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.