WHAT would you choose as a present for a very important person? In Bible times some spices were as precious as gold—so valuable that they constituted gifts fit for a king.* That is why two of the gift items that the astrologers offered to the “king of the Jews” were aromatic spices.—Matthew 2:1, 2, 11.
The Bible also relates that when the queen of Sheba visited Solomon, “she gave the king 120 talents of gold and a great quantity of balsam oil and precious stones. Never again was such balsam oil brought in as what the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.”* (2 Chronicles 9:9) Kings also sent Solomon balsam oil as a gesture of their goodwill.—2 Chronicles 9:23, 24.
Why were such spices and related products so valuable and expensive in Bible times? Because they played many important roles, as when they were used in beauty care, religious services, and burial of the dead. (See the box “Uses of Aromatic Spices in Bible Times.”) Apart from the high demand for them, spices were expensive because of transportation and marketing costs.
CROSSING THE ARABIAN DESERT
In Bible times, some spice plants grew in the Jordan Valley. Other spices, however, had to be imported. A variety of spice products are mentioned in the Bible. Among the more familiar are saffron, aloe, balsam, cinnamon, frankincense, and myrrh. Besides these, there were the common food condiments such as cumin, mint, and dill.
Where did the exotic spices come from? Aloes, cassia, and cinnamon were found in what is today China, India, and Sri Lanka. Spices such as myrrh and frankincense came from trees and bushes that grew in desert areas stretching from southern Arabia to Somalia in Africa. And nard, or spikenard, was an exclusive Indian product from the Himalayas.
To reach Israel, many spices had to be transported across Arabia. Partly as a result of this, during the second and first millennia B.C.E., Arabia became “the great monopolistic carrier of goods between East and West,” explains The Book of Spices. Ancient towns, fortresses, and caravan stops found in the Negev of southern Israel mark the routes of spice traders. These settlements also “reflect the hugely profitable trade . . . from south Arabia to the Mediterranean,” reports the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO.
“Small in bulk, high in price, and in a steady demand, spices were especially desirable articles of commerce.”—The Book of Spices
Caravans laden with these aromatic spices regularly traveled distances of some 1,100 miles (1,800 km) across Arabia. (Job 6:19) The Bible refers to a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants carrying such spices as “labdanum gum, balsam, and resinous bark” from Gilead to Egypt. (Genesis 37:25) Jacob’s sons sold their brother Joseph as a slave to these traders.
“THE BEST-KEPT TRADE SECRET OF ALL TIME”
Arabian merchants controlled most of the spice trade for centuries. They became the exclusive suppliers of spices from Asia, such as cassia and cinnamon. In order to discourage the Mediterranean world from establishing direct commercial links with sources in the East, the Arabians spread fanciful tales about the dangers involved in obtaining spices. The real source of spices was “probably the best-kept trade secret of all time,” according to The Book of Spices.
What stories did the Arabians spread? Herodotus, a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C.E., described tales of fearsome birds building nests of cinnamon bark on inaccessible cliffs. To obtain this precious spice, he wrote, collectors put large pieces of meat at the foot of the cliff. The birds would greedily carry so much meat to their nests that the nests would crash to the ground. The men could then quickly collect the cinnamon bark and sell it to merchants. Such stories became widespread. Thus, because of the “alleged dangers of harvest, it [cinnamon] was sold at a very high price,” notes The Book of Spices.
Eventually, the Arabians’ secret was uncovered and their monopoly lost. By the first century B.C.E., Alexandria, in Egypt, became a large port and commercial hub for spices. Once sailors learned how to take advantage of the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean, Roman ships sailed from Egyptian ports to India. As a result, luxury spices became much more abundant and prices eased.
Today the value of spices bears no comparison to that of gold. And we would hardly consider spices suitable gifts for a king. Yet, millions of people around the world continue to use them in perfumes and medicines and, of course, to add flavor and zest to their food. Indeed, the alluring aromas of spices make them popular today, just as they were thousands of years ago.
In the Bible, the original-language words translated “spice” or “spices” refer mainly to aromatic, or fragrant, plant products and not to food seasonings.
“Balsam oil” refers to aromatic oils or resins obtained from trees and shrubs.