Tom Standage’s “History of the World in Six Glasses” is a good read. Standage writes for The Economist and has published several books. This is by far my favorite. The book frames history from the stone age to the 21st century through each of the era’s signature beverages–beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Standage charts the history of each and shows how historical movements and even entire civilizations were influenced by particular drinks. How the workers in ancient Egypt relied on a diet of beer and bread to build the pyramids. How one of Washington’s first official acts in 1794 was to send a militia of over 10,000 men to Pennsylvania to put down a rebellion over whiskey taxes. How the tea industry in China was inexorably linked to the opium trade. And then there’s wine.
Standage writes that wine appeared later than beer by thousands of years. He then highlights what has to be one of the largest and most excessive celebrations in human history hosted by one Ashurnasirpal II, the king of Assyria from 883 to 859 BCE. During his reign, Ashurnasirpal II embarked on a huge plan of territorial expansion, conquering lands to the north and west, even exacting tribute from the Phoenicians on the Mediterranean coast. By all accounts, his methods were brutal. After conquering the Aramaeans and Neo-Hittites in what is now modern Syria, his armies put down a two day revolt. Then he had a monument raised in his honor with the following inscribed:
“Their men young and old I took prisoners. Of some I cut off their feet and hands; of others I cut off the ears noses and lips; of the young men’s ears I made a heap; of the old men’s heads I made a minaret. I exposed their heads as a trophy in front of their city. The male children and the female children I burned in flames; the city I destroyed, and consumed with fire.”
Yes, Ashurnasirpal II was a cruel rat-bastard of the highest order. But the man also knew how to throw a party. Standage writes that the feast held to celebrate the building of the new Assyrian capital in Nimrud lasted for ten days. Over 70,000 attended and were served 1,000 fattened cattle, 1,000 calves, 10,000 sheep, 1,000 spring lambs, 500 gazelles, 1,000 ducks, 1,000 geese, 20,000 doves, 12,000 other small birds, 10,000 fish, and 10,000 jerboa—a kind of small rodent. Vegetables, if you’re curious, were an afterthought, with just 1,000 cases served. Astounding as the previous list is, the most important part of the festivities was the fact that wine—not beer—was featured. No doubt beer was the common beverage at the time, having been extant for at least two millennia. But wine was a prohibitively expensive rarity, produced hundreds of miles away in mountain vineyards. It had to be transported down river to the new capital by boat. In serving wine, the king demonstrated his power and wealth to all his subjects and beyond.
After finishing the book, I forgot about Ashurnasirpal II until one cold fall day in London in 2008 when I was in the UK to help with MS exam. I flew in early to have a museum day, spending the morning at the Victoria & Albert, one of my favorite museums anywhere. After lunch, I took the underground to the British Museum. It was my first visit there and initial impressions can only be described as “overwhelm.” In a moment of rare common sense, I booked a tour. I’m glad I did. Our guide was named Emma. She was thin as a reed and about 5’5,” with wire rim spectacles and graying hair done up in a bun so tight she’d never need plastic surgery. Emma’s voice was a bit on the shrill side. It reminded me of Frau Greta Farbissina in the Austin Powers movies in that she shouted out directions, often startling those in our group as well as innocent bystanders.
Our first stop on the tour was the Rosetta Stone, one of the most remarkable artifacts from the ancient world. Emma warned us there would be a huge crowd and that it was imperative to stay close together and follow her instructions. From at least 30 feet away, she slowly backed up towards the exhibit with our group following close behind. Those already viewing the Rosetta Stone had no choice to move as our group made its way. Several people complained about our pushing them aside. One Italian guy even yelled at us. Frau Farbissina barked at them in response, telling them go somewhere else. And they did.
Once in front of the exhibit, Emma gave us a thorough history of the stone and an explanation of why it’s so important to the history of language. Finally, after the crowds threatened to go all wonky around us we took off for calmer locations, first stopping at the Elgin Marbles. When someone in the group asked her about the possibility of the museum returning the marbles to the Greek government, she responded with something along the lines of “that will surely happen when hell freezes over.” Otherwise, the tour lasted about 90 minutes and was more than worth the price of admission. At the end, I tipped Emma five pounds, more than anything because I was afraid of her. But she actually smiled and thanked me.
Afterwards, I had tea and a snack at the café in the Grand Court with its roof of 3,312 individual panels of glass held together by four miles of steel (!). Then I spent at least two more hours in the museum going from end to end, mind agog the entire time as I looked at the exhibits. Before heading out, I strolled through the antiquities one last time. At one point, I rounded a corner to find an enormous room with the walls covered in ancient Assyrian stone reliefs. As I scanned the scenes, I suddenly stopped cold. There in the middle of one of the reliefs was a large kingly sort holding a cylix—a shallow bowl for wine. No doubt he was fresh from having just slain a giant beast or two. Suddenly, I realized who he was. It was my buddy, Ashurnasirpal II.
In seconds, I became verklempt, even a touch misty-eyed. Maybe it was jet lag. But I knew it was him. I thought about this mighty but evil ruler from the ancient past who deigned to serve wine to his subjects. And how, in a way, king cruel shoes was responsible for my career. I silently thanked him but then immediately cursed him for his blatant lack of respect for human life. Regardless, it was a moment. Just me and Ashurnasirpal. And then the moment passed, but not before thinking about what kind of wine would pair best with small rodents.