“Spices”; they evoke visions of exotic tastes and far flung lands shrouded with mystery. For thousands of years, this is how they were perceived. The name is derived from the Latin word, species, which was applied to any food stuffs considered exotic in the middle ages.
The fascination for spices has appealed to many civilizations before the Europeans. Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used them widely for a variety of different purposes.
In Egypt, laborers were fed spices to give them strength whilst building the Pyramid Cheops. Cinnamon, Cassia, Anise, Marjoram and Cumin were essential in the burial and embalming process.
The Greeks and Romans spent vast fortunes obtaining exotic Asian imports from Arabia to be used mainly in cooking but also for incense, perfumes, their medicinal properties and as an aphrodisiac.
Used to preserve food and meat, they also hid the taste and smell of badly preserved food, especially after a long winter, making it more palatable and spices more valuable.
Pepper became one of the main players in the spice trade becoming akin to gold in the market value and used as a substitute for money. Landlords would be paid “peppercorn” rent, conquerors would accept spice stores as booty, victory tax or to spare the lives of the conquered city. Eventually with economies being built on the pepper trade other countries wanted to create exclusive routes to the sources.
Originally, Arabs controlled the majority of the spices using vast caravans along trade routes, one of the most famous being the Golden Road to Samarkland. To keep the origin of spices a secret, many myths and fables were created to discourage others seeking their source.
One such myth was Cinnamon, supposedly only found on a mountain range somewhere in Arabia. Jealously guarded by enormous vicious birds whose nests were made with cinnamon, the Arabs would slaughter their donkeys, leaving the fresh meat for the birds to take back to the nests. The weight of the meat would cause the nests to break enabling brave Arabs to pick up the nest pieces.
In fact Arabian merchants were the middle men buying spices from the Chinese merchants returning from India. The Arabs then transported the shipments overland in caravans across the deserts of southern Asia and the Middle East.
As the Roman Empire grew they dismissed the fables and began sailing from Egypt to India to trade, breaking the Arab monopoly. As Europe developed, they began to seek their own trade routes as tariffs imposed along the spice route increased the price of spices sometimes as much as a third of their original value.
Whilst there were many different routes taken, the map below follows the journeys of a traveler in the 1300’s known as Ibn Battuta. Over a 30 year period, he traveled over 75,000 miles by caravan and boat visiting many ports and cities that were essential part of the spice trade.