aside • Saute onion & garlic in butter • Add tomatoes, skinned & chopped • Simmer until a sauce has formed • Add stock, if too dry • Add cumin – salt – pepper to taste • Simmer until sauce is blended • Add Cauliflower and cook a couple of minutes to blend flavors

Ruz bil- Sha’ariyyah (Rice with Vermicelli)


2 C. Rice (ruz); washed
½ C. Vermicelli (sha’ariyyah), broken into ¼” pieces
4 T. Clarified butter
4 Cardamom pods
4+ C. Broth for rice
Salt & pepper to taste

Method: • Saute Vermicelli in some of the butter until light brown; set aside • Saute rice in remaining butter • Add broth; cardamom pods; salt • Simmer until nearly done • Add vermicelli; fluff • Continue cooking until done

Gargiir wa-Salatat (Salad Greens)

Arrange a selection of –

salad greens;
green onions
other, as you wish

… on a plate as finger food

‘Aysh Naashif (Crispy Bread)

The large, white rounds of bread made in rural Upper Egypt are unique to that part of the country. Women will gather at a home about once a month and share in the task of preparing the dough, stoking the oven fire, and baking the rounds; it is an all day task. The bread rounds – which are about 2.5’ in diameter – are then stacked in a large cloth or wicker basket that is loosely tied shut, and will last the family for several weeks.

Method of baking large rounds of bread in southern egypt.  Source - Susan Weeks, Theban Mapping Project

The method of baking large rounds of bread in southern egypt. Source – Susan Weeks, Theban Mapping Project

At the mud brick oven, which is fueled by cotton branches and other crop leavings, many of which have been stored on the roof - or may be purchased.  Source - Susan Weeks, Theban Mapping Project

A woman attends her mud brick oven, which is fueled with cotton branches and other crop leavings, many of which have been stored on the roof – or may be purchased. Source – Susan Weeks, Theban Mapping Project

‘Aysh nashif requires considerable skill to make and bake, and in place of a recipe for it, here is how to make ‘aysh baladi – the ubiquitous round ‘pita’ loaves found in most of Egypt:

 ‘Aysh Baladi – A Recipe for Egyptian Bread

There are many recipes for Egyptian pita bread, or aysh baladi.  See this link for a selection.

Posted in Coptic, Crop harvests, Cuisine, Easter, Egypt, Egypt-Ancient, Egypt-Recent, Feasts, Food, Nile Valley | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Easter Season in Egypt, 1834: ‘Smelling the Breeze’, Making Kishk, Eating Colored Eggs & Salted Fish

kishk, an Egyptian dish made with thickened mi...

A bowl of kishk topped with sautéed onions, an Egyptian dish made with thickened milk or yogurt and topped with fried onions. It is described in the following text as a 19th century treat. In the village where I lived, it was still a great treat that was made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians, by E. Lane, is a two-volume set filled with lore about Egypt during the author’s time (1834). And although it makes for fascinating reading, the book is now largely ‘put down’ by post-colonial theorists who are troubled by the Orientalist mind-set of Lane and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, taken at descriptive value, it – as so much of the colonial literature of exploration – provides views both into lifestyles of local people at the time and their (presumed) thoughts – as well as mindsets of the authors themselves; of colonial mentality.

The following excerpt describes common practices during Orthodox Easter time in Egypt (1834), and includes a recipe for kishk, which was eaten as part of the celebrations for Good Friday. Kishk is still a very popular dish, eaten year-round, and I remember the delicious kishk that was made in the Izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt where I lived while doing research.

Salted fish ( فسيخ), lettuce, and onion are also eaten as part of this spring celebration, which is commonly organized as a picnic.  It is said that these practices can be traced back to ancient Egypt, though I cannot find solid information about this.  Nevertheless, it is a celebration that encompasses both Muslims and Christians and transcends socio-economic strata.

An izba in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived. Kishk was a great treat, as made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities.  Source - Village by Ahmed Moustafa

An izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived.  The green matter on the roofs is fodder, crop leavings, and oven fuel.  Source –, the painting is by Ahmed Moustafa, of Alexandria.

Of particular interest in the following description, is the melding of Muslim, Coptic, and non-religious activities into one ceremony – called, as still today,  Shamm al-Nasim (شم النسيم – literally, ‘sniffing the breeze’).  Some of the activities described below are still found, while others, such as ritual washing with a particular plant, are no longer to be commonly found.

