Gold coins found nearby picturing the fourth century Roman Emperor Valens (lower) are indications that the wine was exported to Christians abroad, experts say.
for National Geographic News
Two wine presses found in Egypt were likely part of the area's earliest winery, producing holy wine for export to Christians abroad, archaeologists say.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
More presses are likely to be found in the area, which was probably an ancient wine-industry hub, according to Tarek El-Naggar, director for southern Sinai at Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Weeks after discovering the first wine press, excavators unearthed a nearly identical press with limestone walls, about 340 feet (100 meters) away. The find that may indicate the presence of many other presses in the area, El-Naggar said.
The discoveries so far include the presses, clay vessels called amphorae, and grape seeds. Archaeologists reported red residue on some walls.
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.
Holy Wine Sent Abroad
El-Naggar said the coins were produced in Antioch in today's southeastern Turkey. 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.
The wine 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.
"I think the monastery was using [these presses] to make the holy wine, because it's near to Mount Moses [Mount Sinai]," El-Naggar said, referring to the site where some believe the prophet Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.
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.
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 reason the wild grape did not grow [in Egypt] originally is because the climate was not conducive to it. But if you manage it with irrigation, you can grow grapes in these hot climates," said Patrick McGovern, of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, who was not involved in the new discovery.
An expert on ancient wine, McGovern said ancient Egyptian wine jars and stoppers often indicated the product's vintage, vintner, quality, and place of origin. "Egypt," McGovern said, "has the earliest wine labels."