Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ancient Christian "Holy Wine" Factory Found in Egypt

National Geographic

Two wine presses found in Egypt were likely part of the area's earliest winery, producing holy wine for export to Christians abroad.

Egyptian archaeologists discovered the two presses with large crosses carved across them near St. Catherine's Monastery, a sixth-century A.D. complex near Mount Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula. Although the presses have not yet been conclusively dated, archaeologists believe the tools were made between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. Several gold coins picturing the Roman Emperor Valens, who ruled from A.D. 364 to 378, were also found near the presses. The wine presses could date to the same period, archaeologists say. Similar coins have been found in Lebanon and Syria—the areas of origin for many of the grape varieties used for wine in ancient Egypt.

The wine made near Sinai was stored in the amphorae, standard vessels of the time for shipping wine, olive oil, grain, fish, and other items. It would have been considered to be from a holy site and used in religious ceremonies—such as the Christian Eucharist—at St. Catherine's Monastery and abroad. Early Christians likely managed to grow grapevines and palm trees at the winery site because—at more than 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) above sea level—it would have been cooler than the surrounding desert.

The wine presses have 4-foot-square (1.2-meter-square) basins, where monks would have used their feet to smash grapes. A hole at one end of each press likely fed into a lower basin, which caught the pressed juice. The structures are similar to presses used by ancient Egyptians, beginning as early as 3,000 B.C., when pharaohs started a royal winemaking industry in the fertile Nile Delta.

There is no evidence, however, that ancient Egyptians produced wine in this part of the Sinai Peninsula.

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