The westernmost brewery in the Middle East in the Alalah levantine city.


Ancient Near-East

The ancient city of Alalah is located halfway between the Mediterranean and Aleppo, in the Amuq valley. From this city, trade routes followed the Orontes River southwards or spun on to Aleppo and beyond to the Euphrates and the gateway to the Mesopotamian world. The site has been inhabited since 3300 BC. Alalah is of interest to us for its geographical location and its cuneiform archives from the 18-17th centuries and the 15th century. Two sets of archives (175 and 300 clay tablets respectively) shed light on the place of beer in the heart of a territory that has been wrongly reputed as a solely wine-producing area since ancient times[1].

In the 18th and 17th centuries, Aleppo is the capital of the powerful kingdom of Yamhad. The principality of Alalah is subject to it. Yarim-Lim, younger brother of the king of Yamhad, governs it and builds the palace where our tablets will be found. His son, Ammitaqum, on the occasion of his marriage, spends 70 silver sicles in pots of superior beer (tablet *409), that is to say 70 pots according to the equivalence given by another tablet (tablet *325). It is also known that it takes 2 parïsu (measure of capacity in use at Ebla = ½ kur, i.e. 8 litres) of emmer wheat to brew one jar of superior beer (KAŠ sig5).

What is superior beer (KAŠ sig5) ? If we refer to an archive from Chagar Bazar, a KAŠ sig5 beer is brewed with 1 volume of grains to obtain 1 volume of beer. It is a high density beer, a strong beer. This 1:1 ratio implies that the beer is brewed by infusion. You cannot mix and cook such a thick mash. The decoction method requires a very liquid mash. Another technical remark: obtaining only a volume of beer equal to the volume of the grains leaves far too much fermentable sugar in the grains. After the first volume of wort is drawn off, a second infusion is made to brew an ordinary beer (KAŠ.ús), ratio 1:2 this time. A total of 3 volumes of water for one volume of grain to brew two types of beer with different densities.

The tablets show a well-established system of rations enjoyed by the royal family, palace staff, servants and their officers, visitors and officials (tab. *243). The food is based on barley, emmer-wheat and a leguminous plant (vetch?) called kišššanu/kišššenu, used in particular for making bread.

The beers of Alalah are based on barley or emmer wheat, as in the rest of Mesopotamia. As an example, the *248 tablet states that out of 321 PA (volume measure) of barley, 170 are dedicated to brewing (še'um ana KAŠ), i.e. more than a half. One may wonder if the kišššanu was not also used as a source of starch in brewing at that time[2]. The vast majority of beer ration recipients belong to the humble social groups[3].

Sumunnabi, sister of Amitaqum and member of the royal family, runs her own business. Several tablets mention the loans of silver she grants. One of them, amounting to 70 shekels of silver lent to 13 men from the village of Kubia, specifies that the interests, of an equal amount, will have to be paid in the form of 70 pots of superior beer (tablet *34). The equivalence noted above is found in this way: 70 pots of superior beer (KAŠ sig5) = 70 sicles of silver.

Ammitaqum, as prince of Alalah, acts as a judge. He frees Šenni the innkeeper, his wife and his sons from their creditor to whom they owed 72 shekels of silver (tab. *30). The archives also designate brewers (lú ŠIM.GIG, tab. *253) as recipients of barley, as well as bakers and cooks, specialists who were called upon to deliver their food products (beer, bread or dishes) on behalf of the Palace[4].


Alalah palais sceau sur bouchon de jarre



Two imprints of seals on jar stoppers depict scenes of banquets with the perfectly identifiable motif of a seated figure drinking with a straw from a container placed at his feet. The first seal ( Antakya 9947, level XI) is dated to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, the second ( Antakya 9733, level VII) belongs to the 18th centuries BCAlalah palace seal on jar stopper



Each one directly evokes beer and a way of drinking it in a familiar representation since the 3rd millennium. The beer is sucked up with a flexible straw made of a hollow reed tube with a filter at the end that dips into the beer pot[5].




These rather heterogeneous documents lead to the conclusion that :

  • the beer enters the redistribution circuit controlled by the palace. The not insignificant quantities of barley and wheat taken out of its reserves and allocated to the brewery indicate that beer brewing is not a marginal activity.
  • Beer is part of social life. The existence of a tavernkeeper shows that beer consumption goes beyond the palace walls. The archives of Alalah offer valuable insights into the network of villages surrounding the town and remote rural communities. These villagers most certainly consumed beer, although in this case the tablets of Alalah are limited to the internal management of the palace.
  • Beer enters the local economic exchange and has a constant conversion value : 1 jar of superior beer = 1 silver sicle at the time of Ammitaqum. 70 jars of superior beer are used to pay the interest on a loan of silver.
  • the beer comes in several qualities. The beer for the Palace is "normal" (KAŠ.ÚS.SA) or "superior" (KAŠ LUGAL ²I.A), brewed with emmer-wheat or barley.

The economic role of beer is in Alalah similar in many ways to that of Central Mesopotamia at the same time. In this wine-producing region - many tablets mention plots of vines around Alalah - beer remains the daily beverage. The tablets are silent about the place of beer in religion. The site very close to Emar which fills this lack. Documents attest that beer is offered at Emar during official and private cults.

These small kingdoms will be part of the great political ensemble from the Mitani in the 15th and 14th centuries, before being later integrated into the Hittite empire. Throughout the second millennium, the place of beer in this Syrian region remained paramount.


 ^                                    >

[1] Donald J. Wiseman 1953, The Alalakh Tablets. I follow the author's convention who precedes by an asterisk the tablets dated 18-17th centuries (level VII).

[2] Its main use, apart from baking, is to feed horses. Since the Neolithic period, the Djezira and the Upper Euphrates have been areas where legumes are more in favour than cereals.

[3] Guy Bunnens 1981, Quelques aspects de la vie quotidienne au palais d'Alalakh d'après les listes de rations niveau VII (XVIIIè/ XVIIè), Compte-Rendus de la 28ème Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, p. 74 and note 33 for a list of tablets indicating the beer to be brewed or purchased.

[4] Horst Klengel 1979, Die Palastwirtschaft in Alalah, Orientalia Lovaniensa Analecta 6, p. 440 + n. 24.

[5] Dominique Colon 1975, The Seal Impressions from Tell Atchana/Alalakh, Alter Orient und Altes Testament 27, p. 4 and 45.

06/06/2014  Christian Berger