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Zimri-Lim and his mersu cookies from Mari

In the 18th century BC, a king called Zimri-Lim made an order on a clay tablet. One hundred twenty liters of dates and 10 liters of pistachios. For the making of mersu. History's first documented cookie.

Zimri-Lim grew up in the kingdom of Mari. Being the crown prince, it was only a matter of time before Zimri-Lim became king. But things didn't go as planned. And during a coup, Zimri-Lim's father was killed by his servants. Zimri-Lim fled and lived in exile. But the young prince was charming and made allies. And when the time was right, he took back his father's kingdom.

Zimri-Lim had at least 23 daughters, several aunts, and a few wives. Almost all of them wrote letters to the king when they had problems – asking for favors, complaining, and even threatening him. But as opposed to many other kings before and after him, Zimri-Lim thought highly of women. For example, he let his wife, queen Shibtu, rule his entire kingdom while he was traveling and networking. He also brought many of his daughters on an epic road trip to the mediterranean sea. He even had a palace inside his palace solely for women. And many of his workers, such as cooks, teachers, scribes, and musicians, were women.

But there could have been one thing Zimri-Lim valued higher than women. Food. And Mari is one of the sites from Mesopotamia that left us with many food sources. Excavations have revealed a couple of dozen molds for making bread and desserts. All are different in shape and size. And even more impressive, Zimri-Lim built an ice house in a nearby town called Terqa. The purpose was to store ice from the mountains to cool drinks during the hot summer.

We also have a lot of written food sources from Mari. Archeologists uncovered over 20 000 clay tablets, and some revealed what ended up on the king's table. We know Zimri-Lim enjoyed cooked lentils and chickpeas, maybe hummus. Sourdough bread. Porridge. Truffles. And meat. His favorite drinks were wine and alappânu, which means pomegranate beer. A drink he probably drank cooled.

But what's interesting about alappânu, the pomegranate beer, is that the king seemed to have enjoyed it with mersu. A dessert that only designated people in Mesopotamia knew how to make. These people had the title episat mersi, makers of mersu. And they certainly worked for the king.

But what exactly was mersu? The short answer is we don't know for sure. A modern interpretation of mersu is mashed dates with chopped pistachio nuts rolled into balls. Similar to the raw balls that have grown popular lately. While that would be 100% correct according to Zimri-Lim's order – would the king need episat mersis' for making those simple balls? Maybe, but probably not.

Etymologically the word mersu derives from marasu, which means mixing, probably of flour that the episat mersis' soaked in a liquid based on water, beer, milk, or butter. And there is a source that leads back to Ur in 2100 BC, where the inhabitants offered mersu to the gods. From that source, we learn that mersu was based on at least two other ingredients, flour, and butter. So now we have four ingredients – flour and butter from the Ur source and dates and pistachios from Zimri-Lim's order in Mari. With these ingredients, mersu can't have been a raw ball. It must have been a cake or cookie.

In Mesopotamia literature, humans and gods alike were crazy about cakes. When the goddess of love and war, Inana, visited her father Enki in the city of Eridu – Enki served her sweet butter cake. After she had the cake, Inana made her father drunk and took away the gifts of civilization, but that's a whole other story. In another legend, Enlil, the king of the gods, made a similar offering when the moon god Nanna visited him. The poem reads: "Give sweet cakes to my Nanna who loves eating sweet cakes."

Note that Mesopotamian literature only mentions cakes. But in English, the word cookie means a small flat cake. And considering that the wheat in ancient Mesopotamia had less gluten than today's wheat, it would've been easier to make cookies.

But there's yet another source confirming the episat mersis' used flavor agents when making mersu. Although sources of what flavors they used are scarce, one has survived. And it mentions the onion family. We tried adding onions to our cookie, but it tasted anything but a dessert. Maybe onions were different 4000 years ago. Maybe people's taste buds were. However, we chose other flavoring agents: honey, a common ingredient to sweeten desserts in Mesopotamia – and cardamom. Cardamom is indigenous to the Indus valley, but trade between Mesopotamia and India started in the early 3rd millennium BC. And we know people in Mesopotamia used cardamom since Merodach-Baladan planted it in his garden in Babylon.

Our interpretation of mersu is a butter cookie with dates and pistachios, sweetened with honey and flavored with cardamom. But there's one secret inside this cookie. The secret behind this delicious treat is that we use date syrup instead of mashed dates.

But what happened to Zimri-Lim? The king who loved his mersu? Although he had been an ally of Hammurabi, the king of Babylon, to whom he regularly sent quality wine, Hammurabi marched on Mari circa 1760 BC. Scholars still don't understand why. In any case, Hammurabi destroyed the beautiful city of Mari instead of incorporating it into his empire. The reason could have been that Mari's beauty overshadowed Babylon. And that Hammurabi, just like the queen in snow white, couldn't stand it. But one thing is for sure, Zimri-Lim had eaten his last mersu. He probably died during Mari's destruction because he disappeared from the history books. But we thank him for documenting this dessert.

If you want the full mersu recipe, click here.

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