Roman, Greek, Turkish or Egyptian: Where did Hellim (Halloumi) Really Come From?
Hellim is one of Cyprus’ most loved and well-known products. If you ask the Greeks, most would tell you it‘s a Greek cultural heritage passed from the Byzantines to Cyprus. If you ask the Turks, some would say it passed from the Arabs to the Greeks, and from the Greeks to the Turks… others would say it passed from the Arabs to all Cypriots irrespective. But one thing is abundantly clear: no one can agree on who made it first, or how it came to be on Cyprus, except, everyone across the board can concede it is an intractable cultural heritage of both parties to the island, the Turks and the Greeks.
Without digressing to the history of the Byzantine Empire, which contrary to common discourse was in fact Roman, not Greek(1)… or of Egypt, who was at the time ruled by the Mamluk Turks… we can concede that it is useful to look at hellim through these different lenses and draw conclusions based on such research.
This particular study will look at the history of cheesemaking in the region, as well as the etymology of hellim, as all these offer us clues into where hellim really came from.
But first we will pick a particular point from which to begin unravelling the origins of hellim, and what better for us to choose than what is perhaps the most popularised assertion regarding the origins of hellim in Greek circles: “hellim dates back to the Byzantine period (395-1191 A.D.)”
“It is impossible to associate the existence or knowledge of hellim or the hellim making process with the Byzantines”
HISTORY OF CHEESEMAKING
Though there is no conclusive evidence indicating where cheese-making originated, and Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Sahara have all been noted as possible places of origin, the production of cheese itself predates recorded history, beginning well over 7,000 years ago,(2)(3)(4) and has most certainly existed on Cyprus too.
However, just as it is impossible to try and associate the existence or knowledge of cheesemaking with an exact location of origin, it is also impossible to try and associate the existence or knowledge of hellim or the method of hellim making with the Byzantines, or the period of history in which the Byzantines existed, or anywhere under Byzantine suzerainty or influence, especially when other cheeses are known to have been documented throughout but not hellim.(5)
This then leads us to make the observation that the earliest known descriptions of hellim were actually first recorded in the mid-16th century by Italian visitors to Cyprus,(6)(7) when the island was under Venetian-but-soon-to-be-Ottoman (Turkish) suzerainty, and following a period of joint Frankish-Mamluk (Turkish) suzerainty. This is where hellim originated.(8) Mid-16th century Cyprus, NOT the Byzantine empire.
At the end of the day, what this all boils down to is the following:
To attribute the origin of hellim to Cyprus is substantiable.
To attribute the origin of hellim to Cyprus during the Byzantine period, and especially where other cheeses were documented during the Byzantine period but not hellim, is unsubstantiable.
To attribute the origin of hellim to mid-16th century Cyprus, long after the Byzantine Empire had already ceased to exist, is substantiable.
To attribute the first known recording of hellim to Cyprus under then-Venetian-but-soon-to-be-Ottoman (Turkish) rule, is substantiable.
To attribute the first known recording of hellim to Cyprus during the purveyance of Venetian (Latin/Catholic) and/or possibly to a lesser extent Ottoman (Turkish) and other culture and customs on the island, is substantiable.
To attribute the first known recording of hellim to Cyprus during the purveyance of Byzantine (Greek/Orthodox) culture and customs on the island, is unsubstantiable.
“Hellim is likely of Medieval Egyptian origin”
ETYMOLOGY OF HELLIM
The etymology of the word also offers us a great insight as to the possible cultural origins of hellim, as well as the purveyance of certain culture and languages on Cyprus.
The English name for hellim, “halloumi”, is derived from the Modern Greek “χαλλούμι” of almost identical pronunciation.
Several scholars and food historians argue the etymology of the Modern Greek word “halloumi” is from the ancient Coptic “ialom” or “hallum” — meaning “cheese”. This suggests it could actually be Egyptian in origin.(9)(10)(11)(12)
Some argue it may be derived from the Greek word “almi” — meaning salty water.(13) This is consistent with the fact that a salty brine accompanies the cheese and adds to its better preservation, and is also applied to the argument that the cheese is a Byzantine (Roman/“Greek”) creation, although, this again is easily contested by the fact this is itself ultimately from the ancient Coptic “ialom” or “hallum”, once more suggesting an Egyptian origin.
