Beer, brewers and taverns in the town of Mari, ancient Syria.


Proche-Orient ancien


Under King Zimrî-Lîm, the population of the palace is estimated at 1200-1500 adults[1]. It generates a demand of at least 12 hl of beer/day (with a low limit of 1 litre/day/adult), i.e. 2 times the estimated maximum production capacity of the brewers of alappânu beer. The palace therefore has an additional production of beer at its disposal.

The trace of a beer edadû has been found in some documents from the time of Zimrî-Lîm. It is impossible to say more about this beer, whose mention is sometimes confused with the flour of the same name. A material ratio (flour edadû?)/beer = 1½ would indicate a quality close to the ordinary[2]. A few litres of this edadû beer sometimes are served with the king's meals.

Daily records of food products concern the beer-himru, already mentioned in connection with the female brewers of beer-himru in the palace of Mari. Its manufacture engulfs large quantities of cereals: 1200 litres or 2400 litres of grain (še'um ana himri )[3]. At this scale of production, the bier-himru goes to the greatest number. Its density is close to the 1:1 ratio (tablets of Šubat-Enlil and Chagar Bazar). According to some documents, it is flavoured with fennel or aniseed.

There is a small file of older tablets, dated from the beginning of the second millennium BC, relating to a beer-lillum, which can mean "weak beer" and can refer to an ordinary or even diluted beer[4]. A correlation with the orders of magnitude of its production confirms its density. Five tablets announce important daily volumes of beer-lillum (774, 601, 366 or 640 litres[5]), together with small quantities of beer-loaves nìg-ar-ra, bread or flour, and, more interestingly, a plant (or plant component) named bušum. If this plant bušum flavors the beer-lillum, this plant is similar to the beer-himru flavored decades later in the palace of Zimrî-Lîm. Two different vernacular names used during two very close periods perhaps indicate the same reality: an ordinary flavored beer suitable for the people of the palace.

In addition, a large tablet mentions the brewing of a standard beer (KAŠ Ú.SA) with 4320 and 3370 litres of barley[6]. The corresponding volumes of beer satisfy the normal consumption of the small palatial staff, servants, craftsmen and miscellaneous employees. This tablet also counted barley near the threshing floors and their attached warehouses, without being sure whether this grain is used to make brewing ingredients, as is the case at Šubat-Enlil and Chagar Bazaar for the malted barley.


The brewers operating in the town.

Let's leave the palace grounds. The population of the districts of the city, largely dependent on the palace but non-resident, also drink beer. The same observance of the social stratification prevails in the city: to some the upper grade draft beer (KAŠ SIG5), to others the ordinary beer (KAŠ Ú. SA).

The misadventure of Ili-rabi illustrates how beer circulates between high-ranking civil servants in the context of their private lives. Eager to honour his sovereign, Ili-rabi offers him a precious table through a person who, alas, appropriates it and makes the gift to the king on his behalf! Ili-rabi must then protest in writing that he did not sell the table to the dishonest intermediary, but rather entrust it to his care, together with a jar of upper grade beer, 2 jars of wine, and a saddle for a donkey offered for his good offices. Ili-rabi specifies that the beer and the wine were drunk, together by the two men, it is assumed.

The custom is to mark the exchange of services by sharing alcoholic beverages[7]. Moreover, Ili-rabi reveals to his king his expenses to prove to him the agreement in due form, sealed by the "drinking together". Between high officials, wine and superior beer are required, two equivalent fermented beverages in this circumstance. Just as the king use to conclude his political, military or matrimonial alliances with banquets where beer flows freely, especially the alappânu beer.

This anecdote only lifts a small corner of the veil. How is beer drunk among the dignitaries who live in the town?


The residences of dignitaries in the city of Mari.

King Zimrî-Lîm had several provincial palaces in the main cities of the kingdom. It is necessary to add, in his capital, a residence that archaeologists discovered 200 metres from the palace, baptised by them Asqudum's House, its most famous occupant, the soothsayer Asqudum. The architecture of the building confirms that it is managed as a real miniature palace. In the time of Zimrî-Lîm, the vast house is occupied by Asqudum, his family and his servants. Asqudum is not just anyone! Soothsayer of the king, emissary and diplomat, he cumulates several major functions in the palace of Mari.

