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Spice Trade and the Islamic World


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Zeynab
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« on: April 01, 2018, 10:44:01 pm »


Salaams dear all.





The spice trade within the medieval Islamic world is an indispensable topic when it comes to the history of food with all its innovations over the centuries in terms of taste and sophistication.   Spice trade started in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago but began making history from the 7th century.  It was predominant in the global spread of Islam as well as introducing to the world the variety of Middle-Eastern spices and cuisine.  The well-known medieval Arab hospitality was largely expressed through food and beverages.   Two of the earliest spices supplied by Arab traders to the world were cassia and cinnamon.


Mecca at the time of Prophet Muhammed's (pbuh) birth.


After the passing of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) in 632 A.D., he left an organized community of Muslims who were determined to carry his message to the world as the Arab Muslims swept through the Middle East with millions coming into the fold of Islam.  The religious unity was profound and strengthened with commitments that gave rise to an Empire with harmony, versatility and extraordinary grace.   First, the rule of the Rashidun (the Four Righteous Caliphs) who were the immediate political successors of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) from Medinah to Iraq.  Then came the successive dynasties of the Umayyads, Abassids, Fatimids and Mameluks, Safavids and Ottomans. Even before the spread of Islam outside Arabia, the new Muslims of the Arabian peninsula had been active traders.  Their trade links in the Red Sea region had already spread much by the 7th century owing to the decline of the Byzantine empire.  From this era onward, the spice trade by Muslim wholesalers and merchants flourished exceedingly, gaining total monopoly from Europe to China within the next couple of centuries.

Initially Arab traders utilized indirect channels for distribution involving middlemen when spices were transported from one merchant to another.  By the end of the 7th century they established direct distribution, crossing the deserts in lengthy caravans of camels and horses and sailing the seas in their fleet of ships.  They returned home to their rulers and their people with a diverse collection of products that included fabrics, jewels, weapons and most important of all, spices.  All of these goods were taxed and the retail prices were inclusive of the revenue they paid.   Thus, the direct Muslim dominance of the spice trade-route disposed of the need for any middlemen from other communities which not only helped the rapid spread of Islam but also brought enormous wealth and prosperity to the Middle East that vastly contributed to the development in other spheres of the Islamic society, mainly literature, science, medicine and the introduction of all-natural perfumes.  Several spices and herbs were experimented by the famous Iranian doctor, Ibn Sina (930 to 1037 AD), for the preparation of much needed medicines.    In the 9th and 10th centuries Arab physicians used spices and herbs to develop the method of producing syrups and flavoring extracts. Muslims were outstanding scientists of their time. They introduced the process of extracting fragrances from flowers and herbs, inventing distillation techniques to purify essential oils from aromatic plants.

Wherever Islam went there also traveled the Arabic language and culture, and Arab travelers were of paramount importance in the spread of Islam.   Northern Middle East connecting Europe, Africa and Asia was a central point and convenient location for conducting commerce.  This was one of the essential reasons for shifting the capital of the Islamic Empire from Medinah to Kufa in Iraq during the rule of Imam Ali.  Medinah is more than 700 miles south of Iraq, which, in those days was a quite a long extra distance to travel for the constant traffic of trade caravans .. those that needed to stop at or transit through the capital.  Understandably spices became the principal items for trade as these were non-perishable, light and unbreakable that could be easily carried across lengthy trade routes.   The aptitude of Muslim traders as seafarers which began from the Red Sea region has its own collection of interesting stories.   In fact, when spice trade began to grow, sea routes were more common than land.



Arab Muslim traders on the silk road.


By the 10th century when land route was viewed as a convenient option, the spice trade was initially conducted by camel caravans most notably across The Silk Road via Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and south Asia.  The Silk Road was a very important course connecting Asia with the Mediterranean region and farther west.   They reached Africa and Europe to the west, and India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia to the east and south-east between the 8th and 12th centuries.   Most of the valuable spices found today in South-east Asia were introduced by traders from the Middle-East.



Image source Wikipedia.   The silk road is shown in red and spice trade routes in blue.  In 1453 the Ottoman Empire gained total control of this most important network of trade routes.



A spice souq in Istanbul, Ottoman era, 1700s.


Conquest of Constantinople in 1453 (Istanbul today) by the Ottomans ended the 1,500 year rule of the Romans and further promoted the monopoly of the spice trade by the Muslims, severing direct land connection between Europe,  northern Middle-East and beyond.   The Ottoman empire was thus in control of the sole trade route from the 15th century. 


A spice and fabrics souq, Cairo, Egypt, 1800s.


