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September 12, 2017

Ancient Egypt's secrets of healthy living

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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For nearly 4,000 years Egypt was renowned as a society of abundance and sophistication, connected at all levels by the ancient world's oldest and most stable central government. It was all thanks to the rich, dark and fertile soil of the mighty Nile valley and delta.

Being able to grow a wide variety of crops in a sunny and moderate climate offered ancient Egyptians early access to a healthy diet and its many social benefits; among them, freedom from food insecurity, civil peace, development of sports and recreation, advancement of higher education, broad trading relationships, and stable government.

Despite the availability and quantity of foods that other nations might see as luxuries, obesity was rare among early Egyptians; looking at their art of the period confirms that extra pounds were an unworthy trait for gods, goddesses and humans.

While there were many grains, vegetables and fruits available throughout the year to make up the majority of their diet, Egyptians of the time were not vegetarians.

By today’s standards however, they were moderate, even sparing, in their meat consumption, which included fish, wild birds, geese, ducks, quails, cattle, and wild game such as antelope, ibex, gazelle and deer.

While fish were roasted or boiled, most frequently they were salted and dried in the sun for preservation. Since meat was a small part of their diet, beans, chickpeas, lentils and eggs were the main source of protein.

Refined cane sugar was unknown here, as in other ancient societies. Instead, they used honey as a primary sweetener, sometimes supplemented with tree syrup or the concentrated fruit sugars in dried dates.

Pastries, for example, were sweetened with honey or dates, and flavored with sesame or aniseed. Besides dates (eaten both fresh and dried) other fruits in the Egyptian diet included figs, grapes, watermelon and pomegranates.

And with all the abundance at their disposal, Egyptians were the first to discover how to ferment grains and fruit to make wine and beer.

Bread has been a staple of the Egyptian diet to this very day – so much so that it is subsidized by today’s government and a lack of it will bring people protesting into the streets.

In ancient Egypt whole-grain bread was baked in communal ovens or even in the heat of the sun. Flatbread was sometimes made with raised edges to hold eggs or other fillings – did ancient Egyptians invent a forerunner of quiche, or even deep-dish pizza? Perhaps.

Ancient Egyptians used beef, goat and seed-fats for frying or cooking their meat and vegetables.

In fact, they had more than 20 names for the edible oils derived from sesame, flax, radish, horseradish and sunflower seeds, as well as from olives (grown in the drier Sinai region) and the castor-oil plant.

Horseradish oil was particularly popular in Egyptian cuisine. In addition to using oil, food was also cooked in milk or butter and many dishes included garlic and onion, two favorite ingredients.

Spices such as aniseed, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel, fenugreek, marjoram, mustard and thyme were widely used, while salt from the Siwa Oasis was in regular demand for seasoning and preserving food.

Besides hunting and fishing for sport and developing athletic games, the ancient Egyptians appreciated the visual arts, as well as music and dance.

Unlike the later classical Greeks, they rarely expressed nudity or overt sexuality in their arts and entertainment, although their daily family lives were full of affection.

But they did celebrate the idealized beauty and form of the human body. Male and female figures are often portrayed in painting and sculpture elegantly dressed in flowing, diaphanous clothing; both sexes used make-up and wigs to enhance their appearance.

Ancient Egyptian medicine and medical science were surprisingly advanced. Male circumcision was practiced long before it was done among the Israelites. They performed a variety of surgeries and knew a great deal about common diseases and how organs in the body functioned.

In fact, their skill at mummification was a by-product of this practical life-saving knowledge; some mummies show today that they successfully performed procedures such as root canal operations.

Along with their advanced medical skills, Egyptians also led the ancient world in the study of physics, chemistry, mathematics, architecture and agriculture.

Children assumed adult responsibilities earlier than today; they often spent longer hours in classes too and there were no rules against corporal punishment, according to the National Geographic Society’s Ancient Egypt: Discovering Its Splendors. But childhood wasn’t forgotten. The same book also shows examples of 4,000-year-old toys, dolls, and sports games.

Barbara Metz, author of Red Land, Black Land celebrates the ancient Egyptians’ joie de vivre by quoting a charming song found on the walls of a tomb:

Spend the day merrily!

Put ointment and fine oil to your nostrils

And lotus flowers on the body of your beloved

Spend the day merrily!

And weary not therein

Lo, none can take his goods with him.

Lo, none that has departed can return again.

She writes that these simple words “always seemed to me to typify the essential quality of ancient Egyptian culture. No other ancient people enjoyed life as much as they did.”

Perhaps we should also look to the inspiration of Egypt some 7,000 years ago to appreciate what is meant by a truly healthy lifestyle.

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