BAR Test Kitchen: Mersu

Ancient Syrian date pastries

There’s no denying that I have a sweet tooth. Whether I am at home or abroad, I am always in search of desserts. From croissants to baklava, I’ve sampled many delicious dishes—but never before one from Bronze Age Syria.


Mersu as envisioned by BAR.

For this dish, I journeyed back in time—to an ancient recipe from the site of Mari, Syria (c. 1775–1761 B.C.E.), and also back into the BAS Library to an article written by scholar Adam
Maskevich.* With a love for both the ancient Near East and cooking, Maskevich undertook some experimental archaeology. Using the work of the late Assyriologist Jean Bottéro, who translated numerous Babylonian recipes, Maskevich created a recipe for mersu, an ancient type of “cake” that involved mixing flour with a liquid (water, milk, oil, beer, or even butter).1 Various inclusions (dates, pistachios, figs, raisins, and spices, such as cumin and coriander) were sometimes added. An exact recipe for mersu doesn’t exist, but archaeologists have been able to reconstruct it indirectly from administrative sources, such as the delivery notice from Mari during the reign of King Zimri-Lim:

(Received) 120 liters of dates
And 10 liters of pistachios,
for making mersu.
Meal of the king,
The 14th of the month of Kiskissu,
of the year that followed
the seizing of Ašlakkâ by King

Although no details are given—in this text or in others—about how to cook mersu, we learn that it was mixed in large pots and often prepared by specialists in Mari. We see that it varied by ingredients and came in different shapes and sizes.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

Using this list from Mari and Maskevich’s recipe as my basis (modifying the latter only slightly), here is what I cooked up:

Mersu (BAR’s variation)

Makes about 20


½ pound (8 oz) dried, pitted dates, finely chopped
½ cup water
¼ cup (1 oz) pistachios, shelled and finely chopped
3 cups flour (I used wheat, but you could use barley for authenticity)
1 cup chilled butter, cut into small cubes
5 tablespoons milk


Ingredients for Mersu.


1) Put the dates in a small pan and add water. Cook over medium heat until a thick paste forms, stirring often (about 5–8 minutes).


2) Mix in pistachios. Set this aside to cool.


3) Mix flour and butter together until it resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk slowly until dough holds together. Cover dough and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4) Break off a 2-inch piece of dough and roll it in your hands until it becomes pliable. Shape into a ball. Make a hole in the ball’s center with your thumb and pinch the sides between your thumb and index finger to enlarge the hole.


5) Take some of the cooled date paste and fill the hole three-quarters of the way. Pinch the edges of the dough together and roll into a ball.


6) Place on a baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough and bake for 25 minutes in an oven preheated to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.


I hope this ancient dish gains some new fans. Enjoy!


Based on Strata: “BAR Test Kitchen: Ancient Syrian Date Pastries” from the September/October 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.



* Adam Maskevich, “A Mesopotamian Feast,” Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2006.

1. Jean Bottéro, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 23.

2. Bottéro, Oldest Cuisine, p. 23; text from Madeleine Lurton Burke, Archives royales de Mari: Textes administratifs de la salle 111 du Palais (Paris: Geuthner, 1963), no. 13.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

BAR Test Kitchen: Tah’u Stew

BAR Test Kitchen: Roman Custard

14,400-Year-Old Flatbreads Unearthed in Jordan

Biblical Bread: Baking Like the Ancient Israelites by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott

Fruit in the Bible by David Moster

The 10 Strangest Foods in the Bible by David Moster


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3 Responses

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  • Debbie says

    Would be helpful if you would please show the recipe without pics (or show it both ways). Thanks.

  • Linda says

    Made this Mersu and husband and I really like it. Will definitely make it again.

  • cynthia says

    these seem to be the same as maamul cookies common in israel and all the middle east

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