Western sources at present characterize the promotion of the spice trade as a result of the efforts by Jews and Muslims together.  Truth is, when the spice trade began to prosper across the Silk Road in the 8th century, Jews from the crumbling Khazar empire north of the Black Sea had already begun to disperse to the Iberian Peninsula.   These Khazars were the last ones ever interested in organizing travelling caravans for wholesale trade nor did they pretend to be connoisseurs of exquisite food.  Most foods of the descendants of Khazars (Ashkenazis and Sephardis after generations of mixed marriages with Europeans) were holdovers of medieval European recipes with minor decorative changes, if any.  West European Jews acknowledge that Ashkenazi cuisine was (and is) very similar to German cooking.  Their Khazar ancestors in mid and late 7th century were focused on immigration to Europe and resettlement.  In Spain and Italy,  a few segments of the Jewish community took up small-time retail businesses of spices arriving from the Middle East.  That's as far as the trade culture of Khazar-European Jews went. The long distance trade caravans carrying an array of alluring, aromatic condiments and herbs was conducted almost entirely by the Arab Muslims in that period.   When the Khazaria empire (initially consisting of pagans and then converting to Judaism in the 7th century) existed north of Turkey, they were specifically known for their lack of enthusiasm and skill for commodity trade.  Their principal focus was invasion of neighboring regions for territorial expansion, and their prime source of income was imposition of hefty taxes on transiting trade caravans.

Spice jars in our kitchen cupboards are probably the commonest and most traditional of all kitchen articles, so common that we have seldom or never ruminated on their amazing history.  Chronicles from historical archives tell us that once upon a time spices were a lot more than just seasonings for our dinner delicacies.  In 1st century B.C. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt that originated the term "salary" and the phrase "worth his salt."  These were times when the cost of spices was so exorbitant that even the rich couldn't always afford them.  You may routinely add ground nutmeg to your favorite recipes or sprinkle a little on your cup of espresso coffee without thinking much about it.  Few of us know that in the 1500s nutmeg was as costly as gold by weight.   Not an exaggeration as some may claim despite their acknowledgement that Spanish fleets (for instance) arrived in Europe from the Americas with shiploads of plundered treasures such as gold and silver in plenty.  Those huge supplies dropped the cost of precious metals that found it hard to compete with spices, a commodity little known in Europe despite its practical need as an essential usable in daily lives being far greater than precious metals.  No surprise, whole cloves (or qurnafl in Arabic) which is an indispensable item for most savory dishes was used as a substitute for money in Britain in the 1600s when London dockworkers earned their annual bonuses in cloves.  And that's not all.   When the unruly nomads of an east Germanic tribe known as the Visgoths attacked and captured Rome in the 3rd century, they demanded 3,500 pounds of peppercorns (black pepper) as ransom!!  By the way, the Visgoths had captured Spain in the 5th century.  They were overthrown and chased out by the Muslims in the year 711 A.D. that changed the future of Spain from arrant lack of refinement and illiteracy into civilization, intellectualism and elegance.    Pepper in Europe's middle ages was frequently used as currency to pay rents, taxes and even as dowry for brides.    Average cost of a horse in the 1700s was approximately $45.  A pound of saffron would cost $130, nearly three times higher.  The price of a pound of nutmeg was as much as eight fat cows while a pound of ginger would cost more than two sheep.   Far-fetched as it may sound at the moment, it's true. 

Well .... saffron still costs an arm and a leg and is often compared to the price of gold.  Presently, a pound of top quality saffron (Iranian) would cost $11,000 in the international market.  A pound of gold is approximately $15,000.  Very little difference considering one is a spice and the other a precious metal in the 3rd millennium.   

European food in the middle ages generally tasted insipid.  For centuries the staple food of peasants was bread  and wine.   The idea of early European feasts is often synonymous with food loving guests enjoying a variety of delicacies across large and untidy tables freckled with pitchers of wine.   But the "variety" was scarcely other than salt-roasted meat, smoked fish and bread.    Medieval Europe's "uncomfortable relationship with food"  is not an unknown phrase.  It alludes to a declaration by the Church in the 4th century that wallowing in food binge was "one of the seven deadly sins."  It further diminished the desire of many for an already lack luster meal, often represented in various historical sketches as unenthusiastic guests around the banquet table who aren't keen to eat.


Guests at a medieval European feast don't appear interested in food.
 

