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Did ancient Persians boil water for safety?
I was reading Herodotus last night and came across this quote (emphasis mine):

Quote:Now, the Great King [Cyrus] goes on his military expeditions well equipped with food and livestock from home, and he also brings water from the River Choäspes (on whose banks the city of Susa is situated), because water from no other river except the Choäspes is allowed to pass the king’s lips. This Choäspes water is boiled, and wherever the king might be campaigning on any given occasion, he is accompanied by a large number of four-wheeled wagons, drawn by mules, which carry the water in silver containers.

Herodotus, I.188

I don't remember ever seeing anything like this before. Now, the first thing that comes to mind for a modern reader is that boiling water could kill microbes and make it safe to drink. But why would someone in antiquity boil water before drinking?

Could it have been trial and error, where someone somewhere discovered that boiled water was less likely to make one sick (even if they didn't understand exactly why it worked)? Or is there some other reason for doing this that I am overlooking?
David J. Cord
No opinions? Or is this topic just hard to find buried down here in the Food category? :wink:
David J. Cord
Totally unrelated, but the only thing I can add to the topic: Aristotle already described desalination, so the ancients knew a thing or two about water.
Stefan (Literary references to the discussed topics are always appreciated.)
When did man start cooking his food? Water would be the next logical step not only for drinking; but also for cleaning wounds.
A simple explanation could be that they were trying to recreate the water from mineral springs. They are said to have healing properties to this day after all!

Bronze and silver doesn't rust like crazy when applied to fire either.
Craig Bellofatto

Going to college for Massage Therapy. So reading alot of Latin TerminologyWink

It is like a finger pointing to the moon. DON\'T concentrate on the finger or you miss all the heavenly glory before you!-Bruce Lee

Train easy; the fight is hard. Train hard; the fight is easy.- Thai Proverb

I just found this post and think it is a fascinating subject. I agree that it is probably in the wrong category, ....not sure that everyone on RAT checks the food least I don't... :oops: but will from now on. Maybe you should repost or our admin staff can move it,...not sure which is best.

I think someone already mentioned that the water was carried in silver containers, much more hygienic than skins or earthenware vessels. I could see boiling starting as a ritual process, steam ascending to the gods etc, with an unintended consequence of pure water. I am surprised that it did not catch on in other elements of society. I guess we just had to rely on the alcohol in cheap wine to keep most bacteria at bay.

Hope to see more on this!

Regards from a cool but very humid Scupi Arminius Primus aka Al


aka ( Al Fuerst)

They boiled it to purify it. Sanskrit documents of about 2,000 BC (eg. the Susruta and Ousruta sutras) prescribe boiling, exposure to the sun, immersing red hot metal articles, adding various concoctions of flowers, herbs and seeds and filtration through sand and charcoal for improving the appearance and taste of water. The ancient Indians had an extensive body of empirical knowledge and lore concerning water. It seems entirely plausible that such knowledge could have found its way to the near east, or have been independently discovered, by the time of Cyrus.
Hello, my name is Harry.
With regard to boiling water, what you have to understand is that, at the time, the primary religion would have been Zoroastrianism (or some form of it, since the concepts of Zoroastrianism is what most organised religions we know today are in fact based on, having borrowed various bits of it). In Zoroastrianism, the two most important elements are fire and water.

Zoroastrianism's prophet - Zoroast - the guy who came up with the religion in the first place and the guy whose experiences are what tales of Jesus, Mithra etc are largely based on, was in fact in a river drawing water for a primitive religious purification ceremony when he supposedly had the 'visions' which led to the formation of Zoroastrianism as a religion, and although it took a while to catch on, Zoroastrianism ended up being the state religion of many places in and around Persia.

It's not hard to see how ancient peoples might have come to the conclusion that fire and water might lead to magical (or sacred if you prefer) properties. Even at a basic level, the fact that steam comes off water when it is boiled (and looks a bit like the smoke which comes off fire) would have had even uneducated people making some kind of connection between the two and since, especially in desert cultures, we know how important both fire and water are, i.e. you need both to survive - water in the day and fire at night when it gets cold, this makes a lot of sense even without the religious mumbo-jumbo people attached to it.

Way before medicine was understood to the level it is these days, people were boiling plants to extract stuff from the leaves for medicinal purposes, and so we can logically surmise that even without fully understanding water-borne microbes and diseases, experience would have probably had people knowing that boiling water made it less unhealthy to drink simply by learning this over time. Couple this with the religious aspects of how fire and water were regarded in Zoroastrianism on a mystical level, and it's likely that you have your explanation.

Alan Bradbury
Yes, I think the fact that the Great King would only drink water from a particular river lends support to the idea there were reasons beyond the mundane for boiling. Sacred wells or springs comes to mind.
David J. Cord
If the ancient Indus knew about purifying water, there's no reason to assume Cyrus didn't. His tribe was the Medes, although he ended up as the king of Persia; and like the Indus, the Medes came off the steppes where Zarathura was born.

The "fire and water" (in the post above)is interesting but might be overstating a rather simple precautionary measure-- avoiding dysentary.

OR!-- perhaps Cyrus liked the particular taste of water from than river. Kinda like someone today drinking Perrier water in preference to Polad Spring water.
Alan J. Campbell

member of Legio III Cyrenaica and the Uncouth Barbarians

Author of:
The Demon's Door Bolt (2011)
Forging the Blade (2012)

"It's good to be king. Even when you're dead!"
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