How spices made the world we live in

Spices existed before the world began. So says an ancient Assyrian myth, according to which the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the Earth.

More reliable sources, dating from about 2,600 b.c., inform us that the labourers who built the Great Pyramid of Cheops were fed spices to give them strength. And not very long after that, the ancient Syrians began using cloves – amazing when you consider that cloves then only grew in the spice islands of Indonesia. Later Egyptian embalmers also made frequent use of cinnamon, a Sri Lankan plant. Over a thousand years before Prince Vijaya, the legendary founder of the Sinhalese race, set foot in Lanka, our island was already part of a sophisticated international trading network!

This does not mean that Egyptian merchants ever visited Sri Lanka, or vice versa. Then, as now, the spice trade supported complex chains of carriers and middlemen. The embalmers probably got their cinnamon from Chinese merchants, who in turn acquired it by direct trade with Lanka or through intermediaries. Ancient Egyptians used spices in all manner of ways, making their country possibly the biggest market for these goods in the ancient world. It is no coincidence that the travelling merchants to whom the Hebrew prophet Joseph was sold by his brothers were spice merchants en route to Egypt. Spices were precious, a source of potentially immense wealth. The Bible relates that when the Queen of Sheba came to court King Solomon, her gifts to him included gold, precious stones – and spices.

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