But if we were to track the etymology starting with English, we can derive the following facts:
The English name “halloumi” is derived from Modern Greek: “χαλλούμι” [xaˈlumi], “halloumi” which itself is from Cypriot Maronite Arabic “xallúm”, “hallum”,(14) which is ultimately from Egyptian Arabic: “حلوم” “ḥallūm” [ħalˈluːm],(14) which is itself a loanword from the ancient Coptic “ϩⲁⲗⲱⲙ” “halom” (Sahidic) and “ⲁⲗⲱⲙ” “alom” (Bohairic) “cheese”, referring to a cheese that was in fact produced and eaten in medieval Egypt.
“Hellim itself may very well be considered a Mamluk (Turkic) import”
SO WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?
From this we can further research, derive and concede the following:
1. The etymology is of medieval Egyptian origin.
2. The etymology of hellim is actually not a very unique or creative choice in that it simply means “cheese”
3. The etymological origin word for hellim – “hallum”/“halom”/“ialom”/“alom” – was also used to refer to a brine-based cheese – much like hellim – that was produced and consumed in medieval Egypt.(15)
This then gives us a subject (brine-based cheesemaking), time frame and place (medieval Egypt) to examine further, upon which we can discover:
4. The island of Cyprus saw the purveyance of medieval Egyptian culture and customs – particularly the language – when hellim came to be, and to which the origin of the term “hellim” is attested.
5. In addition to point 4, that also opens up the possibility that beyond just Coptic or Egyptian Arabic, other medieval Egyptian culture and customs may have also purveyed on the island of Cyprus
6. In addition to points 4 and 5, and remembering that: a) the first mentions of hellim are attested to the mid-16th century, and b) we can isolate and give particular attention to that period and the etymological source: medieval Egypt, or rather, when the Turkic/Circassian Mamluks were sovereign in Egypt,(16) and especially where they had joint suzerainty of Cyprus after conquering and subjugating it to the status of a tributary state, this then opens up the real possibility of the etymological origin of hellim being attested to a period where hellim’s place of etymological origin (Egypt) and even Cyprus itself (though to a different extent) saw the purveyance of Turkic culture and customs, though as we already know, the etymological origin of “hellim” can already be attested to the dominions of the Mamluk Turks, meaning that hellim itself may very well be considered a Turkic import.
7. If we take point 3 seriously and have a solid look at the history of cheesemaking in medieval Egypt, particularly, cheeses referred to as simply “hallum” and/or going through the same method of production and use i.e. being washed/salted in brine, we can quickly discover that one particular medieval Egyptian cheese was Kaysi cheese, made from the milk of Khaysiyya cows of Damietta. Kaysi cheese is mentioned as early as the eleventh century A.D., and a fifteenth century author describes the cheese being washed, which may imply that it was salted in brine, much like hellim. The fact that this cheese, which is almost identical to hellim especially in terms of production method, existed in hellim’s place of etymological origin and before Cyprus saw the purveyance or at least exchange of culture and customs from Egypt, this may therefore have been a very likely ancestor of our modern day hellim.(15)
Holy MILK BATMAN!!!
There are a number of noticeable differences between hellim and halum, of course, most notably perhaps in that the former traditionally uses sheep or goat milk, not cow milk, and that this too has a simple answer to it: medieval Egyptian cheese mostly used buffalo or cows’ milk, with less use of goat and sheep milk than in other countries of the region.(15) And this is still a fact today, although the traditional method of basing hellim production on goat or sheep milk has been picked up by places such as the U.K. but abandoned by Cyprus in favour of cow’s milk.(9)
Also, though the modern production of hellim does include cow’s milk, which is cheaper and more abundant, and is not unique to Cyprus, there are still a number of noticeable differences between the production, storing, and consumption of what we generally refer to as hellim and the equivalent produced in modern day Egypt today, which differs slightly from the description of what we are purporting to be a likely predecessor for hellim.
Needless to say, bringing us back to the point that hellim is purported to be a Byzantine cheese, the effect being to also argue the similarly flawed argument that this somehow implies hellim has a “Greek” origin, simply doesn’t stand up.
Indeed, based on the above, and contrary to strenuously feigning the impossible to paint hellim as a “Greek” product of Byzantine origin, I would instead suggest that it is of Egyptian or Turkic origin, particularly if it were the latter, I would argue that much like strained yoghurt, which is often marketed as “Greek yoghurt”, it may be another cultural import of Turkic origin by the Greeks.
After all, we have to this point discounted weighing in the fact that the Mamluk Turks had a presence on Cyprus from as early as the 15th century, even conquering the island in 1426, and that the Ottoman Turks had been documented as living there as early as the 1400s, mostly after being taken there by Cypriot pirates returning to the island from raids in Asia Minor… and considering that the Turks had long been known for the production of dairy products such as yoghurts and cheeses, but especially that the origins of cheesemaking have been attested to their ancestors by various scholars, it wouldn’t be very farfetched to put all of this together with the above and argue that there may be even the slightest possibility that hellim production on the island may be attested to them.