Until the presidency of Nasser (mid-20th century), there was a large Jewish community in Cairo and it is possible that the Jewish celebration of Passover, which takes place during the same time period in Egypt, also incorporated aspects of the Shamm al-Nasim celebration.

IT is remarkable that the Moos’lims of Egypt observe certain customs of a religious or superstitious nature at particular periods of the religious almanac of the Copts [Orthodox Christians of Egypt]; and even, according to the same system, calculate the times of certain changes of the weather.

Thus they calculate the period of the Khum’a’see’n [khamsiin], when hot southerly winds are of frequent, occurrence, to commence on the day immediately following the Coptic festival of Easter Sunday, and to terminate on the Day of Pentecost (or Whitsunday); an interval of forty-nine days.

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo...

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wednesday next before this period is called Ar’ba’a Eiyoo’b, or Job’s Wednesday. Many persons, on this day, wash themselves with cold water, and rub themselves with the creeping’ plant called raara’a Ei-yoo’b, or ghoobey’ra (inula Arabica, and inula undulata), on account of a tradition which relates that Job did so to obtain restoration to health. This and other customs about to be mentioned were peculiar to the Copts; but are now observed by many Moos’lims in the towns, and by more in the villages.

The other customs just alluded to are that of eating eggs, dyed externally red or yellow or blue, or some other colour, on the next day (Thursday); and, on the Friday (Good Friday), a dish of khul’tah, composed of kishk*, with foo’l na’bit**, lentils, rice, onions, &c.

Washing before a meal, a necessary task. Source: Lane, Manners and Customs…

* Kishk is prepared from wheat, first moistened, then dried, trodden in a vessel to separate the husks, and coarsely ground with a hand-mill: the meal is mixed with milk, and about six hours afterwards is spooned out upon a little straw or bran, and then left for two or three days to dry. When required for use, it is either soaked or pounded, and put into a sieve, over a vessel; and then boiling water is poured on it: what remains in the sieve is thrown away: what parses through is generally poured into a saucepan of boiled meat or fowl, over the fire: some leaves of white bete, fried in butter, are usually added to each plate of it.

** foo’l na’bit are Beans soaked in water until they begin to sprout, and then boiled.

On the Saturday, also, it is a common custom of men and women to adorn their eyes with kohhl. This day is called Sebt en-Noo’ r (Saturday of the Light); because a light, said to be miraculous, appears during the festival then celebrated in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

A custom termed Shemm en-Nesee’m* (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khum’a’see’n. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon, many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, generally northwards, to take the air, or, as they term it,smell the air, which, on that day, they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country.

This year (1834), they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the nesee’m: but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to smell it.

*شم النسيم

Source: Edward William LaneAn Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt during the Years 1833, -34, and -35, partly from Notes made during a Former Visit to that Country in the Years 1825, -26, -27, and 28. In Two Volumes
Posted in Colonial, Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt, Food, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Monsters: Ancient Egypt and Beyond –

Ancient Egyptians were most curious regarding both domestic and wild animals as well as their procreation, magical attributes, and so forth.  They did attempt to domestic several species of desert animals during the predynastic and early dynastic eras, and thus it would not be a surprise if attempts might also have been made to crossbreed certain animals – both domestic and wild.  The whimsical appearance of a zonkey – as a cross between two creatures – might well have appealed.

We may never know, of course, but the speculation is nevertheless interesting and may be related to the late predynastic and early dynastic burials of various wild and domestic creatures that have recently been excavated,  Some of whom could perhaps have been residents in a kind of royal zoo that contained elephants, aurochs, and other creatures.

Regarding the interred elephant, and Aurochs found at Hierakonpolis, the site states =

Perhaps not surprisingly the most prized appears to be the ten-year-old male African elephant (Tomb 33) and the aurochs (Tomb 19), both requiring extraordinary efforts to acquire as probably neither were locally available at the time. Both were found alone in large, fenced tombs, wrapped in vast amounts of linen and matting. Whether they were endowed with additional grave goods remains unclear, but both were given a substantial final meal, as a great deal of it was still present inside them.

In addition to half-digested items of settlement debris, detailed analysis of the botanical content of the elephant’s final meal indicate that he dined on river plants, acacia twigs and emmer wheat, both chaff and grains, suggesting he was well maintained…

I believe (some) DNA studies have been conducted – or attempted – on various of the animal remains but do not have details here with me. More details can be found here –

Here are a few other egyptomania links – brought to you via April Fool’s day!

