Something to Wine about…

December 3, 2015

“It was a good land called Yaa. Figs were in it and grapes. It had more wine than water. Abundant was its honey, plentiful its oil.”

-Excerpt from  the Story of Sinuhe

A Brief History


Wild grapes never grew in Egypt, domesticated production of grapes for wine can be traced back to 2700 B.C. Even in these ancient times, wine grapes were grown on “a trellis of vertical poles”, so the grapes could hang down in the open space between supports for easier harvesting. This is the same method that is used today.

Although beer was the most common beverage, archaeologists have discovered five types of wine, prevalent to ancient Egypt; “northern wine, abesh wine, sunu wine, hamu wine, and Imet wine”. These are now thought to be the main wineries of ancient Egypt and the Delta region.

Ancient Mesopotamia also adopted wine, whether it be grape barley or date wine, into its culture very early on. By 3500 B.C., relatively sophisticated winemaking was taking place at military and trading posts. Even before that (as far back as 6000 B.C.), dates were being fermented.  

Domesticated grapes were also being produced in the Levant around that same time. These harsh conditions, rocky soil and extensive rain followed by extensive drought, were perfect for producing flavorful wines.  

Another country familiar to wine production is Algeria, which was once the fourth highest producer in the world. The French held a large amount of power in Algeria from 1830 to1962, during which time they developed a large wine economy. Due to a Phylloxera epidemic that tainted the fields, the French were forced to grow their grapes in Algeria. French vines were planted in the Algerian soil, creating a mixed plant that did not have a pure identity. Once the French abandoned the vineyards after their control over the area subsided, the Algerians were left with thousands of acres of vineyards that they felt were unnecessary. Because wine was never part of Algerian culture, many of the vineyards were abandoned. “During the 1971-1973 reconversion plan under the presidency of Houari Boumediene… ninety percent of the vines were uprooted and partly replaced by raisin and table grape vines.” Algeria still has a prosperous wine economy, but it is much smaller than what it once was.

Religious Tensions


Once Islam spread through the Middle East, the production and consumption of wine became much more controversial. Traditional punishment for the consumption of alcohol was 80 lashes for men and 40 for women and slaves. Water became the beverage of choice for Muslims, and alcoholic drinks, including wine, became less readily available to the masses. However the consumption of wine was still very common in the Mediterranean basin, and would remain that way for quite some time. 

Throughout history, Muslim royalty has consumed alcohol, including wine, publicly, despite religious prohibitions against it. Violations of the religious law by ordinary Muslims are extremely numerous, and today although many Muslim countries still strictly ban alcohol, some (Tunisia, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, etc.) allow restricted production and consumption.

Radical prohibition of alcohol consumption has been seen to follow extremist regimes in the Middle East, dating from the 11th century until today. Throughout the Middle Ages there was back and forth across the Arab world centering around the permissibility of alcohol, including wine. Beginning in 1524, Persian royalty went between banning and permitting the consumption of wine until Safavid dynasty in 1722. The Ottoman Sultan Murad IV declared a ban on wine and other intoxicants in 1621, anyone caught was promptly beheaded, but that prohibition was lifted after his death in 1640.  

The Qur’an is actually ambiguous about the merits of wine; “it praises wine as God’s gift and recognizes it as a source of enjoyment, but… ultimately condemns grape wine (khamr) for its effect, intoxication, which interferes with the clear-headedness needed for the proper execution of its religious commands”.

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Israeli grapes in Palestinian Territory

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Wine production has managed to creep its way onto the battle ground of the Palestinian conflict. Many Israeli farmers have begun to harvest grapes on occupied Palestinian land. In order to combat the expansive efforts of the Israeli community, Palestinians have called for an economic boycott on the Israeli wine market. Palestinians demand that the wine grown on their territory is labeled as “Produce of the West Bank (Israeli settlement produce)” or “Israeli produce of the Occupied Palestinian Territories” in order to allow consumers to make an informed decision as to whether or not they want to support the company.  The boycott has gained momentum as more private companies side with the Palestinians, angering the Israeli farmers. Some farmers have called the attack racist and unnecessary, but they have not been very convincing thus far considering many European officials have sided with the Palestinians.

Wine Industry in Israel


Anderson, Kenneth. “Intoxicants in the Islamic World: A Rich History and Telling Story.” 2014. Web.
“Arab Wine Shakes off Prejudice.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 11 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.
Matthee, Rudi. “Alcohol in the Islamic Middle East: Ambivalence and Ambiguity.” Past & Present (2014) Web.
McGovern, Patrick E. Ancient Wine : The Search For The Origins Of Viniculture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Meo, Nick. “Israel’s Vineyards: The West Bank Grapes of Wrath.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 24 Mar. 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.
“The Story of Sinuhe.” The Middle Kingdom: Ancient Egyptian Literature. University of Southern California Web.
Venturini, Maia. “Vineyards of Colonial Algeria: A History of French or Algerian Wine?” Vineyards of Colonial Algeria: A History of French or Algerian Wine? Jadaliyya, 7 Oct. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

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