I suggest more research is done into the history of cheesemaking on Cyprus as well as how it may have spread and developed there, particularly, the history of cheesemaking in Egypt and other dominions of the Turks and how that may have spread to or influenced cheesemaking on Cyprus.
But for now, this is what we know:
- Place of Origin = Cyprus
- First Documented = Venetian Cyprus
- Etymological Origin = Medieval Egypt
- Possible Predecessor = Medieval Egyptian cheeses
- Medieval Egypt = Mamluk Turkish Sultanate
- 16th Century Demographics of Cyprus = Included the Mamluk Turks and Ottoman Turks
Extra Info About Cheese
- The first cheese may have been made by people in the Middle East or by nomadic Turkic tribes in Central Asia. Since animal skins and inflated internal organs have, since ancient times, provided storage vessels for a range of foodstuffs, it is probable that the process of cheese making was discovered accidentally by storing milk in a container made from the stomach of an animal, resulting in the milk being turned to curd and whey by the rennet from the stomach.
- There is a widely-told legend about the discovery of cheese by an Arab trader who used this method of storing milk.
- According to Pliny the Elder, cheesemaking had become a sophisticated enterprise by the time the Roman Empire came into being.
- The earliest archaeological evidence of cheesemaking has been found in Egyptian tomb murals, dating to about 2000 BCE.
- According to ancient Greek mythology, Aristaeus, the cyclops of Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BCE) can be accredited with the Greeks’ discovery of cheese, as the book describes the mythological being making and storing sheep’s and goats’ milk cheese.
- Columella’s De Re Rustica (circa 65 CE) details a cheesemaking process involving rennet coagulation, pressing of the curd, salting, and aging.
- Pliny’s Natural History (77 CE) devotes a chapter (XI, 97) to describing the diversity of cheeses enjoyed by Romans of the early Empire.
- Rome spread a uniform set of cheesemaking techniques throughout much of Europe, and introduced cheesemaking to areas without a previous history of it.
- Many of the cheeses we know best today were first recorded in the late Middle Ages or after… cheeses such as cheddar around 1500 CE, Parmesan in 1597, Gouda in 1697, and Camembert in 1791.
- In 1546, John Heywood wrote in Proverbes that “the moon is made of a greene cheese.”
- The first factory for the industrial production of cheese opened in Switzerland in 1815.
(1) It only saw the purveyance of Orthodox culture and customs (following the Schism of 1054), and the Greek language which the religion held onto, but it was not dominated/ruled/governed/led by the Greeks. Even the term “Byzantine Empire” itself is a term created after the end of the realm; it was otherwise known as the Eastern Roman Empire; its citizens referred to their empire simply as the Roman Empire (Greek: Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων, tr. Basileia Rhōmaiōn; Latin: Imperium Romanum), or Romania (Ῥωμανία), and to themselves as “Romans”. Similarly, the Turks used the term “Rum” to refer to their Roman neighbours, as well as to their remnants after the Ottoman conquest of the region, and this continues to be used in reference to the modern Greeks today. (Also See: Kazhdan, Aleksandr Petrovich; Epstein, Ann Wharton (1985). Change in Byzantine Culture in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-05129-4)
(2) McClure, Sarah B.; Magill, Clayton; Podrug, Emil; Moore, Andrew M. T.; Harper, Thomas K.; Culleton, Brendan J.; Kennett, Douglas J.; Freeman, Katherine H. (5 September 2018). “Fatty acid specific δ13C values reveal earliest Mediterranean cheese production 7,200 years ago“. PLOS ONE. 13 (9): e0202807. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0202807. PMC 6124750. PMID 30183735.
(3) Pennsylvania State University. Evidence of 7,200-year-old cheese making found on the Dalmatian Coast. 5 September 2018.
(4) Maya Wei-Haas. Hints of 7,200-Year-Old Cheese Create a Scientific Stink. National Geographic. 5 September 2018.
(5) Goldstein, Darra – Merkle, Kathrin – Parasecoli, Fabio – Mennell, Stephen – Council of Europe (2005). Culinary cultures of Europe: identity, diversity and dialogue. Council of Europe. p. 121. ISBN 92-871-5744-8. Note: the methods of making cheeses such as hellim and feta are purported to have originated sometime in the Medieval Byzantine period, but this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when it doesn’t differentiate between associating the method of production with the actual cheese, and when although feta cheese in particular is recorded to have existed during the Byzantine period under the name prósphatos (Greek: πρόσφατος ‘recent’ or ‘fresh’), hellim was not, but was instead first recorded in the mid-16th century long after the Byzantines had already ceased to exist.
