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History’s Greatest Feast

The year was 879 BC in the newly built capital of Assyria. And in a time without social media, there was only one way for the King to show off his new palace. A party. But not any part, one with 69,574 guests and a food menu that included 15,000 lambs, 10 000 fish, and 200 000 liters of alcohol.

Ashurnasirpal II is arguably one of history's most colorful kings and party makers. When he ascended the throne of Assyria, he decided to build a new capital to surpass his predecessors. The city was called Kalhu, also known as Nimrod from the Bible, and it was beautiful, located just next to the Tigris river. The walls surrounding the city were at least 15 meters or 49 feet tall and 37 meters or 121 feet wide. Ashurnasirpal's palace was guarded by massive human-headed lamassu bulls carved in stone, and the inner walls were lavishly decorated with reliefs showing off the King's great achievements. But even more impressive than the palace, the walls, and the city was that Ashurnasirpal built a zoo with botanical gardens and exotic animals such as tigers, elephants, rhinos, and bears.

And on the last note of a colorful king, scholars believe Ashurnasirpal to be the most brutal homo sapiens in written history. This is the King's record of what he did with people that rebelled against his rule.

I cut the limbs of the officers who had rebelled. I covered the pillars with their skin. From some, I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers. Of many, I put out their eyes.

Either, Ashurnasirpal was a total brute, I mean brutal even with ancient measures. Or he was a PR genius who used propaganda to intimidate his enemies and to let the whole ancient world talk about him and the party of Kalhu.

Ashurnasirpal was determined to make this party the greatest the world had ever seen, so he invited people from the lands of Suhu, Hindanu, Patinu, Hatti, Tyre, Sidon, Gurgumu, Malidu, Hubushku, Gilsanu, Kummu, and Musasiru. Together with the inhabitants of Kalhu, they were 69,574 people, and they weren't there for the evening. They were there to party for ten days.

And here's the food and drink menu:

1,000 fattened head of cattle, 1,000 calves, 10,000 stable sheep, 15, 000 lambs, 1,000 sihhu-sheep, 1,000 spring lambs, 500 stags, 500 gazelles, 1,000 ducks, 500 geese, 5,000 kurku-geese, 1,000 mesuku-birds, 1,000 qaribu-birds, 10,000 doves, 10,000 sukanunu-doves, 10,000 other, assorted, small birds, 10,000 assorted fish, 10,000 assorted eggs, 10,000 loaves of bread, 1,000 wooden crates with vegetables, 100,000 liters of wine and 100,000 liters of beer.

I'll stop there, but the list goes on. A fun fact is that I added the weight of these animals to conclude that they weigh 3,500 tons, which would end up with 5 kilos or 11 pounds of meat per person per day.

Several ceremonies preceded the eating and drinking, and there was a parade of standards even before the guests were seated. Oaths were sworn, treaties were announced, and gifts were given to the King. Some that added to his zoo.

Since the party continued for ten days, they used expensive torches and oil lamps to keep the party going even during nighttime. It's likely that the party took place in and around the palace since it would be hard to fit almost 70,000 people in one room. All guests were anointed with perfumes since it was mandatory to smell good, just as it was mandatory to wash hands before dinner opened. The army of waiters, who would have been thousands, would already have arranged wooden tables and chairs for guests to sit on. Imagine how enormous their kitchen must have been, not to mention the challenges of organizing so many workers. The chefs didn't have electric stoves that kept even temperatures or refrigerators where food was kept cold. Cooking gourmet food in those days was an art.

Where people were seated relative to the King was a mark of status, and so was the food they were served. Not all dishes were created equal. The chief dignitaries would have eaten better than the King's subordinates. And guests were alert to the type of wine and beer they were offered and if their meat were grass or grain fed because, after the party, they would report back to their home country on how they were treated.

Apart from individual ingredients, animals, and drinks, a few dishes were mentioned on the Kalhu menu. One of the dishes on the menu was called Gubibate, and to me, being an Assyrian, that rings a bell. After some research, I found that the Akkadian word Gubibate is likely what Assyrians today refer to as Kebebat, or simply Kutle.

An Assyrian dumpling I have eaten my whole life. My grandmother has been making them since she was a child in southeastern Turkey, where she grew up, not far from Ashurnasirpal's palace. And she told me her grandmother was making them before her, who in turn must have learned the making of them from her mother or grandmother. And now we're already back in the early 1800s. Considering that humans could easily live until they were 70 years old, that's only 40 people away until we were at Ashurnasirpal's party.

What makes it likely that Gubibate ended up on the King's plate during the party of Kalhu is that they require technique, precision, and time to craft—making them a special treat for anyone, especially a king.

If you want the full Gubibate recipe, click here.

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