At the Dawn of Civilization: The Wine Culture of Mesopotamia
Author: Oleg Cherne
The history of the grape dates back 15 million years. But the first country where wine became an important part of social life was Mesopotamia, the land on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates in modern-day Iran. This region is often referred to as the cradle of civilization, but it is no less the cradle of wine culture. Could it be that civilization started with wine?
Nowadays it’s difficult to ascertain what the citizens of Mesopotamia made from grapes and how, but we can confidently state that the cornerstone of the world’s oldest wine culture was social in nature. From the evidence discovered on clay jars found in the Tigris Valley dated 3,000 BC, the Mesopotamians are known to have mixed wine with beer, honey and apple juice.
According to Herodotus, grapes for the most ancient wine were brought there from the Zagros Mountains (stretching from Kurdistan to the Strait of Hormuz, south of Iran). But the fact that bottles were sealed with branded corks typical of Mesopotamia only drives us to the conclusion that grapes grew there as well. Which means that Mesopotamia isn’t just the birthplace of wine culture, but also the region where grapes were first discovered.
The history of the oldest of the known civilizations starts in approximately 4,000 BC, when the first Sumerian settlements were formed in the valley of the Euphrates River. The language of the Sumerians, who also invented the alphabet, has no affinity with any modern languages. Supposedly, the Sumerians belonged to an ancient Mediterranean race, but there is also evidence that these people used to live in the mountains.
Approximately during the same period of time, the Semites from Arabia (the Akkadians, Assyrians, etc.) came to this region as well. These proto-Arabians originate from the ancient Afro-Asiatic group, which also gave rise to many African nationalities, everywhere from Egypt and Chad, to Tanzania and Cameroon.
The chronology of wine
Back around the start of 3,000 BC, disparate clans fought for the land and resources in that region with no particular cosmological or religious system. One god stand out among the first Sumerian gods — Enki, the god of wisdom and power, the god who connected the worlds of the living and the dead, and also the god of liquids. The first deliberate act of making and drinking fermented beverages, and the beginning of wine and beer culture itself, is indelibly linked to his name.
Collecting wine into vessels was the first attempt to control a volume, or sum of various energies. The Sumerian written language was formed in a similar way: it was accumulated, so to speak, «collected into pots» and then transformed into cuneiform, which later expanded enormously throughout large territories and numerous nations. Therefore, wine culture and the alphabet had the same basis, and were most likely developed simultaneously.
In the 1,500-year progression of their culture, the Sumerians formed a very curious system of perceiving space, which they divided into horizontal, vertical and tangent planes. The phenomena and events connected to the vertical plane are planets and stars, regulated from top to bottom according to their frequency of perception. There are seven frequencies, the top of which is An, or the god of An.
The horizontal plane is connected to water, including underground water. Waters carries the true forces that nurture wheat and grapes. These forces were impersonated in ancient deities, the spouses Ennugi (god of water) and Sadali (his wife, who was responsible for creation and birth).
The Sumerians produced an invigorating drink from wheat and grape. This drink we can in fact see in the epic of the Sumerian king (‘ensi’, Sumer.) called Bilgamesh or, in its Akkadian (Semite) variant — the Epic of Gilgamesh, which had acquired its own form by the end of 3,000 BC.
This king of the state-city of Uruk fought the gods of Inanna (Ishtar, Akkad.) and An, who were the symbols of the world structure, to obtain immortality. Thus, the quest for immortality consisted in defining this structure and the power that expressed it.
The story of Gilgamesh and Ishtar also mentions the search for the drink of life, which was apparently wine. We can find evidence of this in clay tablets discovered during excavations of the temple of Ishtar in Uruk (around 3,000 BC). Back then, the cult of Ishtar was just starting to develop. The Sumerians expressed the force of wine through the image of the goddess Geshtinanna (‘vine of the sky’, Sumer.).
The Sumerians and Assyrians invented wine rituals, and held them to solve two tasks. One of these was to lead the spirits of the deceased into the kingdom of the dead, and the second and main one was to create a connection with the divine. To achieve this goal, the Sumerians created buildings and vessels that symbolized the links between the world of the elements, and the divine world.
To help ancient people tap into a certain frequency from this system, its rhythm, they needed a special structure, in this case expressed in the cult of fertility. That cult helped the Sumerians and Assyrians become filled with divine power, and connect to god, among other things, by consuming the beverage that contained that power.
The rest — anthems, poems — were purely formal and practical in their nature. The first poetry about wine dates back to the period of the rise of the Sumerian city of Uruk, ruled by Anu, the god of the sky, and Gilgamesh. The second most important force here is the goddess Ninhusag, whom Hammurabi, the legendary king of the Sumero-Akkadian Babylon, later claimed to be his mother.
In that period, wine was a sacred drink, and only people with a special status were allowed to drink it. One alternative versions claims that ancient wine was made from dates.