(6) P. Papademas, “Halloumi Cheese”, p. 117ff, in Adnan Tamime, ed., Brined Cheeses in the Society of Dairy Technology series, Blackwell 2006, ISBN 1-4051-2460-1
(7) Patapiou, Nasa (2006). “Leonardo Donà in Cyprus – A future Doge in the Karpass Peninsula (1557)” (PDF). Cyprus Today. Press and Information Office, Ministry of Interior, Nicosia, Cyprus. p. 8.
(8) Robinson, R. K. – Tamime, A. Y. (1991). Feta and Related Cheeses. Woodhead Publishing. p. 144. ISBN 1-85573-278-5. “(Hellim) is a semi-hard to hard, unripened cheese that, traditionally, is made from either sheep’s milk or goat’s milk or a mixture of the two… the cheese has its origins in Cyprus…”
(9) Jean Christou. Cyprus Produced Halloumi Inferior and Industrial UK Cheesemakers Say. Cyprus Mail. 08 November 2015.
(10) Oxford Dictionary: “halloumi. Origin: Egyptian Arabic ḥalūm, probably from Arabic ḥaluma “to be mild”.
(11) Collins Dictionary: “halloumi | haloumi. Origin: probably from Arabic haluma be mild.
(12) Halloumi. Wikipedia.
(13) Wiktionary. “halloumi | halloumis [plural] Origin: Greek χαλλούμι, derived from the Greek word “almi” – salty water. The name probably linked with the salty brine which accompanies the cheese and adds to its better preservation. Although may also be from Coptic ialom.”
(14) Borg, Alexander (2004). A Comparative Glossary of Cypriot Maronite Arabic (Arabic-English): With an Introductory Essay. Brill. pp. 11, 209–210. ISBN 9789004131989.
(15) Egyptian cheese. Wikipedia. “According to the medieval philosopher Al-Isra’ili, in his day there were three types of cheese: “a moist fresh cheese which was consumed on the same day or close to it; there was an old dry cheese; and there was a medium one in between.” The first would have been unripened cheese made locally from sour milk, which may or may not have been salted. The old dry cheeses would have often been imported,(Note: Cheese was also imported, and the common hard yellow cheese, rumi takes its name from the Arabic word for “Roman”. Also, in the 3rd century BC there are records of imported cheese from the Greek island of Chios, with a twenty-five percent import tax being charged. See: Kindstedt 2012, p. 74) and were cheeses ripened by rennet enzymes or bacteria.(See: Lewicka 2011, p. 230) The nature of the “medium” cheese is less certain, and may have referred to preserved fresh cheeses, evaporated milk or cheese similar to Indian paneer, where the addition of vegetable juices makes the milk coagulate.(See: Lewicka 2011, p. 231)”
(16) The Mamluk Sultanate was a medieval Turkic realm spanning Egypt, the Levant, and Hejaz. It lasted from the overthrow of the Ayyubid dynasty in 1250 until the Ottoman conquest in 1517. Its capital was Cairo. Prior to establishing the sultanate, in 1426, Mamluk soldiers conquered the island of Cyprus, then the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus, where Europeans had been growing sugar with the work of African slaves, and they made it a tributary state. Cyprus continued paying tribute to the Mamluks even through Venetian rule. In 1440, they attacked Rhodes, but they could not take it. By 1517, the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and took over their empire. The word Mamluk means ‘owned’ and the Mamluks were not native to Egypt but were always slave soldiers, mainly Qipchak Turks from Central Asia. The Bahri Mamluks (1250–1382) were mainly natives of southern Russia and the Burgi (1382–1517) comprised chiefly of Circassians from the Caucasus. As steppe people, they had more in common with the Mongols than with the peoples of Syria and Egypt among whom they lived. And they kept their garrisons distinct, not mixing with the populace in the territories. The contemporary Arab historian Abu Shama noted after the Mamluk victory over the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in 1260 that, ‘the people of the steppe had been destroyed by the people of the steppe’. One of the many official names of Mamluk dynasty was dawlat al-atrak/dawlat al-turk/al-dawla al-turkiyya that meant “The state of the Turks”. Another official name was dawlat al-jarakisa that meant “the period of the Circassians”. See: James Waterson. Who Were the Mamluks?. History Today. 5 September 2018; Mamluk Sultanate. Wikipedia; Mamluks. Medieval Chronicles.