Differing from typical Egyptian mummies from around 4000 BC – which would have had their organs stored separately in canopic jars— the mummified remains of a man were discovered in a prehistoric tomb and found with his digestive system intact. Luckily for the researchers, they could even see what his last meal was: a simple soup of barley, green onions, and tilapia.
The Nile tilapia was a food staple and cultural icon thousands of years ago for the ancient Egyptians. It was also one of the first fish species cultured. The fish they caught in nets or speared in the Nile River appeared in their art and religion as well as on their plates. Much like in the tilapia farms around the world today, they also raised them in enclosed ponds for easier access too.
Tilapia was such a feature of life that it even had its own hieroglyph. Egyptian tombs present the fish in ponds and it was also a popular shape for ancient Egyptian bottles and makeup palettes. People believed that this fish was a guide for the solar boat of the sun-god Ra as it sailed across the sky and it warned of the approach of the Apophis serpent in the netherworld voyage. The tilapia fish was also associated with rebirth and renewal, so its likeness was sometimes sewn into death shrouds.
Moreover, the tilapia was linked to Hathor, the goddess of love and women and a symbol of fertility. People would wear amulets depicting the tilapia fish to try to increase their own fertility. This unusual association may be explained by a strange tilapia behavior. Baby fish swim into the mother’s mouth for protection soon after hatching and when danger nears. After the concern passed the little one’s emerged, which may have been misinterpreted by ancient Egyptians as miraculously regenerated fish babies or as creations born in an unusual manner.
Fishermen clean and prepare fish. (Acrogame/AdobeStock)
The ancient Egyptians wouldn’t recognize the tilapia most people eat today as the same fish they favored so long ago…and in some ways they’d be right, it’s not the same fish. Farmed tilapia, the most accessible version of the fish found around the world, is selectively bred to be white but the wild tilapia found near and in the Nile was the dark type.
The last meal of the mummy mentioned above is an authentic ancient Egyptian barely and tilapia stew which includes the whole fish - bones, fins, scales, and all.
Barley, the other main ingredient in the ancient fish dish, was a key crop for the ancient Egyptians. It was eaten as a cereal and was also used to make bread and beer. This grain was such a staple to the diet that some say that if an ancient Egyptian had barley bread and beer, they had a complete diet. Beer was enjoyed by all levels of society.
If you prep a similar meal today, you could add a little more flavor with other spices from ancient Egypt, such as coriander, fennel, juniper, cumin, garlic and/or thyme. Butter and cheese are also options and could provide a touch of flavor that was accessible to the ancient nobility. Beer and a nice crusty bread could also round out the meal, for a truly authentic ancient Egyptian experience!