According to the rough-hewn sailors, pirates and warriors of medieval Europe, spices were a "perishable" substance that held little attraction for them.  They perceived it as something that tasted good to the tongue for a while but then disappeared into the stomach.   Later, with the promotion and proliferation of spice trade by the Islamic Empire, the history of spices acquired a very different story across Europe.   Prior to that, seasoning meat and vegetables with aromatic spices was unknown as most spices don't naturally grow in cold regions of the world.   You either had boiled salted meat and veggies with bread, or, the only other method of 'flavoring' uncooked meat was intense barbecue that nearly burned it.  One can imagine the enthusiasm when a variety of spices began to arrive in Europe from the Middle East.  Spices became a dazzling luxury, far more affordable by the wealthy aristocrats compared to the commoners.  The poor could only buy a bit or a pinch once in a while, or perhaps a little more if given as a gift by someone richer.  Possession of exotic spices arriving from faraway lands was a status symbol worth bragging within upper class European circles, and consequently aromatic food became an important indicator of that status.   Wedding feasts of princes, princesses and other elites would be loaded with hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of different spices!

During the European renaissance as the middle class grew over the centuries, the popularity of spices rose and spice trade in the Middle East prospered rapidly. 


By the end of the 18th century, spices as incoming products became quite prevalent and widespread.  Even the poor in Europe could now afford to season their bland supper with some cinnamon, thyme, garlic and ginger.  As spices got more common, their value began to drop gradually.  With the expanding trade routes functioning widely,  people cautiously learned how to transport spice plants to other parts of the world.  It steadily began having a negative impact on the wealthy monopoly of Muslim spice traders. 

Pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, cumin, bay leaf, nutmeg, turmeric etc. are no more considered unaffordable luxuries as in the middle ages.  They are no longer as valuable as gold, silver and precious stones.  They are grown in plenty worldwide and are easily available, so we take them for granted, even though the quality of various spices cultivated in Europe and North America is inferior compared to their equivalents grown in the Middle East and parts of Asia.  The modern grocery stores are decked with parsley, angelica, horseradish, sage, rosemary, thyme,  dill, coriander and various onions and bell peppers.   These are described as herbs that "taste less strong" or with a "delicate taste."   But to take that portrayal literally would be deceptive.  It actually means colorful from the outside (because of genetic modification) but pretty much aromaless in flavor and taste.   

 It goes without saying that spices are a far greater necessity in our practical lives than gold, silver, rubies and diamonds.   If gold disappeared from the world, our daily meals wouldn't taste drab nor would our lives.    But if spices disappeared, we would be panic stricken and racing pell-mell to get them back.  The fascinating history of spice trade that spread to its maximum in the medieval Islamic era remains intact. 

At the moment we live in an epoch when no commodity in our modern stores is free from synthetics and parabens.  If you need a deodorant, you can buy one from your nearest grocery store or drugstore for $5, or a better one for $10.  But the label will be infested with a scary composition of elements such as talc, silica, triclosan (a pesticide), propylene glycol,  aluminium compounds etc. .. many of which can be plainly categorized as carcinogens.    If you wish to visit a reliable nature outlet to purchase a tiny bottle of one hundred percent natural aromatic spray or cologne made of natural exotic spices, fragrances and oils such as  almond oil, orange oil, vanilla, rose water, lime, mint, saffron, sandalwood, lavender and many more, the cheapest on "special discount sale" would cost around $75.   



Related posts:

Saffron, queen of spices.
Trade Caravans in the Muslim era and what destroyed them.





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Ruhi_Rose
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« Reply #1 on: April 02, 2018, 09:49:15 pm »



Fascinating and riveting.  Love those souq images and Mecca around the time of the Prophet's (pbuh) birth. 

So, were spices items of export or import by the medieval Arab Muslim traders?


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« Reply #2 on: April 02, 2018, 10:52:26 pm »

Yeah love it too ...  and enthralling read.  Quite right, I wouldn't care a rat's behind if gold or silver disappeared from the surface of the earth.  Good riddance!  But I'd go crazy if my spices finish and I can't get them from the stores.

Sister Ruhi, spices were items of export as well as import.  As we know, all spices aren't available in any particular part of the world. Their availability is scattered across depending on the climate.  Whatever were grown and found in the Middle East were taken out for export, whatever weren't available in the Arab world were brought in from south and south-east Asia.  For instance, sumac, thyme, oregano and saffron aren't too common in Asia, so these in particular were taken as export items.  Then again, these specific spices were also combined to prepare mixes like Hawaij, Za'atar and Baharat.  Probably these carried different labels back then, but the idea of mixed spices existed and exported. 

I'm not too sure exactly what kind of spices are typical of south Asia for example ... but I guess there are quite many spices out there which aren't found in the Middle East because of climatic conditions.  For instance mace, nutmeg and coriander seeds I commonly use with our food comes from south Asia (if I'm not mistaken).  You may know many more of south Asia. 
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« Reply #3 on: April 03, 2018, 02:11:40 am »



Right, get ya point Sis.  So, the spice trade was carried out by sea as well as land, ha?  That wiki map is interesting.  It shows the silk and spice path in red and blue, respectively, taken over by the Ottoman after fall of Byzantines in Istanbul.
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« Reply #4 on: April 03, 2018, 02:16:53 am »


Correct.  Initially by sea and then by land too.  The red in the map shows the silk road while the blue are the trade routes.   However, trade of spices by land was also conducted via the silk road. 
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« Reply #5 on: April 03, 2018, 02:18:17 am »



O, okay.  Thanks for that clarification. 
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« Reply #6 on: April 05, 2018, 12:12:58 am »



What a dynamic piece; and the images tell much of the story too.  I guess that spice shop in Istanbul is the Misr Carsisi souq. 

