Spice History

Civilizations of Asia were involved in spice trade from the ancient times, and the Greco-Roman world soon followed by trading along the Incense route and the Roman-India routes. The Roman-Indian routes were dependent upon techniques developed by the maritime trading power, Kingdom of Axum (ca 5th century BC–AD 11th century) which had pioneered the Red Sea route before the 1st century. By mid-7th century the rise of Islam closed off the overland caravan routes through Egypt and the Suez, and sundered the European trade community from Axum and India.

Arab traders eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant and Venetian merchants to Europe until the rise of the Ottoman Turks cut the route again by 1453. Overland routes helped the spice trade initially, but maritime trade routes led to tremendous growth in commercial activities. During the high and late medieval periods Muslim traders dominated maritime spice trading routes throughout the Indian Ocean, tapping source regions in the Far East and shipping spices from trading emporiums in India westward to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, from which overland routes led to Europe.

Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric were known, and used for commerce, in the Eastern World well into antiquity. These spices found their way into the Middle East before the beginning of the Common Era, where the true sources of these spices was withheld by the traders, and associated with fantastic tales. The Egyptians had traded in the Red Sea, importing spices from the “Land of Punt” and from Arabia. Luxury goods traded along the Incense Route included Indian spices, ebony, silk and fine textiles. The spice trade was associated with overland routes early on but maritime routes proved to be the factor which helped the trade grow. The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with India using the Red Sea ports.

The trade between India and the Greco-Roman world kept on increasing; within this trade spices were the main import from India to the Western world, bypassing silk and other commodities.

In Java and Borneo, the introduction of Indian culture created a demand for aromatics. These trading outposts later served the Chinese and Arab markets as well. The Greek document Periplus Maris Erythraei names several Indian ports from where large ships sailed towards east to Khruse.

Pre-Islamic Meccans continued to use the old Incense Route to benefit from the heavy Roman demand for luxury goods. The Meccan involvement saw the export of the same goods: Arabian frankincense, East African ivory and gold, Indian spices, Chinese silks, etc.