Wine culture originated from the cult of fertility in approximately 2,600-2,500 BC in the «land between the rivers.» Before this, the Sumerians knew how to make beer, which played a similar role that wine would later adopt. The appearance of wine gave birth to new traditions in the development of agriculture and astrology.
Before Meksalamdug, king of the Sumerian city of Ur, ascended to the throne in 2,400 BC, wine was seen as a gift from the gods, a materialized divine substance, the natural force of which was to be worshiped and not explained.
Attempts to actually determine the functions of wine might have begun in the time of the government of Meksalamdug. One such function is the granting of totemic power to wine. Wine at the time expressed not just any power, but the power of a certain place and its characteristics. During the time of Meskalamdug’s rule, the first symbol of the grape gained prominence: the bull, a totemic animal and symbol of fertility. In fact, the fusion of the bull cult and the wine cult are the first attempts to define the quality of terroir and its soil, and to create a correlation between the power of a place and cosmic forces.
We can also probably witness in this a reflection of rhythm, an important value in Sumerian culture. Rhythm was connected to the sacred rite of copulation and the fertile forces of earth. This rite represented the magic connection between the king and the bull, or Earth. Throughout the span of Mesopotamian culture, the fertilization of land is linked to the search for immortality, expressed in the symbols of the bull and wine.
It’s difficult to say if this had any practical meaning, but it’s worth mentioning that the beginning of World War I coincided in time with the excavations of Ur and discovering the grave of king Meksalamdug and queen Puabi.
Physics of the Divine
King Sargon (Sarrukin, Akkad.) played an important role in the history of Mesopotamia, because not only did he found the kingdom of Akkadia, but also consolidated the Semite nations in 2,400 BC. He formed nomes, or city-states, that determined the understanding of springs, water and grapes. The name Sargon is also associated with the first wine storage area, which served only for its intended purpose, but also as a part of the temple, which was a sacred part of the city. That is how wine became associated with particular forms.
Here, wine jars served as vessels that carried power, and it was possible to increase the potential of a place, or at least stabilize it by adding more. One expression of a divine vessel was the legendary statue of Gudea (the ruler of the Sumerian city of Lagash in the 22nd century BC), dedicated to the god Ningirsu (Gudea’s personal deity), which expressed connection with the world of the gods.
Consequently, some of the vessels, among which include entire cities, served to preserve energy, while others were used as connectors. The statue becomes a bridge between the human and the divine, and man’s main task was to nurture it. Feeding it with wine was its main method of nutrition; the Sumerians were literally animating the statue.
This procedure dates back to 2,000 BC, the time of the widespread expansion of the cult of Ishtar. Both wine and the goddess were associated with Venus, the planet symbolizing ecstatic conditions. The cult of winemaking as a deliberate activity goes hand in hand with female characters. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar set off for the land of the dead and was brought back to life with the help of wine, which means that wine has close connections to the water of life. This is how wine transforms from a power into a process.
Moreover, the quest for the water of life, i.e. wine, is the basis of almost every Sumerian myth. For example, Gilgamesh was trying to understand life with the help of the Plant of the Sun, meaning the grape. It was believed to bring life back to the deceased.
According to one theory, the Uruk goddess was a personification of a real woman, the king’s wife. The understanding and role of wine developed with the growth of the great ancient state, especially concerning its role in cultivating feelings. For the ancient Sumerians, wine was a product that enriched feelings. This was their divine revelation. Feelings were sacred, they had a special power that helped build an empire.
Reanimating the statue with wine boosted the cult of this drink. Wine was not just an attribute of deities, it became a deity and divine entity itself.
Throughout this process of reanimation, we are especially interested in material that interacted with wine, i.e. the psychological archetype of a deity. Such an attitude has a scientific explanation. Wine, seawater and vinegar produce a constant electric current up to 5 mA (depending on the level of electrolytes), and have a voltage of 0.5 V. This means that certain organizations of elements can create vibrations, and these vibrations can be tuned.
Since each deity had its own corresponding frequency, as stated above, the Sumerians are theorized to have attempted to tune this frequency by experimenting with wine. Certain characteristics of wine were the key to obtaining divine power. Therefore, wine served as a conductor of inestimable importance.
In fact, this means that in Mesopotamia, the oldest winemaking region, wine was an aspect that linked together almost all spheres of life. It does not come as a surprise that the ancients mixed it with other liquids and experimented with its form.
Wine symbolized the fundamentals of our world, and without it, the connection to the gods would have been lost. Since the connection to the divine was the supreme value, wine was the supreme truth. It appears as though the taste of wine did not matter as much as its properties, because they defined the actions of the people of those times.
