Alexander the Great had an enormous influence on the ancient world, as we all know, as a result of the Greek conqueror’s military campaigns across the Near East, including Egypt, and reaching as far East as India.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
The evolution of customs, flavors and rituals linking food to the sacred and divine had an enormous upheaval during and after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
In this second article in a series of three, we continue to retrace the march and the journey that built the foundations of a new common cultural identity and, indeed, introduced new flavors and gastronomic influences to and from the Near East.
The second stop of this cultural journey brings us to the most ancient civilization that Alexander encountered, the Egyptian: which, despite having been annexed to the Persian empire for decades, never completely absorbed the Achaemenid culture, keeping its own ancient identity intact.
In 332 BC Alexander, just twenty-four years old, and his army decided to slow their expansion into Asia and march to Memphis, then the capital of Egypt.
Alexander the Great Welcomed in Egypt as Savior and Liberator
Without any battles or negotiations, the young Macedonian king was immediately welcomed as a savior, the liberator from long years of Persian oppression.
Egyptian culture and spirituality had a strong impact on Alexander, who tried to integrate himself into the customs and traditions of Egypt rather than subjugating the people of which he was the new king — and pharaoh.
In this period we have a real transformation of his character; in fact, during his visit to the oracle of the god Amon, Alexander revealed his true identity: he was no longer Alexander, the son of Philip, but Alexander, the son of Ammon (Zeus).
This fact profoundly changed the young warrior king and his future ambitions.
Although he remained there for only one year, the influence he had on the future history of Egypt was very powerful, to the extent that he is remembered even today as one of the most important pharaohs.
However, the aspect we are going to analyze and discuss is the one of gastronomic culture and of everything that revolves around the table.
Egyptian culinary culture had already come in contact with the Hellenic world through maritime exchanges; however, with the arrival of the Macedonian empire, the collision between the two worlds created a revolution, laying the foundations of some of the alimentary habits and customs which are still current.
Unlike the Persian world, in terms of conviviality and the act of dining, the land of pharaohs shared a great deal with Greece: food had to be a means of sustenance, and was simply the basis of nutrition.
Even royal banquets, despite the luxury and superb quality of the ingredients, were moderate in nature, both in quantity and in the way people sat around the table.
So what were the innovations brought by two countries, which were already so similar in this way?
Egyptian beer became a fixture at tables
Most likely just the peace and prosperity which characterized the two nations at the time allowed an exchange of ideas and a much faster comparison, as we have many examples of how the union between the two cultures influenced the contemporary table.
The culture of beer making and drinking, both in the Egyptian territory and in the rest of the Persian empire, is well known to everyone; however in the Greek world, despite it being consumed, it never had a leading role on tables since it has always been considered a “barbaric,” or low-class, beverage.
The dramatist Aeschylus even pronounced the following sentence when talking about Egyptians: “they are not real men, but men who drink barley wine.”
However, with the arrival of Alexander in Egypt the consumption of beer by Greek people was increased greatly; but even more important was the Greek economic expansion, which created a global market that had never existed before.
Moreover, new methods of flavoring beer were invented: why? Because the scarce Greek knowledge about the production of the famous blonde drink brought to the ears of Egyptians new ideas and new aromas to be discovered.
Humble Lettuce Considered an Aphrodisiac by Egyptians
For example the addition of cheese during fermentation, which was not necessary and had never been used by Egyptians until that time.
Another very important food that we consume today, but whose origins we most likely do not know its real origin, is botargo: a food obtained by salting and drying the eggs of mullet, a type of fish which were plenteous in the Nile.
Alexander’s army was amazed by the knowledge of the Egyptians about the preservation of these eggs and above all by their taste, so much so as to make a good stock of them, being a perfect food for the long journey to Asia.
Lettuce, which for Greeks and Romans was a food of little importance, in the Egyptian world was considered to be an aphrodisiac. It was mainly eaten raw and lightly seasoned.
Therefore, the Greek food habit of eating raw and cooked vegetables with the addition of spices and cheese, together with the large-scale use of lettuce in Egypt, could have brought to light the ancestor of a kind of food we all consume today — salads.
Tzatziki May be of Egyptian Origin
Regarding the arrival of new vegetables after the conquest of Egypt by the Macedonians, we should probably give credit for the birth of tzatziki, the famous Hellenic sauce, to this cultural collision between Greece and Egypt.
As a matter of fact, a sauce with yogurt and garlic was already consumed by Greeks before Alexander, but considering the huge consumption and importance of cucumber in the Egyptian diet, the sauce now famous all over the world could have been born right there.
The most extraordinary food found by Alexander in Egypt was what we know today as foie gras, that is the fatty liver of breeding ducks.
The staple of traditional French cuisine has its origins on the banks of the Nile, where the breeding of birds was the basis of the Egyptians’ diet and especially of grand pharaonic banquets.
So how did a food so rooted in Egyptian culture arrive in Europe — especially without a military conquest by the army of Egypt?
It was thanks to the importation of these recipes by Macedonians, later adopted by Romans: in fact, the custom of feeding ducks and geese with dried figs in order to enlarge their liver was later attributed to Roman gastronome Marco Gavio Apicio.
Last but not least, we must give honor to the greatest cultural revolution of the encounter between the two worlds: Alexander, captured by those lands until then considered barbarian, wanted at all costs to build on the Egyptian coast the city that most of all represents the Macedonian splendor: Alexandria.
It was founded by Alexander himself in 331 B.C. with the help of the architect Dinocrates of Rhodes. It was a modern city and incredibly advanced for its time.
It was the first city founded with the aim of unifying all the cultures known and conquered by the Greeks; although the capital of the empire was Babylon, Alexander recognized in Alexandria the true fulcrum of the spirit of union and glory that he wanted to pass on.
It was there that the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world was born, the famous Library of Alexandria, a place that not only housed the largest collection of manuscripts of every category, but was also born as a center for scientific research, and also included the first-ever museum of human history.
Ancient Recipes Survive — Perhaps Because of Library of Alexandria
But how does this relate to the realm of gastronomy?
Although the material in the ancient library was burned and lost, it was there that the concept of a culinary archive was born. Although all the scrolls that once were housed in this treasure trove were lost, some of them were copied and the information contained in them lives on elsewhere.
It is certain that even before the birth of Alexandria, it was recorded that there were books about gastronomy; such a collection and a gathering of manuscripts from various cultures is the basis of culinary knowledge passed down in a systematic, careful manner.
It has long been noted by historians that Alexander, after the encounter with the Egyptian world, would never be the same, increasing his spirituality and reaching for personal growth on a much more esoteric level.
But it is probably also thanks to his new consciousness and beliefs that he met an absolutely legendary, but inevitably destructive destiny, as he set out to conquer the rest of the known world.
The union between these two great civilizations under the same empire changed the history and culture of the world in every aspect, laying a solid foundation for a common Mediterranean identity.
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.