Trade and Tasted

Trade and Tasted

By Lucien De Guise

FINDING A SATISFACTORY definition of spices is as difficult as it used to be to locate the spices themselves. It is generally agreed that they must be organic, portable and highly valued for their taste or odor. Aromatics are included, even when not edible. Herbs are excluded as their worth depends on freshness, which was hardly a consideration at a time when a journey could take months or sometimes years. Certain items considered to be spices in the past are not admitted into the category today. Sugar is an obvious example, as is coffee.

Geography is another important factor: one man’s prized spice is another’s garden weed, depending on which part of the world they live in. One recurring feature of the most desirable spices is that they tended to be found in places that were not only inaccessible to Westerners, but also to traders who were much closer to the source of the material. Chinese, Arab and Indian merchants were often as confused about the goods they sought as the Europeans who were prepared to pay so much for this exotica.

Imaginations ran wild where spices were concerned. The most entertaining-as well as the most informative-versions are in Arabic. Sindbad the Sailor was more of a spice trader than a sailor, and his adventures took him to places that people only went when in pursuit of huge profit. Cloves and cinnamon were two of Sindbad’s most important cargoes around the 9th century. About 700 later, lives were still being staked in the quest for Asia’s most fabled wealth.

As the most respected spices were those that were hardest to obtain, a network of trade needed to be established. This was a prototype of the globalized world in which we now live. The main difference is, that in the past, it would only have been the highest level of society that ever saw the bounty of far-off lands. Nowadays, there are few people who do not own at least some molded plastic from China.

Among the earliest spice traders were Arabs. The importance of their merchandise was enormous. In the Middle East, especially, demand was great enough for spices to be mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. Joseph of the colorful coat was eventually bought by traders who were probably transporting spices. When the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, it was south Arabian spices that were her most welcome gifts.

In the Islamic world, people were not just traders in these commodities, they were also avid consumers. From the out- set, Islam emphasized cleanli- ness and hygiene. Luxury was not encouraged, and certainly not the hedonism of ancient Rome or Persia. Still, certain pleasures of the flesh have always been permitted within the official guidelines. People and food were allowed to look and smell good. This was an alien approach to most European societies at the dawn of Islam.

The Qur’an assures those who reach paradise that in addition to a fountain of camphor, they “will be given to drink a cup tempered with ginger.” Ginger and camphor are the two extremes of “hot” and “cold,” a concept explored thoroughly in Medicine of the Prophet, compiled by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawaziyya in the 14th century. Spices were clearly an essential part of early Islamic cuisine and have remained so ever since. The great Sufi master Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi used food as a metaphor in much of his philosophy and organized his dervish brotherhood around the kitchen. Among the spices that appear in his recipes are cumin, black pepper, cinnamon and sumac.

For Sufis in general, and Rumi in particular, food was filled with spiritual significance: “I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned.” For others it was merely filling. The enjoyment of food was a ceaseless quest, and even in Europe of the Dark Ages, chefs were preparing dishes for pleasure rather than for prolonging lives. The influence of Islamic Spain, and the booty of returning Crusaders, revived the gastronomic interest of Roman times. Arab merchants controlled most of this trade, and Arab travelers had some of the most interesting observations. During the 14th-century, Ibn Battuta spent an unhappy three years in southern India, Ceylon and the Maldives. The cause of his misery was the absence of bread: “…eating nothing but rice. I had to help it down with water.” The only consolation was the presence of spices in the pickles that accompanied his joyless repasts.

Spices changed every life they touched, and with greater availability after the 1 7th century, they touched a huge number of lives. As the mystery disappears, scientific discovery proves some of the qualities that were often attributed to spices in the past. Some of the world’s rarest produces have become among the most commonplace. There are a few exceptions, however. Saffron is still worth considerably more than its weight in gold. The most exotic manifestation of spices is now reserved for perfumes. Nina Ricci’s classic L’Air du Temps somehow seems more magical when it is revealed that there is bergamot, sandalwood and clove within, as well as the musk that was such a delight to the Prophet Muhammad. How they came to be there is very much a result of the Islamic world’s contribution to trade.

Before the birth of Islam, spices had been vital to southern Arabian commerce. The Romans had called this land Arabia Felix (“Fortunate Arabia”) because of its prodigious quantities of aromatics. Almost 4,000 years ago, caravans labored from the south of the peninsula to the north. Their cargo was deposited in entrepôts such as Petra or taken to the Mediterranean coast. The Incense Road was among the earliest known trade routes. India was also an essential destination for spice traders. The Romans took a keen interest in the Malabar coast, source of black pepper. They also learned to use the winds of the monsoon cycle. This enabled them to sail without the assistance of Arab middlemen, who had been the cause of much Roman dissatisfaction.

