The art of wine in ancient Persia
“I could drink much wine and yet bear it well”
-- Darius the Great, the King of Kings of Achaemenid Empire (6th BCE), Athenaeus 10.45
The history of wine making and wine drinking is an old one in Persia, and today the Darioush vineyard in the Napa Valley which has become renowned in the art of wine making, is attempting to revive this tradition in the United States. Wine connoisseurs today may be familiar with the word Shiraz, the name of a town in southwest Persia famed for its grapes.
Whether or not the Shiraz grape was the source of the Medieval Syrah, brought to France from Persia in the thirteenth century CE by the knight, Gaspard de Sterimberg, or not is not central to the issue. What is important is that the mere fact that Shiraz is alleged as the source of the Rhone Valley grapes in Avignon, makes it clear that the prestige of the town and its grapes was fabled in antiquity and the middle ages. It was the Shiraz grape, again, which was brought to Australia in the nineteenth century CE, and which now has become well-known in the United States.
But the history of wine making in Persia is much older. How old, one may ask? Archaeological investigations have shown that in fact it was in Persia that the earliest wine was made in world history. At Godin Tepe in Western Persia the earliest evidence for wine making and wine points to the fourth millennium BCE.
The jars found there have yielded evidence of wine residue and it is thought that they were used for storing wine as its funnel for the wine makers. The location of Godin Tepe along the east-west trade route also plays along with the story of Shiraz grape having been taken to the West, and the evidence here suggests that wine making may very well have had its diffusion from this location.
It is with the first Persian dynasty, the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), that we find the culture of wine drinking in the form of long drinking vessels known as rhython. We hear that the Persian court was most elaborate place of feasting that the Greeks knew. The existence of rhytons and the mention of wine filters (Greek oino th toi) in the antique literature from Persia, all suggest the importance of the drink.
Herodotus tells us that the Persians were very foind of wine (Old Persoan batu) and that they made important decisions in the following manner. First they became drunk, since they believed that only when you are drunk do you tell the truth. Then, the next day when they were sober they reconsidered the matter. Pliny states that wine was also used with drugs for collecting information. The type of drug used with wine was called Achaemenis which had the following effect: “when it is drunk in wine, criminals confess to everything.”
This interest in wine in Ancient Persia is manifest not only in material culture such as jars, plates and cups but is also documented in the written sources. A Middle Persian text from the Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE) entitled (King) Husraw and Page mentions the best foods and drinks that are fit for a king. It is really a royal menu which is rarely noticed by food historians.
The text was composed at the court of the King of Kings, Khosraw I in the sixth century CE, one of the greatest of the Sasanian monarchs who ruled Persia. What this text demonstrates that, just as today when we identify wines with regions such as France, Australia, Italy, California, etc. the Persians also were interested in wines from all regions. By this time the various kinds of wines were distinguished, by their color and filtering technique.
In this passage from the text the king asks what are the best wines and the Page answer:
“May you be immortal, these wines are all good and fine, the wine of Transoxania, when they prepare it well, the wine of Herat, the wine of Marw-Rud, the wine of Bust and the must of Hulwan, but no wine can ever compare with the Babylonian wine and the must of Bazrang.”
The taste for various wines included may i sepid “white wine,” may i suxr “red wine.” These wines of course could have different qualities such as may i wirastag “clarified wine,” or also badag i abgen “crystal wine,” which were served in dolag or tong. For information on the daily usageand consumption of wine we can look at the papyri which are basically letters between Persian officers in the seventh century CE and which mention the following (Papyri 8809):
With the coming of Islam the consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages was deemed haram “illicit,” but Medieval Persian texts, especially the genre known as “Mirrors for Princes,” demonstrate the continuing love of wine. Persians throughout their history have been able to compartmentalize their contradictory habits and mores. Thus, while Islam became an important facet of the Persian culture and, in turn benefited from that culture, may “wine” remained a constant motif in Persian literature.
One can argue over the literal or metaphoric nature of the use of wine in Persian literature, but this persistent mention is owed to the ancient Persian tradition of wine drinking and wine making. This reminds me of Prophet Zarathushtra who in proclamation against the drinking of Haoma brings us back full circle (48:10):
When, Wise One (Mazda), shall men desist from murdering?
when shall they fear the folly of that intoxicating drink (i.e., Haoma),
through the effects of which the Karpans (mumbling priests),
as well as the evil rulers of the lands torture our (good) intentions in an evil way?
Needless to say the Persians did not stop consuming Haoma and they still didn’t abstain when the Prophet Muhammad proclaimed against the consumption of wine.