Mesopotamia: the Cradle of Wine Culture

The wild grapevine is an ancient species of wild flowering climbing plant. The Vitis sylvestris from which all modern grape-bearing vines are descended was endemic across North Africa and Eurasia for over 400,000 years before anyone had the bright idea of cultivating them. Research has shown that two simultaneous domestication events occurred around 9000 BCE. One took place in the South Caucasus (modern-day Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), and the other in the Near East (modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan). It is from these two epicenters that the cultivation of the vine expanded. There is also evidence of fermented wine and liquor production in 7000 BCE in China in Jiahu in the Henan Province that was honey-based. 

One of the original cradles of wine drinking was the civilization of Mesopotamia and more specifically that of the Sumerians. The fertile valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers allowed Mesopotamians to play a vital role in cultivating, producing, and transporting wine.  It is no accident that the first agricultural revolution is synonymous with the first vinous revolution. 

The Sumerians appreciated the intoxicating properties of wine and its role in religious and cultural settings. Wine was associated with the divine and played a crucial role in religious ceremonies and rituals. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest foundational works of literature, the figure of Silduri “the girl who makes wine” is the guardian of the knowledge of how to achieve a connection with the Beyond. This was the beginning of the use of wine in sacramental (public) settings and in mystery religions, in which individuals engage directly with the divine. 

Wine production in Mesopotamia was a meticulous process. Grapes were harvested and crushed to extract their juices and were then fermented in large clay vessels. Clay vessels, called amphorae, were the common containers which are used for storing and transporting liquids. These amphorae had a narrow neck and a wide body, allowing for easy storage and transportation while minimizing exposure to air.

As trade networks expanded, wine became a valuable commodity, and its transportation became a crucial aspect of commerce in Mesopotamia. The waterways of the Tigris and Euphrates made moving goods, including wine, an efficient and cost-effective method across the region. 

Ur, was an important very early Sumerian city-state, and served as a hub for trade and commerce. Archaeological evidence suggests that the people of Ur engaged in extensive trade, exporting goods such as textiles, grains, and wine to distant regions. The transportation of wine via river routes allowed for access to markets that were otherwise challenging to reach by land.

Trade and commercial regulations existed in the Code of Ur-Nammu written around 2100-2050 BCE. It includes provisions related to the quality of goods, pricing, and penalties for fraudulent practices. While it doesn't explicitly mention wine, it reflects the importance of fair-trade practices in the region, which would have undoubtedly included the trade of valuable commodities like wine.

In addition to river transport, overland trade routes played a role in the distribution of wine. Caravans consisting of donkeys and carts traversed the rugged terrain, connecting Mesopotamia with neighboring regions. Trade is never a one-way trip. These exchanges of goods inevitably led to cultural exchanges, influencing the spread of viticulture and habits of sociable wine consumption.

Neighboring countries like Assyria and Babylon felt the influence of this cultural exchange for centuries. The Phoenicians, further spread the knowledge of winemaking using their strong sea-faring abilities across the Mediterranean, directly leading to the wine cultures of ancient Greece and Rome and thus to our own. modern industry

The origins of wine in Mesopotamia are deeply intertwined with regional, agricultural, and cultural advancements. The rigors applied to the making and preservation of wine and its subsequent significance in religious and social contexts laid the foundation for its trade and transportation further and further afield. The use of seaways and overland caravan routes to transport wine in sealed containers set the scene for the widespread distribution of wine across the ancient world, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to shape the global wine industry of today.

Photo courtesy: Getty Images

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Understanding The Wine Basics