Since then, one stopping place has grown in significance to become the world’s most looked-to city-Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad was part of the Arabian trade route, having married the widow Khadija, a leading Meccan merchant. There are some doubts about exactly what types of goods were traded in Mecca, and the traditional assumption that it was spices has been challenged. One of the most sought aromatic was known as the “balsam of Mecca,” suggesting more than a passing acquaintance with that part of the peninsula. Unquestionably, the Prophet Muhammad would have encountered southern Arabian goods on his travels.

Many historians, such as the pivotal Montgomery Watt, see the development of Islam as a direct response to the social conditions caused by the spice trade. The inequalities that the Prophet Muhammad witnessed in Mecca would not have been possible in a nomadic tribal society. It was the breakdown of the earlier society caused by a mercantile economy that set the spread of Islam on its course. As the new empire grew in the 7th century, it remained inextricably linked to spices. With a spiritual element, commercial success was at last matched by social justice.

Trade opportunities developed as the Arab armies moved out of the peninsula. Their greatest coup came in 641, with the capture of Alexandria, the spice capital of the eastern Mediterranean. New mercantile centers rose and fell. Among the most important of these was Basra, in what is now southern Iraq. This city expanded from a garrison town to being one of the world’s largest metropolises in the 7th and 8th centuries. It was also the birthplace of one of Islam’s greatest writers, Al Jahiz. Despite spending decades in Baghdad, he clearly lost none of his loyalty to Basra, nor a sense of its trading purpose: “Our sea is worth all the others put together, for there is no other into which God has poured so many blessings.”

After the conquests of the Prophet Muhammad and his successors, trade between Europe and the Middle East became as rare as religious dialogue. Christendom sank into the Dark Ages; Islam entered its golden centuries of power and prosperity. From the European point of view, trade with the source of spices dried up, apart from dealings with itinerant Jewish merchants who were considered by Muslims and Christians to be just about acceptable.

While Europeans were doing their best to keep the Roman spirit of gastronomic diversity from dying completely, Muslim traders were venturing farther than ever in search of spices. Tales from the Thousand and One Nights show how far they got. Sindbad may have reached Japan. Closer to home, Ali Baba used the name of a spice to open the cave that housed the wealth of the 40 thieves.

Arab mariners covered vast distances. This was helped by their knowledge of the monsoon winds, which was far greater than the Romans’. The word for monsoon was itself derived from the Arabic word, mamsim, or “season.” Their most profitable destination was Southeast Asia, source of the most expensive of all spices and eventually to become a significant part of the Islamic world. Arab traders had been visiting the Malay Archipelago long before any part of the region had officially become Muslim. Visitors from other Muslim areas, including India and China, had also prepared the way for widespread conversion.

Muslims in the Middle Ages were engaged in more than just trading spices. The medical knowledge that came out of this period shows how important the use of these ingredients was. This extended far beyond the borders of the Islamic Empire. Arabic became the lingua franca of health, and medical treatises were read from northern Europe to Southeast Asia. The image of Islam was never higher than where medicine was involved. The contribution of the 10th-century writers Ibn Sina and Al-Zahrawi was vital to universal knowledge.

In addition to their literary gifts, the practical ability of Muslim physicians was much in demand, and the Persian polymath, Al-Razi, believed: “All that is written in a book is worth less than the experience of one doctor.” Much ofthat experience entailed knowledge of spices. Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and other famous writers were full of praise for everything from cloves to ginger. Later, less well-known authorities were also committed to the power of this medicine. In the 14th-century Rashid al-Din Fadlullah wrote to his son, the governor of Asia Minor, requesting wormwood, anise and agaric for use in his hospital in Tabriz. This facility was equipped with 1,000 Chinese jars, each one labeled with the names of medicinal syrups.

Armed conflict from the 11th-century onward may not have been the highpoint of Christian-Muslim relations, but the Crusades did at least open eyes on both sides to new trade possibilities. Europe had crawled out of the Dark Ages and was ready to improve its diet once again. The facilitator was Venice. Religious zeal on the Crusaders’ part had become such a minor consideration that in 1204, they took the Christian city of Constantinople rather than bothering with Jerusalem. The plan had been devised in Venice, and for the next 300 years, Venetians dominated trade with the Islamic world.