Posted in Egypt-Ancient | Leave a comment

Sacred Huts and Magical Aspects of Food

Robert Nassau, as David Livingstone before him, was a missionary, explorer, and recorder of people, geography and customs in the areas through which he traveled and lived.  Also, as Livingstone, he was a product of the colonial era of the nineteenth century, and thus his writing, analyses and claims should be read in relation to that historical and political paradigm.

. . . . . .

palm and plantain leaves made into clothing for the traditional doctor. Source, Rev. Nassau

Palm and plantain leaves have been made into clothing for this traditional doctor. Source, Rev. Nassau-Fetichism in West Africa. 

Earlier, I wrote the following about ‘magicality and food’

“Pre-modern cuisine in many parts of the world can be more fully understood not simply as a technical  ‘recipe’ to be constructed – but also in relation to the context in which it is situated.  Hence, there may be social, sexual, political, religious or other aspects that figure in the total recipe as presented in the finished product.  It is our Western proclivity to disassociate fact from context that may create difficulties in understanding a given cuisine in its totality.

“During his forty years of missionary work in west Africa, the Rev. Nassau seems to have learned this important fact – although it is not specifically stated as such in his works. To examine the approach he uses in incorporating what I shall call the ‘magicality of cuisine’  in an  otherwise secular dish.  I will talk about the role of  Sacred Huts and Magical Aspects of Food.”

Source – The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa



The Rev. Nassau explains:

In some part of the long single street of most villages is built a low hut, sometimes not larger than a dog-kennel, in which, among all tribes, are hung charms ; or by which is growing a consecrated plant (a lily, a cactus, a Euphorbia, or a Ficus). In some tribes a rudely carved human (generally female) figure stands in that hut, as an idol. Idols are rare among most of the coast tribes, but are common among all the interior tribes.

Votive hut next to a residential hut in Burundi, c. 1910. Source. Meyer-Barundi

Votive hut next to a residential hut in Burundi, c. 1910. Source. Meyer-Les Barundi: Une etude ethnologique en Afrique

That they are not now frequently seen on the Coast is, I think, not due to a lack of faith in them, but perhaps to a slight sense of civilized shame. The idol has been the material object most denounced by missionaries in their sermons against heathenism.

The half-awakened native hides it, or he manufactures it for sale to curio-hunters. A really valued idol, supposed to contain a spirit, he will not sell. He does not always hide his fetich charm worn on his person; for it passes muster in his explanation of its use as a ” medicine.”  That idol, charm, or plant, as the case may be, is believed for the time to be the residence of a spirit which is to be placated by offerings of some kind of food.

I have seen in those sacred huts a dish of boiled plantains (often by foreigners miscalled “bananas “) or a plate of fish. This food is generally not removed till it spoils. Sometimes, where the gift is a very large one, a feast is made; people and spirit are supposed to join in the festival, and nothing is left to spoil.

a-traditional-spiritual-hut-at-the-gate-of-kaya-kinondo.  the sacred mijikenda kaya forests - UNESCO: World Heritage sit

a-traditional-spiritual-hut-at-the-gate-of-kaya-kinondo. the sacred mijikenda kaya forests – UNESCO: World Heritage sit

That it is of use to the spirit is fully believed ; but just how, few have been able to tell me. Some say that the ” hfe ” ‘or essence of the food’ has been eaten by the spirit ; only the form of the vegetable or flesh remaining to be removed.

Decle [‘author of “Three Years in Savage Africa”] also describes the religious habits of the Barotse tribes of Southern Central Africa : ” They chiefly worship the souls of their ancestors. When any misfortune happens, the witch doctor divines with knuckle-bones whether the ancestor is displeased, and they go to the grave and offer up sacrifice of grain or honey. 

