The Egyptian art of beekeeping

The Egyptian art of beekeeping Last updated on Friday 16th April 2010

Beehives have been in use in Egypt for almost 5000 years. This is an ancient art which has influenced the entire Mediterranean region, extending eastwards into the Middle East and southward into tropical Africa.

Methods used by ancient Egyptian beekeepers were adopted throughout these regions, and honey is regarded as an important commodity by all Islamic countries. The Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) is quoted as saying:

"Honey is a remedy for every illness, and the Qur'an is a remedy for all illnesses of the mind. Therefore I recommend to you both remedies, the Qur'an and honey."

The basic hive shape was cylindrical with a hole in the front end for the bees to fly in and out. A detachable section at the back was used for harvesting the honeycombs, and these hives were stacked horizontally. Hives were made of baked mud, or perhaps of fired clay.

Ancient pictorial records show the beekeeper taking honey from the opened section at the back of the hive, while his assistant drives the bees to the front with puffs of smoke. A coloured wall-painting from Egypt's Middle Kingdom depicts this beautifully. The painting decorates the tomb of Rekhmire at Luxor and dates from about 1800 BC. From the Old Kingdom period, a carving from the sun temple of Pharaoh Ne-user-re, located near Djoser's pyramid and now on display in Berlin's Egyptian Museum, also depicts beekeeping activities. The relief dates from about 2500 BC.

The size of these ancient hives is difficult to estimate, but clay hives excavated in Greece dating from 400BC to AD600 have provided extra information. Ancient Roman writers provided further evidence as to size; the usual dimensions seem to have been about 90cm long and about 30cm across. Traditional hives of about this size are still in use throughout the Mediterranean region.

Indeed, the passage of time has seen very few changes in these ancient beekeeping methods. This is probably because these methods were handed down from father to son and, while the bees and their sources of food did not change, neither did the methods of keeping them. Thus, in many parts of the world, including Egypt, traditional beekeeping is practiced by using the same methods and the same style of hives as they were used thousands of years ago.

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