The Spice Route was the other great trading route of the Ancient and Medieval worlds. Spices were carried on the Silk Road also, but the main source of spices was well south of China, the Spice Islands (Indonesia), India, and the Malabar (East African) coast. India was at the center of the world spice trade. It is no accident that Indian food is known for its spices. Spices were carried to India from the Spice Islands, sometimes by sea routes. Spices included cassia, star anise, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, mace, and others. The most vluable spice was pepercorns. These spices as well as Indian Indian and Africa spices were then brought by sea to the Middle east by Areab traders. Finally Venetian or other Italian vessels were bring the spices to Europe. Rivalry for the sea routes monopolized by Venice increased the importance of the overland Silk Road. Finally Portuguese sailors in the 15th century established direct contact with the source of spices, undercutting both the Arabs and Venetians.
Spices included cardamom, cassia, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, mace, nutmeg, star anise, turmeric, and others. The most vluable spice was pepercorns from the Malabar Coast (south-western Indian coast) were dried and ground into powdered pepper.
Modern readers often do not appreciate the impotance of spices in the Ancient and Medieval worlds. It must be understood that food was usually not very palitable. Not only were there few ways of preserving foods. Vegetables were unavailable in the Winter and early Spring. There was no way of storing large quanties of cattle fodder. Thus the only beef available was salt beef. Even during the Summer meat was often unpalitable because of the lack of refrigeration to poperly store it. Many common modern foods were unavailbe to Europeans, including potatos, corn, tea, coffee, chocolate, bananas, tomatos, oranges, lemmons, and other foods. Most strikingly, there was no sugar to sweeten foods, except honey. Thus spices were in great demand to flavor foods. And modern culinary trends show the imprint. Nutmeg is used in Italian cooking. Iranian (Persian) cooking has cinnanon-scented sauces. Steak tartare became popular in Germany. There are gungerm cloves, and sweet-and-sour touches in Alsatian cooking.
Spices were a valuable trading commodity in antiquity. This means there were established trading routes in antiquity. Pepercorns were found in the nose of the mummy of Ramses II. Peper and other spices were valued commodities in Roman markets. The European trade in these commodities fell with the economic decline following the fall of Rome (5th century AD). Another factor was the rise of Islam (7th century AD). [Turner]
The Spice Route was the other great trading route of the Ancient and Medieval worlds. Spices were carried on the Silk Road also, but the main source of spices was well south of China, the Spice Islands (Indonesia), India, and the Malabar (East African) coast. India was at the center of the world spice trade. It is no accident that Indian food is known for its spices. Spices were carried to India from the Spice Islands by sea routes. The spices as well as Indian Indian and Africa spices were then brought by sea to the Middle east by Arab traders. The Arabd purchased spices from the Indians and from Chinese and Javanese
merchants who sailed to Indian ports. Finally Venetian or other Italian vessels were bring the spices to Europe.
The Arabs burst out of the Arabian Desert in the 7th century. The Arabs cut Europe off from the clove islands. They became the masters of the spice trade. The Arabs dominated the trade routes from India and eastern Africa. They kept the sources of spices secret from the Europeans. The Arabs told fantastic tales of the dangers they faced in obtaining spices in distant and mysterious lands. Spice trading was important to Arabs from the very beginning of Islam. Mohammed (570-???AD) himself married into a spice-trading family when he chose a wealthy widow. Islamic armies as they moved throughout the Middle East gained comtrol over the trade routes to Europe as well as in some cases the very sources of the pices them selves. (Much of the Spice Islands were conquered by the Arabs, the Islamic Monguls conquered India, and the Arabs established themselves in Zanzibar and elsewhere in East Africa).
Te European taste for spice began to revive in the 9th century. A factor here was the rise of the great Italian trading states like Venice and Genoa. [Turner] The trade was at first limited. Feudal Europe still gebnerated still limited wealth. The growth of cities and the rise of the merchant class was just beginning. Arab controlof te trade roots made spices enormously expensive.
