Inside the Surprising History of the Spice Trade

By | Jul 10, 2014

cumin-camels-and-caravansFor Gary Paul Nabhan, spices tell a story that goes far beyond “Add two teaspoons of cinnamon.” The chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship is the author of the new book Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey, which examines how the early spice trade in the Middle East foretold the contemporary phenomenon of globalization.

Why look at the spice trade? What special story does it tell?

It tells two stories at once: It tells how spice traders pioneered all the good and questionable processes—economic, social and cultural—that are now part of what most of us associate with globalization. The Middle Eastern spice trade that involved all Semitic peoples, but particularly Jewish, Arab and Phoenician traders, reshaped the entire globe in terms of our culinary and nutritional access to plants and the economic structures through which we conduct trade. The subtheme there, though, is what motivated me to do the book: that there were hundreds of years in which Jews, particularly Sephardic Jews, and Christian and Muslim Arabs collaborated on an extensive, intercontinental scale where there was complementarity more than competition or conflict. As an Arab-American who’s worked both in Israel and other parts of the Middle East, I thought that story of deeper collaboration over centuries needed to be told.

Why the spice trade and not another kind of trade?

It’s one of the earliest examples of extra-local trade that’s traceable in the archaeological record, along with bronze and a few other commodities. Because of the fact that many spices uniquely grow in just one restricted area—unlike copper, for example, which you might find in many different patches of mountain ranges across continents—spices are often narrowly restricted. Because people wanted to break up the monotony of their diets, extra-local trade began in a way that’s traceable both ecologically and culturally. When I speak of Semitic peoples, I’m not talking explicitly about how their faith influenced the trade, but their knowledge of desert peoples, of how to take one scarce resource from one locality and offer it to people in another place in a way that both surprised and satisfied the taste buds and the mind. We have incredible written ledgers and trade documents from the Jewish community that literally document the daily lives of spice traders. It’s a paper trail and an archaeological trail unlike any other commodity that moved between continents.

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What is it about spices that makes them so alluring?

They’re usually lightweight, scarce and miniscule commodities that have a big bang for the buck. A little bit of frankincense can fill an entire room with aroma. Spices are full of secondary chemical compounds that are relatively rare in the natural world but have incredible medicinal and even psychotropic, or mind-altering, capacities. They’re like aromatherapy today; they’re satisfying both physical and spiritual needs.

How did Jews and Arabs work together on the spice trade?

Jewish traders were going from ports of Oman to India and China six centuries before Marco Polo. Many Jewish traders were polyglots—they had great capacity and diligence for learning other languages. There were whole Jewish communities on the China Sea well before Marco Polo and the Italians showed up. Globalization has a bad rap in some circles. It’s happened for over 4,500 years. It didn’t start with Columbus. Much of those early stages of globalization had tremendous intellectual, nutritional and cultural benefits for the people who participated in it. Jewish traders were catalysts and brokers who made that possible in so many places, from China to Portugal. A Sephardic Jewish trader could write a check in Portugal in 1,000 CE and it would be honored in a port town in China, long before the Internet, long before telegraph lines. There was trust built among the communities. There was cohesion across space and time in a way that most Americans don’t understand, that this was not just occasional contact but centuries of interconnection that allowed the world economy to work.

Wasn’t there some tension between the communities?

Absolutely. There’s some romanticizing of the era of convivencia where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in Andalucia, which makes it seem like it was completely benign. We know that Jewish scholars and diplomats were consultants not only on trade but on policy and education in the Spanish courts, as were Muslim Arab-speaking scientists. But we also know that that era of convivencia did not persist for the entire time of Muslim dominance in Andalucia. Christians and Muslims felt threatened by both the intellectual and economic capacity of some of those Jewish scholars and advisors to royalty, so it’s important not to romanticize and gloss over the incredible tragedies of genocide that happened both to Jews and to Arabs, whether they were Christians or Muslims. The Spanish Inquisition is considered by some Sephardic Jews as one more holocaust that their people have suffered, and it was at the hands of Christians, but Muslims suffered at that same time as well. We know that the experiment in Andalucia—Jewish and Arab scholars working together, translating the great medical and culinary treasures of the eastern world—dried up and failed before Christian expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian peninsula. The Spanish world has been impoverished by the loss of Jewish and Arab influences. That may be controversial for someone of Spanish descent to accept, but by many culturally neutral indicators—music, gastronomy,  architecture, scholarship—Spain was enhanced by Jewish and Muslim presence and immediately impoverished after the Inquisition.

Were there famous spice traders other than Muhammad?

I write quite a bit about Beatrice de Luna, known as Gracia Nasi, a Portuguese-born Jewish woman whose family had escaped the Inquisition. She was wealthier than most of the royalty in Europe at the time. She started the first attempt at Zionist recolonization of the holy lands. She translated the Talmud into vernacular European languages, which had never been done before, and when oppressive Inquisitional activities were promulgated by the Pope, she basically caused a global embargo against the Vatican so that goods would not flow into the Vatican on the Italian peninsula. In some ways, her story in the spice trade is greater than Marco Polo or Columbus or Muhammad. The fact that she was a woman, not just that she was a Jew, has meant that until some terrific Judaic scholarship these last 20 years very few people knew her story.

What lessons can be learned from the cooperation on the spice trade? What legacies has it imparted?

Cross-cultural and intercontinental trade has benefited us all, but when it gets into the hands of too few people, like it did when Vasco da Gama tried to get exclusive rights to trade with India, we begin to see the ratcheting down of economies. When that happens, the disadvantages begin to outweigh the benefits. At another level, I continue to be saddened that conflict between people of different faiths gets more airplay, whether it’s in the contemporary scene or in history, than long periods of their collaboration. Those collaborations have not been without tensions, but I think if every American child grew up knowing that there’s been more collaboration than conflict between Arab and Jewish peoples over centuries, it might change the stereotypes and the categorical denials that there have been periods of peace, collaboration and reciprocity between people.


One thought on “Inside the Surprising History of the Spice Trade

  1. wow. this is very interested info here. i am wondered to know these. By the way spices are like most important this in food that i always want to have. i love spices . Indian foods are full of aroma contains spices make this more delicious to eat.

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