A lot of clay tablets from the so-called "Assyrian" period, which precedes by a few years the reign of Zimrî-Lîm and the presence of the diviner Asqudum in the same residence, were found on the same site. They record the rations of bread, beer, flour, cereals, wool and clothing. These distributions obviously concern the domesticity of the residence[8].

A brewer serving the house is noted in the staff registers. Even more interestingly, the expenses for grain are divided between the man's meal (head of the family and his own), the staff rations (servants and dependants) and the animal feed (dogs and donkeys).

Two kinds of beer are included in the first two items of these household expenditures : a premium beer (KAŠ SIG5) and a regular beer (KAŠ ÚS). Separate the accounting of the beer for the master and his family and the accounting of the beer for the servants seems familiar to the 4 bookkeeping tablets recording these two kinds of beer separately. Here again we notice the relevance of the social status and the dependency relationship between master and servant population in the daily life and management of the brewery.

This large household therefore consumes a lot of grain for its fermented drinks. The existence of a cellar in the Asqudum's house evokes the jars of beer stored by the palace and the beer jar offered by Ili-rabi. The documents do not say if Asqudum uses this beer as a ritual offering beverage for his divination activities in the service of the king.

The permanently employed brewer indicates that brewing is also a domestic activity, at least in the households of the Amorite notables and dignitaries. The management and consumption of beer jars in the domestic context remains little known in the ancient Near East, due to the lack of extensive excavations of private houses and urban residential areas[9].

Nevertheless, we have the inventory of the house of Mâšum, dignitary of the kingdom under the king Yasmah-Addu [10]. The custom assigns a house and its staff to the principal administrators in office at Mari. The diversity of this staff is surprising, composed of servants and craftsmen, including several brewers and 2 cupbearers. The large private house of a notable is managed like a small palace. His duly registered staff receives food rations. Beer figures prominently. The master of the house and his family benefit from a better quality beer. The houses of Mâšum and Asqudum show an intra-community consumption (these vast dwellings are real economic units) high enough to justify the work of one or more brewers on the spot. Domestic brewing is undoubtedly the rule in these large mansions inhabited by the families of dignitaries.

In a private setting, the householder and his family consume the upper grade beer, lthe enslaved staff the ordinary beer.


Taverns, male and female brewers.

What do people in towns and villages drink when they do not get beer through allocations of grains or beer rations?

The " beer house " (e-kaš) is a kind of tavern located in a town, on its outskirts or at the crossroads of paths. Usually a woman brews beer there and sells it on the spot. Men also act as brewer-tavernkeepers. If one extends to the whole region a judgement given by the king Hammurabi of Babylon, barter presides over the sale of beer in the taverns. The customer exchanges grain for an agreed volume of beer of a certain quality. This exchange leaves the female brewer a profit in the form of an extra amount of unbrewed grain or unexchanged beer. The judgement of Hammurabi is intended to fix this conversion of grain ? without prejudice to either the customer or the brewer.

The economic and social role of the tavern is important enough for a judgement of the king Hammurabi of Babylon (1792-1750 BC), compiled and engraved on a public stele, to mention the penalty incurred if the woman brewer-tavernkeeper enforces a dishonest grain-beer barter (§108):

« If a tavern-keeper (feminine) does not accept grain in payment of beer (kaš) but takes silver according to gross weight, or if the amount of the beer is less than that of the grain, this tavern-keeper shall be convicted and thrown into the water. »[11].

A fateful spell for a simple dishonest exchange! It is an ordeal by water: the god Shamash will judge the guilt by letting the suspected person drown or not. What are the reasons for such a harshness?