They also bring to the tombs cooked meats, which they leave there a few minutes and then eat.  When they go to pray by a grave, they also leave some small white beads. Whilst an Englishman was journeying to Lialui, he passed near a little wood where there lay a very venerated chief. The boatmen stopped, and having sacrificed some cooked millet, their headman designated a man to offer up  a prayer, which ran thus:

* You see us; we are worn out travellers, and our belly is empty ; inspire the white man, for whom we row, to give us food to fill our stomachs.’  “

 Among the Wanyamwezi, ” Every chief has near his hut a Musimo hut, in which the dead are supposed to dwell, and where sacrifices and offerings must be made. Meat and flour are deposited in the Musimo huts, and are not, as with many other peoples, consumed afterwards. The common people also have their Musimo huts, but they are smaller than that of the chief, and the offerings they make are, of course, not so important as his.

nassau-fetich-doctor-patch-hair-is-the-professional-tonsure.  Source, Rev. Nassau

fetich-doctor-patch-hair-is-the-professional-tonsure. Source, Rev. Nassau-Fetichism in West Africa.

Text source – Nassau-Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau. University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A. 1904.

Other entries in this series are:

  1.  The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  2.  The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon
  3. The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  4. The Magicality of Cuisine 4: Feeding the Soil a Stew of Leaves and Bark to Guarantee Successful Gardening, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
Posted in Africa-General, Cuisine, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic, Missionaries, Recipes, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hoard of Greek Coins from an Automatic Holy-water Machine in Egypt?

Mechanical inventions seem to have been quite popular among the elite Greek [and later] Roman populations of Egypt. During the time I was working at the Phoebe Hearst Museum at Berkeley, I came a cross a hoard of Greek coins – from the Tebtunis finds of Grenfell and Hunt – that had not been properly cataloged or recorded.

ps308925_l BM  pot-hoard from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos

ps308925_ BM pot-hoard from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos

A library search revealed a type of machine used at a temple that would allow a certain amount of holy water to be given in exchange for a coin. The hoard may well have been part of  such a machine at the Fayum in Egypt.

The pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria 21. Source -

The Pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria 21. Source – Pneumatics

The Greek coins, part of the finds of Grenfell and Hunt in their excavations in the Fayum,  were associated with literally thousands of manuscripts – some of which – as seen in the following picture – had been reduced to a confetti size:

A suitcase full of parchment pieces, Fayum 1931. Source -

A suitcase full of the cellar papyri, Fayum 1931. Source – tebtunis.berkeley,edu

An extraordinary cache of papyri, apparently dumped as rubbish with a few objects (coins, statuettes, etc.), in some priests’ rooms along the western side of the enclosure wall, was uncovered in stages, first by Grenfell and Hunt, then perhaps by Rubensohn, then by sebakhin, and lastly in 1931, when the Italian expedition cleared out the two underlying cellars. [Suitcase A of the cellar papyri]

The cache comprised thousands of documents, most of which are still unpublished. The upper layers consisted mainly of private and administrative documents concerning the affairs of the priests and temple (like those cited above), of the first to mid-third centuries AD.

The lower layers contained mostly religious, literary, scientific and reference texts in Greek, demotic, hieratic and hieroglyphic, mainly of the same period, but including some ‘antique’ documents. These texts must have come from the temple library, the ‘House of Life’, or from the priests’ own collections …

Source – Dominic Rathbone, A Town Full of Gods: Imagining Religious Experience in Roman Tebtunis (Egypt)

Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Souirce - Wiki

Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Source – Wiki

The first keyboard musical instrument and the ancestor of the modern church organ, the hydraulis was invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in the 3rd Century B.C.

This video tells the story of the ancient hydraulis and its modern reconstruction and includes a performance of this remarkable instrument.

Source – The Ancient Hydraulis

Picture below is a reconstructed hydraulis – the only example of the Roman instrument.


From ancient times, several texts have survived that contain technical descriptions of the Roman water organ. Heron of Alexandria describes in his book ” pneumatics “a simple organ type with a piston pump and a register. Julius Pollux, who lived in the second half of the 1st century AD, distinguishes between small organs that are operated with bellows and large instruments that use water. 

Source – The Roman Hydraulis

THE PNEUMATICS OF Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced. Source - HERO OF ALEXANDRIA

THE PNEUMATICS OF Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced. Source – HERO OF ALEXANDRIA

Here are several links to performances – from here, I’m having trouble with them, perhaps you can link to at least one; the first is quite nice:

Ginsberg-Klar, Maria E. 1981. “The Archaeology of Musical Instruments in Germany during the Roman Period“. World Archaeology 12, no. 3

12th Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People and 9th Camera Zizanio, opening ceremony, December 5, 2009 at Apollon theatre, Pyrgos, Greece.
Hydraulis, the earliest organ.

Source – You Tube link

Web links: ( )

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