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Jewish Food: Eating in Historical Jerusalem

Learn about the foods eaten in Jerusalem during the following time periods in history:

First Temple Period
Byzantine Period
Early Muslim Period
Crusader Period
Mamluk Period

First Temple Period

During the First Temple period Jerusalemites ate mainly the natural crops that are typical of the region: "a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey" (Deuteronomy 8:8). The usual diet contained few vegetables, mainly those that grew wild in the fields (garlics and wild onion). Meat was enjoyed only by the privileged rich; ordinary people would have meat only at the Passover sacrifice or on particularly important occasions. Other foods of the common people included the eggs of wild fowl, milk, cheese, and butter. David, going out to his brothers who were in the camp of the army fighting the Philistines, brings them cheeses (1 Samuel 17:18).

The limited information we have suggests that in the biblical period it was customary to have two daily meals. A late-morning meal, which also served as a break in the workday, would probably consist of bread dipped in olive oil or in wine vinegar, toasted wheat, olives, figs or some other fruit, and water or a little diluted wine. A picnic meal like this was eaten by Ruth the Moabite and Boaz (Ruth 2:14). The main meal was taken in the evening, before dark, and consisted of a common pot of soup or a broth of seasoned legumes into which the diners dipped slices of bread to scoop out the helping.

"Further, take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer. Put them into one vessel and bake them into bread" (Ezekiel 4:9). The Land of Israel lies in the wheat belt where the culture of flour and bread as a universal food base developed. From the Bible we know of leavened bread and matzah, but also halah, wafers, bread morsels, and cakes. Bread was baked in an oven heated by twigs, placed on hot stones and covered with cinders or coals, or it might be fried in an iron pan. Other food-grains were damp green seeds ("carmel", "melilot"), wheat stalks of which the seeds were toasted in fire, such as David ate during his flight from Absalom in the desert, and gruel made of ground wheat, groats, or a baked mixture of ground wheat and meat.

The foods might be seasoned with a little salt, which was produced mainly in the Dead Sea area, honey (from dates or of wild bees), or with juices, various fines herbs, and olive oil.

From earliest times the stone terraces in the Judean Hills around Jerusalem were worked and yielded a variety of crops. However, when Jerusalem became an international center of government and commerce during the reign of Solomon, food production was insufficient to satisfy the standards deemed fit for the king and his resplendent court. The result was that imported foods began to reach Jerusalem (some in the form of taxes and offerings from across the vast kingdom); soon the city's economy grew dependent on the importations. The wealth and luxury of King Solomon's court is indicated by the daily menu of the palace kitchens: "Solomon's daily provisions consisted of 30 kors of semolina and 60 kors of [ordinary] flour,10 fatted oxen, 20 pasture-fed oxen, and 100 sheep and goats, besides deer and gazelles, roebucks and fatted geese" (1 Kings 5:2-3). The cattle were imported from the Hauran area (east of the Jordan River), while fatted geese were a well-known Egyptian dish, prepared to please Pharaoh's daughter, Solomon's wife, who was accustomed to the pamperings of the Land of the Nile. Sugar cane probably also reached the region during this period.

When the Queen of Sheba arrived in Jerusalem she was stunned by the splendor: "When the queen of Sheba observed all of Solomon's wisdom... the fare of his table, the service and attire of his attendants, and his wine service... she was left breathless" (1 Kings 10:5).

Byzantine Period

Our major source of information about the kinds of food that were eaten in Jerusalem during the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple is the Talmud, which provides a picture of day-to-day life until the fourth century. The unsuccessful Bar-Kochba uprising against the Romans in the second century CE had the effect of severely depleting the Jewish population and made normal life virtually impossible. Jerusalem became little more than a backwater, resulting in a return to ancient agricultural patterns and a sharp decline in importations of goods.

A variety of fruits were grown in the Land of Israel, including: pomegranates, peaches, almonds, nuts, apples, pears of various kinds, carobs, black strawberries, citrons, peanuts, and pistachio nuts. Legumes continued to constitute the food staples. Among them were ful (broad beans), vetches, sweet peas, beans, lentils, peas, lupines, and sesame. However, the main crops were still wheat, olives, and grapes.

The typical meal consisted of a slice of bread dipped in oil or vinegar, a dish of legumes (soup or gruel), and fruits, particularly figs. Vegetables, which had been widespread in the periods of plenty that had characterized the Second Temple period - radishes, cucumbers, or lettuce were now luxuries. The same was true of meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. The custom of the Sabbath meal, which became a fixture in this period, reflects the memory of the splendid social occasions of past eras. But in this period the Sabbath meal was usually a small fish and a few vegetables.