The economy of the tavern is based on the brewing of beer. It is therefore a tavern-brewery, and the cabaret owner is also a female brewer. The beer trade is based on barter, although the possibility of paying in silver metal appears: exchange of grains (barley or wheat) for finished beer. Bartering is fair if the brewer does not cheat on the ratio: so much raw grain brought in = so much beer brought off. Provided you know how to control the density of the beer, without expertise or measurement. The control is based on a common knowledge of the quality of the various types of beer and the standardised volume vessels. The economic and social role of the tavern is therefore crucial. It is at the door of the tavern that the precious grains of emmer-wheat or barley are exchanged for beer, the country's most essential beverage, by urban or rural populations who do not benefit the services of a brewer at home (like the dignitaries or the king), who do not receive the beer rations, or cannot brew their beer themselves.

If the person who wants to drink beer does not have any grains, he or she can get a credit in the form of beer. Provided the barter is fair, again. This time, the female tavern-brewer can afford to use grains to pay herself the interest on her loan. The rules are set out in §111:

« If a tavern-keeper (feminine) has provided a jar of beer (pihum) on credit, at the harvest she shall take 50 qa (liters) of grain ».

The beer jar, in this case a jar-pihum, contains at that time 20 or 30 litres. This means that 50 litres of grain are reimbursed for 20 or 30 litres of beer delivered a few months earlier. Knowing that only 10 to 15 litres of grain were needed to brew 20 to 30 litres of beer infered to be of usual density, the gross profit of the tavern-keeper is substantial: x4 or x5 as compared to the raw grain. One must take into account her work (malting, brewing) and substract the making of the jar-pihum which she probably does not recover.


« 7 men and 1 woman from taverns »[12] Seven men are on a long list of 160 craftmen and craftwomen living in the town of Mari or in its outskirts. Absent from the ration lists, they are nevertheless placed under the control of 4 palace supervisors. These beer taverns and their staff depend on the palace or are controlled by it. Is it a place of accommodation and beer brewing that the royal authority wants to watch over? Is it a register kept for the collection of royalties? It is known that at that time taverns had to pay annual taxes to the palace[13].


 ^                                    >

[1] 400 femmes (Maurice BIROT 1956, Textes économiques de Mari Tablette C, Revue d'Assyriologie 50 p. 57; Archives Royales de Mari, Textes vol. VII 1957, p. 273) + 600 men + 400 servants + 100 guests at the king's table.

[2] Maurice Birot 1964, ARMT XII, p. 13 and no 150, 343, 493, 602. Cf. p. 13 note 6 for the ratio 1½.

[3] Madeleine Lurton Burke, ARMT XI, p. 133 et n°  42, 237. ARMT XII : 13-14 and no 102, 555 (barley for the beer-himru collected at Bît-Tukla).

[4] Henri Limet 1976, ARMT XIX, 23-24.

[5] ibid. X no 260-265.

[6] Maurice Birot 1956, ARMT VII : no 263 iii 10-12.

[7] Jesper Eidem 1992, Un "présent honorifique", NABU Mémoires 1, 54-56; Jean-Marie Durand 1997, Documents Epistolaires de Mari T. I (LAPO), 78.

[8] Dominique Charpin 1985, Les archives d'époque "assyrienne" dans le palais de Mari (MARI 4), 267; Les archives du devin Asqudum dans la Résidence du chantier A (MARI 4), 455 et 458.

[9] The long-distance wine trade, on the contrary, generates accounts centralised by the palaces and the chancelleries, archives more frequently discovered by archaeologists.

[10] Pierre Villard 2001, Les administrateurs de l'époque de Yasmah-Addu (Amurru 2, Colloque Mari, Ebla et les Hourrites), 126-127.

[11] André Finet 1996, Le code de Hammurapi, 2nd edition revised and corrected, 74.

[12] Maurice Birot 1960, ARMT IX, tab. no 27 and p. 342.

[13] By way of comparison, the 5th century BC kingdoms in India developed a very active policy of levying taxes on the local beer trade, the sale of brewer's yeast (kinva) or brewery dregs. See Maurya empire in India, trade of beer, brewing ferments and dregs.

06/06/2014  Christian Berger