Occasions for Banquets. In ancient Mesopotamia rulers held banquets to celebrate military victories and successful hunts. During the first half of the third millennium b.c.e., banquets were held in connection with agrarian festivals, while, in the mid second millennium b.c.e., the Hittites in Anatolia celebrated a banquet in connection with their Sacred Marriage rite. In the first millennium b.c.e. the practice of holding a funeral banquet appears to have entered Mesopotamia from Egypt. Artworks usually depict banqueters sitting down, but on occasion they are shown standing. Beginning in the mid-seventh century b.c.e., reclining at a banquet became increasingly popular, spreading from Syria eastward into Mesopotamia and westward into Anatolia and the Greek world.
Early Banquets. A late fourth millennium b.c.e. seal impression on a door sealing from Choga Mish in southwest Persia shows a seated figure being offered a vessel by a standing figure. Behind him are a variety of other vessels and musicians playing a harp, a drum, and clappers. During the third millennium b.c.e., banquet scenes were often depicted on cylinder seals and impressions, votive plaques, inlays, and sculptures. Banquet guests drank beer through long tubes from large jars and wine, perhaps made from dates, from small cups. One of the mosaic panels on the Standard of Ur, excavated from the Royal Graves at Ur (circa 2600 - circa 2500 b.c.e.), depicts a banquet, which may have taken place after a battle depicted on another panel on the Standard. The banquet also seems to have religious overtones. The principal figure, perhaps the king, and six other seated men
holding drinking cups are attended by four men while a lyre player and singer provide entertainment.
A Ten-Day Feast. In an inscription on a stone block placed near his throne room, the Assyrian king Ashurnasir-pal II (883–859 b.c.e.) commemorated a banquet celebrating the opening of his new palace and royal gardens in the capital city of Kalhu (modern Nimrud). At this ten-day feast, he hosted Ashur (the Assyrian national god) and the other gods of his country, together with 69,574 human guests, including 47,074 men and women from all over his kingdom; 5,000 delegates from Suhu, Khindana, Khattina, Hatti, Tyre, Sidon, Gurguma, Malida, Khubushka, Gil-zana, Kuma, and Musasir; 16,000 inhabitants of Kalhu from all walks of life; and 1,500 palace officials. The menu included vast quantities of cattle, calves, sheep, lambs, stags, gazelles, ducks, geese, doves, fish, jerboa, eggs, bread, beer, wine, pickled and spiced vegetables and fruits, oil, salted seeds, pomegranates, grapes, pistachios, garlic, onions, honey, rendered butter, milk, cheese, dates, and olives. Ashurnasirpal concluded his inscription with the boast that he had provided his guests with the means to clean and anoint themselves, did them due honors, and sent them home healthy and happy.
A Private Celebration. One carving among the many reliefs that decorate the palaces of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (668 - circa 627 b.c.e.) at Nineveh shows the king celebrating after his victory over the Elamite king Teumman, whose capital was at Susa in southwest Iran. In the midst of a beautiful tree-lined garden, in the shade of a vine trained on an arbor overhead, Ashurbanipal reclines on a couch. This relief is the earliest depiction of such a posture in ancient Mesopotamian art. With a blanket thrown over his legs, he holds a flower in his left hand and lifts a cup with his right. Facing him, his queen, also holding a flower and drinking cup, sits stiffly in a high-back throne decorated with ivory inlays. Incense burners, fan bearers, and musicians flank the banqueters as birds sit or fly about in the trees. Dangling from a high branch in one tree is the severed head of Teumman.
A ROYAL FUNERARY BANQUET
Banquets were given for the dead as well as the living. Excavations near the ancient Phrygian city of Gordion in Anatolia—at an enormous, fifty-three-meter-high, three-hundred-meter-diameter burial tumulus, dating to the eighth century b.c.e.—uncovered a wooden burial chamber that was initially said to be the grave of king Mita (the rich and famous king Midas of Greek legend), although that attribution is now considered doubtful. The deceased, a man aged sixty to sixty-five, was laid out on a thick pile of dyed textiles in a massive four-poster bed surrounded by beautiful pieces of furniture, as well as cauldrons, ladles, jugs, bowls, and bronze and pottery vessels some of which contained residues of food. Chemical analysis revealed that the menu for the fbneraty feast, which may have accommodated as many as one hundred guests, included a spicy stew of lentils and barbecued sheep or goat and a beverage made from a mixture of grape wine, barley beer, and honey mead. Leftovers and dirty dishes were placed in large cauldrons and left in the burial chamber.
Source: Patrick E. McGovem and others, “A funerary feast fit for King Midas” Nature, 402 (December 1999); 863–864.
Collon, “Banquets in the Art of the Ancient Near East,” in Banquets d’Orient, Res Orientales, 4 (Bures-sur-Yvette, France: Groupe pour 1’etude de la civilisation de Moyen-Orient / Louvain: Peeters, 1992), pp. 23–29.
Louis Francis Hartman and A. Leo Oppenheim, On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia, supplement to the Journal of the American Oriental Society, no. 10 (Baltimore: American Oriental Society, 1950).
Henri Limet, “The Cuisine of Ancient Sumer,” Biblical Archaeologist, 50 (1987): 132–147.
A. Leo Oppenheim, “The Banquet of Ashurnasirpal II,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, edited by James Bennett Pritchard, third edition with supplement (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 558–560.
Jane M. Renfrew, “Vegetables in the Ancient Near East,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), I:192–202.