Venice was not alone; the Renaissance was also fuelled by the ports of Genoa, Pisa and Barcelona. Spices were the most popular import in this arrangement, followed by silk. From Europe came the less sensual pleasures of wool and iron. The leading mercantile empires of the Islamic world were the Ottomans and the Mamluks, both of which knew how to harness their economic might. In 1428, the Mamluk Sultan Barsbay is recorded as having imposed a personal monopoly on the pepper trade. As this was Europe’s favorite seasoning, consumers were displeased to find that the price had doubled. The later Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay was more conciliatory in sending the Doge of Venice precious spices, textiles, porcelain and, for unspecified purposes, a civet horn. A few decades later the Venetians reciprocated with gifts of glass, wool, fur, velvet and Parmesan cheese.

The event often thought to have put an end to Venice’s supremacy is the discovery of a sea route from Europe to Asia. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, Europe needed an alternative to the Asian overland route. Venice was always happy to deal with the highest bidder, but the Ottomans looked set to becoming a serious barrier. In fact, the new rulers of Constantinople turned out to be more commercially minded than expected. They went so far as to model their sultani gold coins to the same weight and fineness as the most internationally acceptable of all currency-the Venetian ducat.

Portugal was the pioneer in finding a route that would benefit neither the Venetians nor the Turks. In 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived at the Indian kingdom of Calicut. He returned with the ultimate prize of cloves, ginger, cinnamon and pepper. In the short run, this was unfortunate for Venice and the Muslim rulers who controlled the overland routes. The price of pepper in Venice ended up being several times higher than in Portugal, where huge savings were made on taxes at the cost of innumerable mariners’ lives. As the Spanish were also prepared to sacrifice sailors in the cause of cheaper spices, they successfully joined the spice race with Portugal. However, their interests lay more to the West than the East, bringing back previously unknown comestibles such as chocolate and vanilla from the New World, “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The findings of Gavin Menzies in his book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, have aroused strong passions for the suggestion that the Americas were first explored by a Muslim. The 1421 proposal has been abandoned by most scholars, but at least the intrepid Admiral Zheng He is receiving much more attention than he used to for visiting the Malay Peninsula.

Even with the overland route bypassed by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English, a considerable portion of the spice trade was still in Muslim hands. Many of the destinations from which these cargoes came were Muslim, including the most important components of the Spice Islands: Ternate and Tidore. These two islands, mentioned in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, were at one time the only source the world had for clove and nutmeg. Having taken over the area, the Portuguese created a legacy of bad feeling that was continued by the Dutch in their ruthless harvesting of these crops.

Muslim traders were also busy wherever they could avoid the risk of being blasted out of the water by European ships in bitter competition or exercising their monopolies in Southeast Asia. Most of the spice trade was water-borne, although the land route continued to exist. After the initial euphoria over Portugal’s new sea route, complaints about the quality of their cargoes came in. Venice once again prospered, dealing with whichever Muslim rulers were amenable. In the 15th-century, there was considerable trade with the Ottomans, including records of the business of Count Giacomo Badoer, who bartered large amounts of Florentine cloth for spices and incense. The Genoese were especially active in importing saffron and sesame from what was then known as “Turchia.” More surprisingly, the return journey included soap from Europe-a luxury that was not widely associated with Europeans at that time.

The spice route through the Ottoman Empire remained intact for many centuries after the Portuguese discoveries in Asia. In the late 18th-century, Istanbul still controlled a vast amount of trade. A French observer calculated imports from the East at around 5 million piasters, of which “spices and drugs” accounted for 280,000, and pepper 120,000.

Business was by no means a one-way street. Among the most unlikely imports into the Ottoman Empire was coffee. This had originally been introduced into the West by the Turks, but later shortages forced them to buy French coffee from the West Indies. Other reversals occurred with products such as indigo, once an Indian monopoly and then exported from America to Asia. Despite these aberrations, there was still approximately 10 times the volume of goods going from East to West than the other way around. Not much has changed over the centuries. According to U.N. figures, Indonesia is the major exporter of spices, followed by India, China, Madagascar and Malaysia. The total revenue of these five countries is well over U.S.$1 billion, so it is still a market of some importance. It is also clear that Muslim communities are still very much a part of the business.

The exhibition “Spice Journeys: Taste and Trade in the Islamic World” was held at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia from January to April 2007.

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on