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Wine and beer are an integral part of the socio-cultural landscape – from the most sacred rituals to everyday use. Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times, on view at The Jewish Museum from July 30 to November 5, 2000, presents 5,000 years of drinking culture in the eastern Mediterranean and Near East through an exhibition of over 180 objects including art, artifacts and paraphernalia of the trade. Organized by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, this exhibition explores two of the oldest known beverages, valued throughout time for their abilities to lift spirits, inspire religious fervor, deaden pain and cure illness. It examines the subject of wine and beer in antiquity – from methods of production to drinking customs – and presents the central role of these two beverages in religious and secular contexts, on special occasions and in everyday use. Drink and Be Merry focuses on the wine regions of Rome, Greece and Israel and the grain-rich lands of Mesopotamia and Egypt, from the fourth millennium BCE until the decline in the consumption of alcoholic beverages with the spread of Islam in the seventh century CE. Drink and Be Merry: Wine and Beer in Ancient Times is sponsored by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc. with support from other generous funders. Objects on view are being lent by major museums and private collections in Israel, the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands. The majority of the objects are loaned courtesy of the Israel Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The exhibition examines the production and marketing processes for the two beverages, as well as the ways in which they were used over time in cultic ritual, ceremonial and victory feasts, secular banquets and festive family meals. The rich array of artifacts includes decorative and practical drinking and serving vessels; storage containers; depictions of grapevines, harvest scenes, wine transports and banquets in stone reliefs, vessels and mosaics; and wooden models of breweries. Highlights of the exhibition are a portion of a famed Dead Sea Scroll that refers to the ancient Festival of Tirosh (new wine) and jars inscribed to King Herod that demonstrate his exotic taste for imported Italian wines. Ritual objects and statuary from many cultures are included, such as representations of Dionysus and his followers and special tubular vessels used in ancient Israelite cult practices. Emphasis is placed on Israel, once an important site of wine production and the import/export trade.

Visitors to the exhibition can see recreations of an ancient wine shop – complete with storage jugs, jars and strainers, a rare lion-headed measuring table and a stone relief depicting a wine transaction – and a Roman banquet room. The banquet room features music and three couches for the revelers (and Museum visitors) to recline on, arranged around a beautiful mosaic floor depicting a scene from the Aeneid. Serving tables and luxury vessels used to dispense and drink wine are also included.

Since antiquity, wine and beer have been valued for their power to help transcend everyday existence, becoming major components in religious ceremonies and secular celebrations. Wine and beer are among the oldest alcoholic beverages known, originating in at least the sixth through fourth millennia BCE in the lands of the ancient Near East. From there they spread westward, first to Greece and then to the Roman Empire. Mesopotamia and Egypt were known as beer-drinking lands, since they were rich in the grains used to make beer, while grapes were difficult to cultivate in their hot, dry climates. However, in the land of Israel, Greece and the Roman Empire, wine was the primary drink. The land of Israel, in addition, played a significant role in wine production from early times.

Beer, produced mainly from wheat and barley, was generally regarded as an inexpensive, popular drink. Wine, however, was originally rare and costly, and most people only tasted it on festivals and special occasions. Over time wine consumption grew more widespread, and it became the most common drink in public and private ceremonies and celebrations. The Jewish sages even said, “One in whose home wine does not flow like water is not blessed.”

The earliest evidence of wine production comes from the mountainous regions of Iran in the sixth millennium BCE, appearing in Israel some 2,000 years later. The ancients conceived of wine as both beneficial and harmful, and the first biblical reference to viticulture already associated the grapevine with drunkenness: “Noah…was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank the wine and became drunk…” (Genesis 9:20-21). The process of producing wine began with the harvesting of grapes, which were cut down with pruning hooks, placed in baskets, and taken immediately to a nearby winepress. The juice was extracted from the grapes by treading; the fruit residue – called the marc – was further squeezed in mechanical presses. After the last drop of juice had been extracted, it was left to ferment in pottery vessels. The beverage was usually consumed within three or four years of production, though classical sources refer to wines that were ten and even sixteen years old.

