Tilapia – history and myth

Wild caught tilapia is still an important source of food for many people living in Africa and the Middle East, and this region is also where the practice of raising tilapia in ponds instead of relying on wild-caught fish seems to have its origin. The oldest known instance of tilapia farming is depicted in the form of a bas-relief inside a 4,000 year old Egyptian tomb. On this relief, you can see tilapia fish living in ponds.

The ancient Egyptians called the fish ỉn.t and it was of such great importance to them that they created a special hieroglyph for it. The tilapia hieroglyph is number K1 on Gardiner’s Sign List, a list of common Egyptian hieroglyphs compiled by British Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner.

When the K1 hieroglyph was used as a logogram, it represented the Nile tilapia. When the Egyptians used it as a determinative (ideogram) instead, it could represent not just the Nile tilapia but also the Flathead mullet; another important source of food in the region. The K1 hieroglyph could also be used as a phonogram, representing the sound ỉn. Another group of people that we know have appreciated tilapia since ancient days are the Greek, and Aristotle is usually the one who is given the credit of naming the Nile tilapia Tilapia niloticus in 300 BC.

Tilapia was also a source of food for Jews living around the Sea of Galilee and has thus become a part of Christian mythology. According to legend, the fish caught by the apostle Peter in Matthew 17:27 was a tilapia and the fingerprints of the apostle formed dark marks on the skin of the fish. This is why tilapia species with a certain spotted pattern are known as “St. Peter’s fish” in English. The name St. Peter’s fish is also used for John Dory fish (Zeus faber), but that is a marine species so catching it in the Sea of Galilee, which is a large freshwater lake and not a real sea, would have been a miracle in itself. The Sea of Galilee is home to tilapia of the subspecies Sarotherodon galilaeus galilaeus.

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came up to Peter and said, “Your teacher pays the temple tax, doesn’t he?” He answered, “Yes.” When Peter went home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings on the earth collect tolls or tributes? From their own subjects, or from foreigners?” When he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “In that case, the subjects are exempt. However, so that we don’t offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook. Take the first fish that comes up, open its mouth, and you will find a coin. Take it and give it to them for me and you.”

Matthew 17:24-17:27