Alcohol and its Consumption in Medieval Cairo: The Story of a Habit
By Paulina B. Lewicka
Studia Arabistyczne i Islamistyczne, Vol. 12 (2004)
Introduction: Contrary to what the Islamic prohibition of intoxicants might imply, the alcoholic beverages in medieval Cairo were not universally scorned. The attitude towards drinking depended on the time in history and the social setting but, generally, neither the local population, nor the members of the foreign ruling elites, nor the multinational soldiery garrisoned within the city area, were avowed abstainers. Generally, different social groups drank different drinks. Particular preferences of the Mamluks notwithstanding, the city population enjoyed, above all, wine and beer, two basic kinds of alcohol drunk in the Mediterranean-Near Eastern world since remote antiquity. And, as in antiquity, but also as in Europe of the Middle Ages, the choice between them was a matter of social standing: grain beer, whose production was easier and cheaper, was generally the drink of the common people, while wine, more expensive due to its tricky fermentation and the demands of viticulture, was the beverage of the rich.
Through the ages of Cairene history the alcoholic beverages, entangled in political and religious developments, depended more on prevailing doctrinal currents than on people’s habitual or taste inclinations. Therefore, the story of these beverages’ consumption is – not surprisingly – a turbulent one. Due to very fragmentary evidence, however, it is not possible to reconstruct all of its details. Unlike the literature produced, say, in Abbasid Baghdad, or in Iraq in general, the literary output originating in medieval Egypt lacks in descriptions of drinking bouts, tavern expeditions, or works written in praise of the inebriating beverage. In fact, the bulk of the information on the wine and beer consumption in Cairo comes from the chroniclers’ accounts of various decisions taken by the authorities in reference to the presence of these drinks on the market. Such accounts have their obvious drawbacks – they are often deprived of a wider context, exaggerated, and far too incomplete to serve as evidence of popular attitude regarding the problem in question. Imperfect as they are, they nevertheless form a set of records that mark, more or less clearly, the course of history of the alcoholic drinks in Cairo. Supplemented, in the case of wine, by records of its use and its overuse, these accounts have to suffice to define some general tendencies and phenomena of this tiny section of the city culture’s culinary-historical profile.
Of all the alcoholic beverages drunk in medieval Cairo, koumiss, whose popularity was most limited in time and social space, is also the least documented specialty. In fact, this fermented mare’s milk with the alcohol content of between four and five percent was introduced to Egypt by the Turkish mamluks and the taste for it never reached beyond the Mamluk milieu. Koumiss must have been relatively popular among the mamluks, although the written evidence confirms only two cases of sultans who drank it in huge quantities. One was As-Zāhir Baybars who possibly died of abusing the drink. The other was Az-Zāhir Barqūq, in whose times “it was one of the features of the kingdom” that the sultan and the amirs used to gather, twice a week – on Sundays and Wednesdays – on the Hippodrome below the Citadel, wearing their best uniforms, to drink koumiss together from their China bowls. The customary ceremony is said to have vanished together with Barqūq’s sultanate. The subsequent generations of Circassians apparently did not fancy the beverage.