Trade secrets & travellers’ tales

Asians and North Africans seem to have used spices – some home-grown, others imported – since the dawn of history, but the spread of civilization to Europe in the first millennium b.c. created a whole new source of demand, one that never seemed to stop growing. Greeks and Persians involved themselves in the trade, travelling as far as India and Sri Lanka (where the ancient, still-functioning seaport of Galle has been identified by some as the Biblical Tarshish) to do business. The main beneficiaries of European demand for spices, however, were the Arabs. The principal route between the spice-growing lands of Asia and the countries of the Mediterranean lay across the Arabian Peninsula, whose inhabitants took full advantage of their geographical good fortune. Arabs became the gatekeepers of the spice trade. To put inquisitive Greeks and Romans off the scent, they made up fabulous tales about the origins of the spices they dealt in – such as the claim, credulously repeated in Herodotus, that cinnamon grew on the tops of mountains, jealously guarded by giant birds. The Romans, despite the massive wealth of their empire, deeply resented the expense of the Arab spice monopoly and went to great lengths to break it. First they attempted to invade Arabia; when that failed, they went exploring, and discovered how to sail to India and back making use of the monsoon winds. Navigation succeeded where conquest had failed: the Romans – possibly the world’s greatest-ever consumers of spices and fragrances – took over the international trade. Then, early in the seventh century, an Arab spice trader named Mohammed founded a new religion, which swept out of the desert to spread across the earth from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sea of Japan. The triumph of Islam saw the return of Arabs to dominance in the spice trade, a position they maintained for the next seven hundred years.

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