Cover for “Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and History of the Iraqi Cuisine.” (Photo, courtesy of Nawal Nasrallah.)
Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning “between two rivers”) was an ancient region in the Near East, which corresponds roughly to present-day Iraq. Widely regarded as the “cradle of civilization,” Mesopotamia should be more properly understood as a region that produced multiple empires and civilizations rather than any single civilization. Iraqi cuisine, like its art and culture, is the sum of its varied and rich past. Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine, by independent scholar Nawal Nasrallah, offers more than 400 recipes from the distant past in addition to fascinating perspectives on the origins of Iraqi cuisine.
In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) speaks to Nawal Nasrallah about the research behind her unique, encyclopedic cookbook, the origins of Iraqi cuisine, and her passion for cooking ancient recipes.
We had a 4-day national holiday. Meaning what? No clinic and no hospital! I said to myself, “It’s been a long time since I have visited Babylonia.” I drove my car for about 11 hours, continuously. Finally, I was there. I went to my uncle’s house, which lies about a quarter of hour from the ancient city of Babylon. The ancient city lies within modern-day city of Hillah, the center of Babel Governorate, Iraq, about 83 kilometers south of Baghdad, the Iraqi capital city.
After the US-led invasion in 2003, the American and Polish armies established a military base within the ancient city. God only knows what happened there during their presence! A British Museum report has found that extensive damage was done to the site by this military occupation. In 2009, the local government of Babylon opened the city to the public.
It was a very sunny and hot day in mid-July, with temperatures exceeding 55 oC (131 F). I took 8 bottles of cold water with me!
A general view of the ancient city of Babylon. The picture was shot from Saddam’s Palace, which lies on a mound which looks over the city. The South Palace of Nebuchadnezzar lies on the right. Babylon, modern day Babel Governorate, Iraq.
The reconstruction of ancient recipes challenges experimental archaeologists and chefs alike, while concurrently offering unique glimpses into the culinary tastes of diverse ethnic groups. Ms. Laura Kelley, author and founder of The Silk Road Gourmet blog, analyzes the links between recipes, civilizations, and trade across great distances and over long periods of time. As a frequent traveler, Laura first noted the commonalities between recipes and cooking methods, which in turn provided the catalyst for her research as an independent scholar.
In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Laura about her interest in cooking — past and present — as well as how she has been able to reconstruct recipes from ancient Central Asia, Mesopotamia, and Rome.
Three successive civilizations — Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian — flourished along the “Fertile Crescent” in ancient Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Renown for their creativity, dynamism, and complexity, these cultures also provide the earliest models of civilization in the West. This fall, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Canada is celebrating the remarkable achievements and artistic sophistication of ancient Mesopotamia in a landmark exhibition: Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World.
In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Clemens Reichel, Associate Curator at the ROM, about the importance of these civilizations, and of how we can better assess and understand their legacy in modern times.