Possibly the most ancient city in the world, Ganj Dareh (around 8,500 BC), located in the Zagros Mountains, was also built thanks to wine. This was a city-vessel, or perhaps even a city-terroir. Its primary purpose was to connect people to the gods, and not some utilitarian function like residency. In other words, the city was designed to accumulate energy, not people’s dwellings. It was only later when houses were built along the axis of energy. Similar observations can be drawn about Jericho (Palestine) and Çatalhöyük (Anatolia, Turkey). Therefore, the concepts of cities and wine consolidated in ancient times.
The wine temple of King Gudea
In the 22nd century BC, a curious event takes place, bypassed by many researchers of wine history, where wine is associated with the mineral diorite, used to make statues. This practice is often attributed to the ruling of king Gudea in the city-state of Lagash, where all social life revolved around temples.
During this period, the notion that statues should be rinsed with wine becomes important. It is also connected in certain ways to a land of no return. Here we observe attempts to improve not the wine, but the objects it interacts with. Similar actions can be noted in the culture of the great tribes of pre-Colombian America: the Anasazis and Hohokam, who strengthened their astral city with solar metal.
One of the most fascinating temples of Mesopotamia was created during the ruling of Gudea: the temple of the god Ningirsu devoted to sacred water, which probably meant wine. During the construction of this temple, Gudea received help from «numerous gods» after he «visited» the frequencies of the spheres connected to the temple. The inscriptions made by Gudea on statues and jars show that many things were subject to an unnamed force.
Wine played a key role in this process: everything from copper chalices and sacred baskets, to bricks of a particular shape were filled with clay soaked in wine. In fact, here we witness a particular form of wine construction. This isn’t surprising if we remember that back then, wine was treated not as a drink, but a mineral.
The orientation towards the Sun and the temple’s solar connection explain a lot. There are several theories explaining why the temple was lined with a coat two-palms thick to protect the wine stones from sunlight. Since the temple was lined, it is hard to understand how and why it expressed the notion of sacred water. In this building, we can see what is most likely the prototype of a wine cellar, constructed according to divine proportions to ensure the transformation of wine.
Here we can also find an inscription that describes the vital power of Shulshagan, son of Gatumdag, and daughter of the supreme god An. It is worth noting that king Gudea himself was birthed by a priestess, and he called Gatumdag his mother. It appears as though in the process of conception, priestesses were given divine properties. One of the names of Gatumdag, the protector of Lagash, was «the Sacred Cow,» another link to the sacred totem of bull and wine.
Wine, an act of will
The final stage of wine culture in Mesopotamia is associated with the complicated period of the Gutian people from Zagros, relatives of modern-day Dagestani. The invasion of the Gutians caused the fall of the Akkadian kingdom. However, at the same time wine culture spread all across the «land between the rivers,» and took on different traits depending on the tasks and goals of every tribe.
In this period, the position of wine and attitudes towards it gain more traction. The attitude to wine is what attracted other tribes to nomes, who longed to finally obtain this area connected to the cult of wine, because they considered it a place of power. It should be mentioned that in those times, wars and the destruction of memorials were not just barbarous acts, but deliberate actions to cut the connection between states and the sources that gave them power, as the people of those ancient times believed.
Just stating facts is one thing, but trying to understand the reason behind them is different. For example, while Akkadian rulers presented gifts to statues, the Gutian tribes, who claimed to possess enormous power, instead sought ways to fortify it. It is known that the rulers of Lagash Ur-Bau and Gudea did not just pay tributes to the Gutians, but received help from them to build temples.
It is for this reason that the fall of Sumerian civilization and the Akkadian kingdom did not change people’s attitudes towards wine. Regardless of states were formed on the territory of Mesopotamia, the key factors for their growth and stability were the nomes, or city-states, built according to certain proportions that allowed their citizens to accumulate power.
After a period of feeding wine to symbols and statues, it was presented to the rulers on earth, who represented divine powers. Accepting wine is an act of human will, which is to be nurtured. This aspect probably hadn’t existed before that, due to the strong urge of humans to worship higher forces and admit their power over the creatures of a lower order.
We can confidently state that during the period from the 24th to 22nd century BC, people consumed wine as a deliberate act of will and expression of development, and that is what characterized the wine culture of that time.
In the 18th century BC came the great king Hammurabi (1792-1750), who conquered the entirety of Mesopotamia. He was the one who created the famous code of laws, which rejoiced Ishtar, and whose gates, which are still preserved today, proudly decorated the great city. The Aryans, who replaced the Babylonians, consolidated the wine culture existing before them.
Up until the end of the second millennium BC, when the Assyrians began to dominate Mesopotamia, the wine cult had strong influence. Before the 7th century BC, wine remained a luxury for the rich, but this is already a different period in the history of Mesopotamia. The dominating positions in the region are overtaken by the New Babylonian kingdom of Chaldea, and the Hitties, Phrygians, Lydians, Luwians, Hurrians, Carians, Persians, Medians, Parthians, Scythians come forward… bringing forth a new chapter in the history of wine culture.