Gourmands who liberally grab for the pepper or nutmeg might take pause to think, that at one time in history, those seasonings were worth more than their weight in gold. Spices were such a precious commodity that many a war were fought over them; they helped to build—and topple—vast empires, and led to the great Age of Discovery and founding of new worlds.
The spice trade began more than 4,000 years ago, when Middle Eastern merchants obtained such strange substances as cinnamon, cassia, and mace from their Chinese and southeast Asian counterparts. They then carried them via camel caravan to the Mediterranean and Europe along a network of overland routes, now collectively known as the Silk Road—an arduous, 4,500-mile journey across Afghanistan, Persia (Iran), Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey into Greece and Rome.
While the spice route was dangerous, it was also incredibly profitable, given that large amounts of spices could be transported at a time (as opposed to, say, ivory or porcelain). Beyond flavoring and preserving food, spices came to be used in religious ceremonies, for medicinal purposes, and to help hide odors. As their worth increased, Arabic traders told fantastical tales of how these aromatic substances had been guarded by dragons, phoenixes, and other strange creatures, making them even more exotic and valuable.
During the first century BC, the Roman Empire established a major trading center in Alexandria, controlling the spice trade throughout the Mediterranean. Spices were so prized at the time that Roman soldiers were often paid in salt, giving us the word “salary” and the common phrase, “worth his salt.” When Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) fell in 1453, the Ottomans cut off the land passage between Asia and Europe. At the same time, Venice rose in prominence as the main trading port for spices to the Continent; with other routes cut off, the city charged excessive tariffs on the treasured commodities—and became extremely wealthy in the process.
In the 15th century, shipbuilding and sea navigation had evolved to the point where monarchs and monied elite willingly sponsored explorers, who set out in search of alternative routes to the Far East and their coveted spices. Vasco de Gama successfully circumnavigated Africa in 1497 for Portugal, establishing the first overseas empire. The Spanish, English, and Dutch soon followed with their own expeditions, and the competition over the spice trade led to a 200-year-long struggle for control over the Spice Islands (now known as the Maluku Islands), a small archipelago in Indonesia that once had a monopoly over the world's mace, nutmeg, clove, and pepper production.
By the 18th century, businessmen in the newly formed United States found their way into the spice trade, establishing direct contact with Asia and thus bypassing European traders. As more routes opened and plants were successfully grown in other areas of the world, the value of spices fell—along with the powers that controlled them. Now commonplace, these once-precious flavorings make all our favorite dishes taste as smooth as silk.