Early Muslim Period

Arab cuisine is based on constant, rather modest, local elements originating with the nomadic Bedouin tribes in the region. Their staples were milk, sheep, and dates. This kitchen was influenced by the encounter with the Sassanian court, which dominated the region in the early seventh century CE. The Sassanians were known for their extravagant customs, reflecting, in turn, vestiges of the social mores of the defunct Roman Empire. The Abassid dynasty, which ruled in Baghdad in the eighth to tenth centuries, known for its affluent and prodigal way of life, brought Arab cuisine to its peak of refinement.

Our knowledge of Jerusalem during the rise of Islam and the conquests of the Umayyad Arabs is extremely scanty. We do not know how much Jerusalem benefited from the culinary efflorescence which characterized the caliph's palaces in Mesopotamia. It is safe to conjecture, though, that quality cooking was restricted to the homes of the city's wealthy elite. Most people continued to subsist on bread, groats, and legumes, accompanied by fruits. The tenth-century, Jerusalem-born Arab geographer al-Muqadasi said: "Whoever lives in Jerusalem gains both the life of the world to come and the life of this world." He describes clean, orderly markets, richly stocked. In particular he notes the quinces and the various types of raisins, as well as bananas, oranges, apples, cheese, and the unrivaled pine nuts. He is also amazed at the honey produced in Jerusalem, since the bees there suck the sage plants.

Mujir a-Din and Ibn Askar also praise the banana, a new fruit that came to the region from India. They remark that eating a banana in the shade of the Dome of the Rock symbolizes the good life in both worlds.

Crusader Period

In 1099, the first Crusader knights arrived in the Holy Land, with the goal of liberating the Holy Sepulchre from Muslim rule. As part of their defensive measures to protect Jerusalem, and to make the enemy's advance more difficult, the Muslims destroyed all the agricultural infrastructure around the city. After conquering the region, the Crusaders were forced to resettle the area and build farms around the city to supply food and wine to the population who rapidly resettled there.

There is no doubt at all, however, that the Muslims had the upper hand in culinary matters. The Crusaders found a culinary paradise here, a remnant of the glorious Arab heritage of the courts of the caliphs in Baghdad and of the Persian kings. Arab and Egyptian cooks quickly found their place in the kitchens of Frankish high society in Jerusalem, Ramle and Acre, teaching the knights some of the pleasures of the East. The high gastronomic culture was enriched by an elaborate tradition of music, dancing and literature accompanying the meal, which turned it into a true banquet.

The Europeans were very impressed by the local products: ananas, figs, sabra fruit, sugar cane, citrus fruit, wheat, and superb grapes. The wines of the Judean hills were famous for their excellent quality. In summer, wine was chilled in snow brought in straw-covered carts from the distant mountains of Lebanon. Snow was also used to cool fruit juices, the sherbets which were early predecessors of today's sorbets.

The Franks also adopted the eastern custom of using many spices, often to excess, as a sign of their great wealth. Commonly used spices included sumac, mustard, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, rosemary, and coconut, licorice root and lotus fruits were also used, bearing witness to the trade routes running between East and West. The consumption of ready-cooked food was also common, bought in one of Jerusalem's many markets.

Indeed, one of the most prominent architectural features of Crusader Jerusalem is the complex of markets which still serve the merchants of the Old City. The old chicken market in David Street is now used as a fruits and vegetables market, while the modern Butchers' Street was originally intended for fresh produce and was called the "Street of Herbs." The most famous of all was the central market, known as the "Street of Bad Cookery" (Malquisinat), whose merchants specialized in the production and supply of cooked food for the numerous pilgrims who flocked to the city.

Mamluk Period

In the Mameluke period, most of the population subsisted on the familiar local diet: bread, burghul wheat, pulses, vegetables, fruit, garlic, and onions.

Rice, which had been grown locally in the Second Temple period, once again had a place of honor on the tables of people of all classes. People usually ate two main meals a day, in the morning and in the evening.

This period saw the rise of cooks who specialized in the preparation of a particular food, which they sold in the city's markets as a popular food for both local residents and pilgrims: sambusak (meat pastry), boiled sheep's head (considered a great delicacy), rose water, assorted jams, sesame and olive oil, and of course, bread (pitas).

The markets also offered a rich variety of local agricultural produce: olives, figs, grapes, pomegranates, various vegetables, nuts, and pistachios. Contemporary documents mention 36 crops grown in the Jerusalem area.

Despite this abundance, most residents of Jerusalem at the time were very poor, and there is evidence of repeated famines. The soup kitchens associated with Muslim religious institutions occupied an increasingly important place in the city's economy. The limited menu they offered included rice, wheat products, and a few vegetables.


Source: The Jerusalem Mosaic. Copyright 1995 Hebrew University of Jerusalem -- All Rights Reserved. {Link no longer active].