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The Spice Trade : History of the Ancient Treasures of the East

The spice trade and its routes connecting the ancient civilizations of Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe have a history that has been shrouded in mystery, riches, myth and many wars, but if the silent jars of spices on the kitchen racks could talk about their past, they would have an intriguing story to tell.

Spice trade route across the Arabian desert
Spice trade route across the Arabian desert
In the ancient days, spices came from lands unseen, unheard of, even unimaginable and the spice trade was so lucrative that merchants to protect their own interests had composed frightening stories of dangerous lands perched on mountain tops and birds of prey that closely guarded the treasures of the east.

Spices in Ancient Literature

Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, saffron and turmeric have long been known to humans and have been used to enhance the flavor, aroma and even the color of food, besides its use for healing many illnesses.

A variety of spices
A variety of spices
Some of its early references can be found in the ancient Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Persian literature where it has been a predominant ingredient in food and medicine for many centuries.

Spices in Indian Literature

The Arthashastra written in the 4th century BCE by Kauṭalya an Indian teacher, philosopher and royal advisor mentions the use of spices including pepper, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cumin seed, turmeric and anise used in the food, as part of the eating habits, of the people.

The earliest mention of spices in Indian literature can be found in the ancient Hindu scriptures of Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda which lists a number of healing plants. The Rig Veda which is the first of the four Vedas, is said to be composed between about 1500 and 1200 BCE.

Shushrut Statue in North India by Alok Prasad
Shushrut statue in North India by Alok Prasad
The use of spices in healing can also be found in the Sushruta Samhita (Sushruta's compendium) an ancient Sanskrit text on medicine and surgery, written by Sushruta an ancient Indian physician. The Sushruta Samhita is one of the foundation texts for Ayurveda, considered to be one of the world's oldest medical systems.

Spices in Chinese Literature

The legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung is assumed to have written the 'Pen Ts’ao Ching' around 2700 BCE. The early Chinese materia medica mentioned more than a hundred medicinal plants including the spice cassia.

Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu by Li Shih Chen
Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu by Li Shih Chen
Later during the Ming dynasty, Li Shih Chen wrote Pen Ts'ao Kang Mu (The Great Herbal) which summarizes what was known of herbal medicine up to the late 16th century.

Spices in Egyptian Literature

The Ebers Papyrus, also known as Papyrus Ebers is a preserved medical writing from ancient Egypt dated about 1550 BCE.

The Papyrus Ebers from Ancient Egypt
The Papyrus Ebers from Ancient Egypt
The medical document contains information about the health benefits of spices including coriander, cumin and fenugreek. It was purchased at Luxor (ancient Egyptian city of Thebes) in the winter of 1873–74 by Georg Ebers and is currently kept at the library of the University of Leipzig, in Germany.

Spices in Mesopotamian Literature

In ancient Mesopotamia which is mostly present-day Iraq, cuneiform clay tablets preserve a few recipes dating from the 18th to 17th centuries BCE.

An ancient Mesopotamian recipe on clay tablet from Yale Babylonian Collection
An ancient Mesopotamian recipe on clay tablet from Yale Babylonian Collection
References to spices like cumin, saffron and coriander can be found in these ancient Mesopotamian recipes inscribed on clay tablets, that are now a part of the Yale Babylonian Collection.

History of Spice Trade

As evident from the literature, spices were an important ingredient in cooking, preserving food as well as medicinal purposes in the ancient regions of India, China, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia. The royal palaces and courts across these regions valued them highly and incorporated them in their royal cuisine. Spices were also used to make ointments and perfumes.

Initially the spice trade from Asia was carried out mostly by camel caravans over land routes through the Arabian desert and was confined to a few trading partners. Later the sea routes increased the spice trade.

Spice Trade along the Silk Road

The Silk Road was a network of land and sea routes formally established between the ancient regions of Asia and Europe, stretching from the Korean peninsula and Japan to the Mediterranean sea during the period of the Han Dynasty of China.

Though the route derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk and horses, spices such as cassia, pepper and cinnamon were also traded along these routes.

The Silk Road network of routes
The Silk Road network of routes
It was a major factor in improving the trade and developing the civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Arabia, Persia and Rome during the period around 120 BCE - 1450 CE.

Preceding the Silk Road, the Persian Royal Road during the period of the Achaemenid Empire (around 500-330 BCE) connected the city of Susa an ancient city of the Persian Empire (present-day Iran) to the port of Smyrna (present-day Izmir in Turkey).

Spice Trade Using the Red Sea Ports

The Red Sea ports were an important gateway which connected India to the western world and established trading of spices into the western markets.

One of the early pioneers of the Red Sea route to India, before the beginning of the Common Era (CE) was the Kingdom of Axum (Aksum) an ancient kingdom located in present-day Eritrea and the northern region of Ethiopia. The Kingdom of Axum was deeply involved in the spice trade between the kingdoms of India and the Mediterranean.

