Wissa, Wine, law, custom and ritual in Umayyad Egypt

Wine, law, custom and ritual in Umayyad Egypt

Myriam Wissa (University of London)

Wine production and consumption has not loomed large in the study of the Umayyad period. Yet wine is commonly found in poetry of the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid times. Wine party majlis in the ‘khamriyya poetic genre’ (C.van Ruymbeke and K. Dmitriev) is often associated with the pre-Islamic Sasanian wine culture (D. Brookshaw). The tradition of the wine party is echoed in the monasteries of Syria and Iraq renowned for their vintages and taverns. These monasteries were private destinations for Christian and Muslim urban elites alike and eventually came to figure prominently in Arabic khamriyya. This can also be read as a paradigm for the inclusion of non-Islamic practices that remained outside the law. In Egypt, throughout the medieval Islamic period, many of the indigenous Coptic and Ancient Egyptian customs such as drinking wine on the Island near the Nilometer, on the Nile boats and the river’s banks, particularly during the Coptic festivals, found their way into the life of both the Muslim local population and the members of the ruling elites. This suggests that wine production in the Coptic monasteries was significant.

This paper examines the evidence for the production and consumption of wine in the Coptic and Greek ostraca culled from eighth-century Egypt. In doing so it reveals much about the nature of Umayyad society and provides an important clue of fiscal and economic life.

The paper concludes by suggesting that the trajectory into Christian networks, without the boundaries for the influence of the shari’a, had wide-ranging political implications.