Ancient trading routes and the economy of the herb, incense and spice world
At Sirius Herbal, we source the best quality herbs and incense, offer an online shop to purchase these products and ship them to our customers all over the world. With modern infrastructure and the internet, it’s easy to get these products to wherever our customers are and allow farmers across South and Latin America, India and Asia to send us their products.
However, it has not always been so easy. Before the advent of aeroplanes, cars and trucks, these products had to travel thousands of miles by land and sea, taking a very long time and making them hugely valuable and prized. The trade routes which developed in the ancient world around these spices and incense were vital to the spreading of knowledge and culture, as well as products, and we still see the impact on global cultures and cuisines from these trading routes.
Trading herbs and spices in the ancient world
The spice trade has been going on for at least 4,000 years, using sea and land routes to distribute exotic spices and herbs from Asia and Africa to Europe. Important spices and herbs traded in the ancient world included cinnamon, cassia, cardamon, ginger, nutmeg, star anise, clove and turmeric.
According to the UNESCO Silk Roads programme, these so-called Maritime Silk Roads stretched “from the west coast of Japan, through the islands of Indonesia, around India to the lands of the Middle East and from there across the Mediterranean to Europe.”
It was led by the Austronesian people from Southeast Asia, who established the first maritime trade routes to Sri Lanka and India. The spices were then transported towards the Greco-Roman Empires around the Mediterranean via land. Indian and Persian traders were crucial to the distribution of these spices, but carefully protected the spices’ origins to ensure that they were not cut out from the transaction and to inflate their price.
Many different cultures played their part in trading from different parts of the world, including the Ethiopians dominating the Red Sea maritime trading routes, the Tamils and the Ottoman Turks. European traders did not take control of these routes until the time of the Crusades, when Venice and Genoa in Italy dominated trade between Europe and Asia.
The distances of these routes were huge, over 15,000 kilometres! This is a considerable distance, even with modern transport networks, so you can imagine how daunting the distances were in crude ships and only having animals as transport once the produce hit land.
However, one person would not make the whole journey. Rather traders would buy and sell goods from port to port, switching at trading posts, as well as ports along the journey. Alongside the spices, other goods were traded, and knowledge about these foreign lands, their cultures and languages, as well as news, also travelled along these routes.
The Incense Trade Route
The Egyptians used incense as a key part of their religious ceremonies and as part of their burial rituals. They started the trade from South Arabia and the Horn of Africa into the Nile region as early as 1500 BC. So important was this trade, that ships were depicted carrying incense trees in frescos on the Thebes temple. The Greeks also recorded Somalia, Southern Arabia and India trading incense including frankincense and myrrh.
The Persian Gulf and particularly Yemen was famed for its frankincense and myrrh trees, which were crucial to their economy and wealth. From there, the incense travelled by road between Arabia and the Mediterranean. These routes were so important that many wars were fought over them and civilisations fought to control them.
During the time of the Roman empire, sea routes were also added to reduce control of the Parthian and Arabian traders and bring down prices. The Greeks were known to trade directly with India, re-discovering an ancient sea-route, but trading on a relatively small scale.
Many changes of power, economic turmoil, war and conquests lead to shifts in power over these routes, with declines and rises in the importance of the goods. The final players in the route were the Ottoman Turks, who seized control of the most direct routes between Europe and Asia when they conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 15th century.
The importance of these routes has been recognised by UNESCO and the Frankincense Trail in Oman was given World Heritage status in 2000.
What were Frankincense and Myrrh used for in ancient times?
Frankincense and Myrrh were a crucial part of religious ceremonies for the Egyptians to honour the Gods and chase away evil spirits and have been found in many tombs, including Tutankhamun’s. It was also important to the Christian culture and is referenced a lot in the Bible, including being presented to Jesus by the Three Wise Men. They were considered a crucial part of holy incense which took prayers up to heaven.
What do we use them for now?
Frankincense and Myrrh continue to be an important part of Catholic and Orthodox Christian religious ceremonies. They are also used in homes as incense, as well as in yoga studios and holistic clinics to aid with relaxation, meditation and to cleanse and invigorate. Myrrh incense is very popular for its cleansing smoke, which has been proven to have powerful anti-microbial properties and has an uplifting and energising effect.
Frankincense incense is highly prized in Ayurvedic medicine and its fragrant smoke is sweet and calming. It is believed to aid with meditation, as well as purify the environment and offer spiritual protection and development.