Without a doubt, not just the veggies but also spices of the Middle East grown in the west just don't have the same fragrance nor flavor.  For instance cardamom or saffron.  If you chew a cardamom grown in the Middle East, someone standing 10 feet away will get its fragrance.  But cardamoms in North American or European stores just don't have that fragrance and thus the weakest flavor too.  Put a pinch of Iranian saffron in 1 liter of simmering milk, and the milk will turn yellow in 20 minutes.  No artificial coloring required.  Add double the quantity of Spanish saffron in 1 liter of simmering milk, it will hardly get any color. 

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« Reply #7 on: April 05, 2018, 12:16:28 am »



That's very correct br. TS.    Btw, saffron is also grown in occupied Kashmir.  I'm not sure if the know-how was taken centuries ago from Iran.  However, I haven't used Kashmiri saffron, only Iranian and Spanish.  And yes, there's a big difference in price as well as quality between the two.  Iranian saffron is just unbeatable.

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« Reply #8 on: April 05, 2018, 12:22:06 am »



Hummmm ,, wondering .. can Middle Eastern and south Asian spices be grouped separately? 
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« Reply #9 on: April 05, 2018, 12:44:19 am »



Well, to name a few among typical Middle Eastern spices .... sesame, sumac, thyme, oregano, cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, caraway, aniseed, and coriander.

And then there are spice mixes as well which pick a combination of selected spices .. all in one e.g. Zaa'tar, Baharat and Hawaiij.   Zaa'tar contains a combination of toasted sesame seeds, dried thyme, sumac and salt.  It's usually added to meat dishes.   The mix picks of Baharat varies in different parts of the ME but the standard Baharat-mix has black pepper, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, cardamon, nutmeg and paprika .. all ground.  Hawaiij is a typically Yemeni spice mix consisting of cumin, black pepper, turmeric and cardamom.  More elaborate versions may also include ground cloves, caraway, nutmeg, saffron, coriander, fenugreek and ground dried onions.

All of these are very much grown and available in various parts of the Middle East .. so you can group them as Middle Eastern spices.   I'm pretty sure many of these are also grown in Pakistan too for example, right?  Also, there maybe certain other spices used in Pakistani cuisine which aren't available or not used in the Middle East.  Red chilli powder is one thing Middle Easterners hardly use but in Pakistan they seem to love it .. lol.    Maybe Sisters Zeynab and Ruhi can list some spices specifically of Pakistan.


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« Reply #10 on: April 05, 2018, 12:58:48 am »



SubhanAllah, very interesting Sister Heba.  Yeah, a lot of these are used in Pakistani cuisine too though not all.  As you rightly stated, chillies - red and green - are awfully popular in Pakistan unlike the Middle East.  There aren't any equivalent of mixes like Zaatar and Baharat or Hawaij in Pakistan.  Most Pakistani recipes simply require the spices separately.  Mixes are available for specific dishes like Haleem, Biryani, Qorma and many other delicacies .... and yeah, none of these foods are prepared without chillies.  Frankly I don't like chillies either.  Maybe just a pinch.  Too much of it takes away the fun of eating. 

In Pakistan the equivalent of the Middle Eastern sumac is unripe mango slices   (amchoor in Urdu) and tamarind (imli in Urdu).   Then there is mace (javitri), gooseberry (amla), nigella seed (kalonji), mustard seed and bay leaf.  I've picked these presuming that they're a bit rare in the ME. 

However, apparently the bunch of spices available in Pakistan and not in the Middle East and vice-versa are very few.  Most are commonly found in both regions.  The difference mainly comes from the method of cooking and the use of chillies in Pakistani cuisine.


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« Reply #11 on: April 05, 2018, 01:07:35 am »



That's interesting too Sis!   Unripe mango slices, gooseberry, mace, nigella seeds and mustard seeds are among the few I don't recall using yet. 

Sumac is sour and I often substitute if for lemon in some recipes.  Probably in Pakistani dishes it can be a substitute for mango slices or tamarind.  Just guessing about that  Cheesy   But I view lemon is the best sour agent for all tangy dishes.





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« Reply #12 on: April 05, 2018, 01:12:52 am »


..... But I view lemon is the best sour agent for all tangy dishes.

Yes, same here.
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