The ancients believed that the gods were the inventors of wine. For this reason, wine occupied a prominent position in the cults of the ancient Near East. It was given as offerings and poured as libations, and it played an important role in religious events. Vast quantities of wine were brought to temples, drunk at feasts in honor of the gods, and used in meals commemorating the deceased. In the land of Israel during the first millennium BCE, wine libations were made in the Jerusalem Temple usually as an accompaniment to other offerings. However, no vessels have been discovered that were definitively used for wine rituals. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, wine became an essential component of all Jewish ceremonies and festivals, sanctifying life cycle events and holidays as well as forming an important component of Purim and Passover celebrations. In ancient Greece and Rome, wine was associated with the cult of Dionysus – or Bacchus as he was called by the Romans – the god of wine, fertility, and vegetation. Dionysus was worshipped in festivals characterized by unrestrained behavior, the consumption of large quantities of alcoholic beverages, and orgies held in honor of the god.

As far back as the fourth millennium BCE, wine was being exported from the grape-growing regions of the Near East to those lands that could not support viticulture. By the first millennium BCE ships sailed all over the Mediterranean carrying cargoes of wine from one port to another. As the wine trade developed, methods of packaging and transporting wine also evolved. The earliest and most common shipping vessels were pottery jars, carried either over land on the backs of animals or by sea on ships. It is estimated that a 50-to 60-foot boat could carry a cargo of 2,000 to 3,000 jars of wine. Wineskins were used for storing and transporting wine from at least the eighteenth century BCE. With the spread of mass-produced glass starting in the first century CE, wine was shipped in glass flasks, the forerunners of the glass bottles of today. In the second to third centuries CE, large quantities of wine were transported in wooden casks. Such casks were advantageous because they could store wine for longer periods of time than other containers.

Perhaps the most famous banquet of ancient times was the Greek symposium, one of the most common forms of recreation in Classical Greece. The symposium was an all-male drinking party that was held in well-to-do homes after the evening meal. These gatherings were usually of an intellectual nature. As they drank wine, the guests conversed about general topics or held a serious discussion on a theme decided upon in advance. Respectable women and children were not permitted to attend. The only women present were the heterae (courtesans), who entertained the guests by playing musical instruments, dancing, conversing, and even engaging in sexual orgies.

The Romans, and, subsequently, the Jews of the land of Israel, adopted the Greek banquet and many of its attendant customs. However, Jewish banquets differed considerably. Drinking wine became part of meals celebrating festivals and joyous occasions, usually for the entire family, and discussions often centered around the Torah. The best-known Jewish banquet is the Passover seder, which has been compared by some scholars to the Greek symposium.

Beer originated in at least the fourth millennium BCE in the warm lands of the ancient Near East, particularly in grain-rich Egypt and Mesopotamia. Over time, the beer industry spread throughout the East. In Mesopotamia, beer was drunk by people of all strata, in cultic contexts as well as in taverns and private homes. Beer-making was the only profession considered to be under divine protection. In Egypt, beer was not offered to the gods, since it was considered a drink of the common folk. As a dietary staple, it was included among the daily rations distributed to laborers, soldiers, and even schoolchildren. Beer never played an important role among the drinking customs of the land of Israel. The ancient Greeks and Romans regarded it as a barbarian drink, and thus it was not popular in these lands either. The Germanic tribes, on the other hand, adopted the custom of drinking beer by the first century BCE. It was not until the Middle Ages that beer acquired the taste with which we associate it today.

The curator of the exhibition is Michal Dayagi-Mendels, Frieder Burda Curator of Israelite and Persian Archaeology at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The New York installation of Drink and Be Merry is being coordinated at The Jewish Museum by Dr. Susan L. Braunstein, Curator of Archaeology and Judaica and Head of The Jewish Museum’s Judaica Department.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 136-page book of the same title, by Michal Dayagi-Mendels, published by The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The book will be available for purchase for $39.95 paperback at The Jewish Museum’s Cooper Shop.

The exhibition is sponsored by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc. Additional generous support is provided by the New York-Israel Cultural Cooperation Commission and the Consulate General of Israel in New York, Office of Cultural Affairs; Judy and Michael Steinhardt and Jeannette and Jonathan Rosen. Transportation assistance is provided by EL AL Israel Airlines. The New York-Israel Cultural Cooperation Commission was established following Governor George E. Pataki’s visit to Israel on the occasion of Israel’s 50th Anniversary in May 1998. Its mission is to enhance the cultural exchange between Israel and the State of New York.

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