The Islamic Outburst from the Arabian Peninsula severed cpntacts between India and East Africa (spice islands) (7th century AD). This increased the prices for ggos involved and dcreased the volume of trade. Modt Europeans had no access to these trades goods. Only the very wealthy could afford producrs like sugar, spices, and produvts from India. The . Crusades brought Europeans in contact with these highly coveted trade goods (11thbcentury). They helped wet the Eurpean apetite for these goods. Not only did the arabs have them, but they were more readiky availabl in local markts. This was not just a fleeting experience. The Crisades were conducted over three centuries. and Christian crusader kingdoms were inpanted in the Levant for over a century. Thr Crusades thus helped fuel European desire to trade with theEast directly abd not through the Arabs.
It is believed that the Spice Route is how the bubonic plague reached Europe. The medieval plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, was the most cathestrophic epidemic in recorded history. The plague is believed to have been brought west from China. Europeans had no resistance to it in much the same way that smallpox brought by Europeans was to desimate Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The plague ravaged Europe from 1347-51. There were also serious subsequent outbreaks as well. The plague often killed whole families, in part because family members could not bring themselve to abandon each other. Villages were devistated. An estimated 1,000 villages were completely destroyed. Historians estimate that about one-third of the European population died in the plague. The plague, however, had a profound impact on Europe beyond the incalcuable human pain and suffering of those affected. As strange as it may sound, the plague set in motion cultural and economic trends that played a major role in shaping modern Europe.
The other great international trading route was the Silk Road. Some spices were carried on the Silk Road, but much greater quantities were transported by the Spice Route. The history of the famed Silk Road is one of many instances in which clothing and fabrics have
played a major role in human history. The story of the silk road is one of military adventures and conquest, adventuresome explorers, religious pilgrims, and great philosophers. While it is silk which is often, naturally enough, most strongly associated with the silk road, the flow of ideas and religion as an almost unintended aspect of the flow of trade may have been one of the most significant impacts. Of course most of the people who traversed the silk road were not great thinkers, but common tradesmen who transported their merchandise at great risk for the substantial profits that could be made. They moved cammal caravans over some of the most hostile terraine on the planet. The ilk road tranversed deserts, mountains and the seemingly endless Central Asian steppe. Some of the great figures of history are associated with the Silk Road, including Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. Merchandice may have moved over the Silk Road as early as the 5th century BC. The Silk Road is believed to have become an
established trade route by the 1st century BC and continued to be important until the 16th century when more reliable sea routes were established as a result of the
European voyages of discovery.
Marco Polo traveled to China on the Silk Road, but his account of his journey included the first factual information available to Europeans about the actual source of the spices obtained from the Arabs. He described hot lands where he saw spices growing. He also explained the key role of India.
Rivalry for the sea routes monopolized by Veniceincreased the importance of the overland Silk Road.
The Ottomans with the fall of Byzantium gained control of the Black Sea. They gradually displaced the Venetians in the northern Aegean. Expansion south into Syria and Egypt further closed lucrative trade routes to European shipping. The control of territory from the Russian steppe to Egypt allowed the Ottomons to interdict established European trade routes to the East. It was this Ottoman control of the spice trade routes that was a factor in pushing the European voyages of discovery.
The account of Marco Polo with actual descriptions of China and the Spice Islands fueled a desire by Eurpdeans to establish direct trading links. At the same time Europeans by the 14th century had significantly imroved their navigational and ship building skills. The astrolabe helped mariners determine latitude. (Longitude proved a much more difficult undertaking. The magnetic compass permitted mariners to determine which direction was north. Great improvements were made in maps. Here Portuguese cartographers played a key role. Information provided by travelers was refined by explorers who began to sail south along the African coast. Europeans also made great strides in shipbuilding. Large capacity ships called galleons were adopted. Powered by sail and woth large holds, they greatly reduce the cost of transporting good over distances. These developments permitted Europeans them to begin to make voyages od substantial distances and the goal was to reach the East to develop direct trade contacts with China. Many of the advances were made by the Itlalian mariners of the eastern Mediterranean. It was, however, the western European countries of the Atlantic that would conduct the great voyages of discovery. Finally Portuguese sailors in the 15th century established direct contact with the source of spices, undercutting both the Arabs and Venetians. One of te great disappointments with Columbus and other explorers sailing west was the failure to find cloves, nutmegs, and other spices. [Turner]
Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of a Temptation (Knopf, 2004), 352p.
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