Before the Romans, The Ptolemaic dynasty are known to have developed trade with Indian kingdoms using the Red Sea ports and the spices from India were one of the products traded. The dynasty was a Macedonian Greek royal family, which ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt from 305 to 30 BCE.

Red Sea ports and settlements as described in Periplous of the Erythreaen Sea by George Tsiagalakis
Red Sea ports and settlements as described in Periplous of the Erythreaen Sea by George Tsiagalakis
Following the reign of Augustus, and his conquest of the Egypt in 30 BCE, the Romans further developed the trade with Indian kingdoms using the Red Sea ports.

Roman and Greek traders bypassed the land routes in favor of the faster and safer sea route and developed trade relations with the kingdoms in the ancient Tamil region, present-day Southern India and Sri Lanka, and established trading settlements and commercial centers. The ancient port of Muziris which is today a part of the Indian state of Kerala, was an important source of black pepper for the Roman Empire.

The Periplous of the Erythreaen Sea, a Greco-Roman document written in Greek describes the trading settlements and opportunities from ports in the vicinity of the Red Sea and others along Northeast Africa and Southwest India.

Spice Trade along the Incense route

The Incense trade route was a network of land and sea routes connecting the Mediterranean world with Eastern and Southern regions for the trade of incense, spices and other luxury goods and stretched from the Mediterranean ports through Arabia, the eastern coast of Africa to the kingdoms of Southeast India and beyond.

Ports in the Arabian peninsula as described in Periplous of the Erythreaen Sea
Ports in the Arabian peninsula as described in Periplous of the Erythreaen Sea
The Incense route was important for the trade of spices between Arabia and the kingdoms of India. The spices traveled by sea to the ports along the coast of South Arabia and then traveled by camel caravans to the Arabian and Roman markets.

The other important ports along the eastern coast of Africa are the ancient ports of Opone and Rhapta which are referenced in Periplous of the Erythreaen Sea, a Greco-Roman document.

Spices Trade and the Merchants of Venice

Between the period 9 -15th century, the Republic of Venice held the monopoly of European trade including spices with the Middle East. Spices were among the most expensive and in-demand products during that period, used mainly in medicine and as an ingredient in different food dishes, perfumes and wine.

Trade route from Venice to India
Trade route from Venice to India
The Venetians also had trading privileges in the Byzantine Empire and therefore had access to the trade routes to Asia which included the Red Sea, an important passage to Asia. Spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper and ginger were imported from Asia by the Venetian merchants who distributed them in Europe.

The biggest setback to the Venetian spice trade was the discovery of the sea route to Asia around Africa by the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, near the end of the 15th century.

Spice Trade Influence on Age of Discovery

The Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the mid 15th century, marking the end of the Byzantium Empire and the beginning of Ottoman Turkish control over most direct trade routes between Europe and Asia. This forced merchants and European nations to take to the sea to seek new routes and ply their trades thus starting the Age of Discovery.

The spice trade between Asia and Europe was one of the main types of trade in the world economy and it was also the catalyst for European explorations to seek new routes and trading partners in Asia.

Vasco da Gama's travel route to India (black) by Nuno Tavares
Vasco da Gama's travel route to India (black) by Nuno Tavares
Near the end of the 15th century, Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama, who sailed around Africa, became the first European to re-establish direct trade links with the kingdoms of India since the Roman times.

European settlements in India between 1498 - 1739
European settlements in India between 1498 - 1739
By the early 16th century, the Portuguese established a chain of outposts and trading centers along India's west coast and on the island of Ceylon, with Goa as their prized possession and the seat of Portugal's viceroy.

The Portuguese were followed by the British who set up the East India Company to pursue trade with the Indian subcontinent and China. The British would latter go on to colonize India.

Dutch ships in the Bay of Bengal
Dutch ships in the Bay of Bengal
The Dutch East India Company which was founded in 1602 with a monopoly on the Dutch spice trade established trading posts along the Indian coast. Later, the Maluku Islands within Indonesia also known as Spice Islands became its most important trading center due to the availability of nutmeg and cloves which were in high demand, during that period.

Christopher Columbus accidentally landed in America while on an expedition organized by the Crown of Castile, who were competing with Portugal for the spice trade with Asia.

By the start of the nineteenth century, spice trade was well developed and many of the important spices were produced in other parts of the world, hence making it more readily available to the people. Spices besides influencing the flavor of our food dishes have had a major impact on our history, trade and culture.

Learn more
The use of botanicals in fermented alcoholic beverages dates back many centuries in the ancient lands of the east.


The Papyrus Ebers, published by Levin & Munksgaard, 1937

Early Exchange between Africa and the Wider Indian Ocean World by Gwyn Campbell

The Arthashastra by Kauṭalya

The Untold History of Healing by Wolf-Dieter Storl

Article Category:
Food History

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