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History of saffron

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Saffron crocus flowers, represented as small red tufts, are gathered by two women in a fragmentary Minoan fresco from the excavation of Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Santorini.

The history of saffron in human cultivation and use reaches back more than 3,500 years and spans many cultures, continents, and civilizations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has remained among the world's costliest substances throughout history. With its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes, saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine. Saffron is native to Southwest Asia, but was first cultivated in Greece.

The wild precursor of domesticated saffron crocus is Crocus cartwrightianus. Human cultivators bred C. cartwrightianus specimens by selecting for plants with abnormally long stigmas. Thus, sometime in late Bronze Age Crete, a mutant form of C. cartwrightianus, C. sativus, emerged. Saffron was first documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal. Since then, documentation of saffron's use over a span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some ninety illnesses has been uncovered. Saffron slowly spread throughout much of Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.


A detail of the "Saffron Gatherers" fresco from the "Xeste 3" building. This fresco is one of many depicting saffron that were found at the ancient Minoan settlement of Akrotiri, Santorini.

Saffron played a significant role in the Greco-Roman classical period (8th century BC to the 3rd century AD). However, the first known image of saffron in Greek culture is much older and stems from the Bronze Age. A saffron harvest is shown in the Knossos palace frescoes of Minoan Crete, which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys. One of these fresco sites is located in the "Xeste 3" building at Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini (known to ancient Greeks as Thera). The "Xeste 3" frescoes have been dated from 1600–1500 BC. Various other dates have been given, such as 3000–1100 BC and the 17th century BC. They portray a Greek goddess supervising the plucking of flowers and the picking of stigmas for use in the manufacture of a therapeutic drug. A fresco from the same site also depicts a woman using saffron to treat her bleeding foot. These Theran frescoes are the first botanically accurate pictorial representations of saffron's use as an herbal remedy. The saffron-growing Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini was ultimately destroyed by a powerful earthquake and subsequent volcanic eruption between 1645 and 1500 BC. The volcanic ash from the destruction entombed and helped preserve the saffron frescoes.

Ancient Greek legends tell of brazen sailors embarking on long and perilous voyages to the remote land of Cilicia, where they traveled to procure what they believed was the world's most valuable saffron. The best-known Greek legend about saffron is the story detailing the tragedy of Crocus and Smilax: The handsome youth Crocus sets out in pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. During a brief period of idyllic love Smilax is flattered by his amorous advances, but soon is bored by Crocus' attentions. After he continues to pursue her against her wishes, she resorts to bewitching him, transforming Crocus into a saffron crocus flower, with its radiant orange stigmas remaining as a faint symbol of his undying passion for Smilax. The tragedy and the spice would be recalled later by Ovid:

This inaccurate reconstruction of a Minoan fresco from Knossos, Crete depicts a man (should be a monkey) gathering the saffron crocus flower harvest.
"Crocus and Smilax may be turn'd to flow'rs,
And the Curetes spring from bounteous show'rs
I pass a hundred legends stale, as these,
And with sweet novelty your taste to please"
     — Ovid, Metamorphoses

For the people of the ancient Mediterranean, the saffron gathered in the Cilician coastal town of Soli was the most valued, particularly for use in perfumes and ointments. However, such figures as Herodotus and Pliny the Elder rated rival Assyrian and Babylonian saffron from the Fertile Crescent as best for use in treatments against gastrointestinal and renal ailments. Greek saffron production from the Corycian Cave of Mount Parnassus also became noteworthy. The colour of the Corycian crocus is used as a comparison in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, and its fragrance in the Epigrams of Martial.

A Greek goddess (shown in detail) supervises the production of saffron-based therapeutic drugs in this Theran fresco on the volcanic Aegean island of Santorini.

In late Ptolemaic Egypt, Cleopatra used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths because of its colouring and cosmetic properties. She also used it before encounters with men, believing that saffron would give lovemaking more pleasure. Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments. For instance, when stomach pains progressed to internal hemorrhaging, an Egyptian treatment consisted of saffron crocus seeds mixed and crushed together with aager-tree remnants, ox fat, coriander, and myrrh. This ointment or poultice was applied to the body. The physicians expected it to "[expel] blood through the mouth or rectum which resembles hog's blood when it is cooked." Urinary tract conditions were also treated with an oil-based emulsion of premature saffron flowers mixed with roasted beans; this was used topically on men. Women ingested a more complex preparation.

In Greco-Roman times saffron was widely traded across the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. Their customers ranged from perfumers in Rosetta, Egypt to physicians in Gaza to townsfolk in Rhodes, who wore pouches of saffron in order to mask the presence of malodorous fellow citizens during outings to the theatre. For the Greeks, saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans and retainers known as the hetaerae. In addition, large dye works operating in Sidon and Tyre used saffron baths as a substitute. There, royal robes were triple-dipped in deep purple dyes; for the robes of royal pretenders and commoners, the last two dips were replaced with a saffron dip, which gave a less intense purple hue.

The ancient Greeks and Romans also prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodoriser. They scattered it about public spaces such as royal halls, courts, and amphitheatres. When Emperor Nero entered Rome they spread saffron along the streets, and wealthy Romans made daily use of saffron baths. They also used saffron as mascara, stirred saffron threads into their wines, strewn it in halls and streets as a potpourri, and offered it to their deities. Roman colonists took saffron with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until the AD 271 barbarian invasion of Italy. Competing theories state that saffron only returned to France with 8th-century Moors or with the Avignon Papacy in the 14th century.

Middle Eastern

Two saffron crocus flowers in Osaka Prefecture, Japan

Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to illustrate beasts in 50,000 year-old cave art found in today's Iraq. Later, the Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. Sumerians did not cultivate saffron. They gathered their stores from wild flowers, believing that divine intervention alone enables saffron's medicinal properties. Such evidence provides evidence that saffron was an article of long-distance trade before Crete's Minoan palace culture reached a peak in the 2nd millennium BC. Saffron was also honoured as a sweet-smelling spice over three millennia ago in the Hebrew Tanakh:

"Your lips drop sweetness like honeycomb, my bride, syrup and milk are under your tongue, and your dress had the scent of Lebanon. Your cheeks are an orchard of pomegranates, an orchard full of rare fruits, spikenard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon."
     —  Song of Solomon

In ancient Persia, saffron (Crocus sativus 'Hausknechtii') was cultivated at Derbena and Isfahan in the 10th century BC. There, Persian saffron threads have been found interwoven into ancient Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds. Saffron was used by ancient Persian worshipers as a ritual offering to their deities, and as a brilliant yellow dye, perfume, and a medicine. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy. Indeed, Persian saffron threads, used to spice foods and teas, were widely suspected by foreigners of being a drugging agent and an aphrodisiac. These fears grew to forewarn travelers to abstain from eating saffron-laced Persian cuisine. In addition, Persian saffron was dissolved in water with sandalwood to use as a body wash after heavy work and perspiration under the hot Persian sun. Later, Persian saffron was heavily used by Alexander the Great and his forces during their Asian campaigns. They mixed saffron into teas and dined on saffron rice. Alexander personally used saffron sprinkled in warm bath water. He believed it would heal his many wounds, and his faith in saffron grew with each treatment. He even recommended saffron baths for the ordinary men under him. The Greek soldiers, taken with saffron's perceived curative properties, continued the practice after they returned to Macedonia. Saffron cultivation also reached what is now Turkey, with harvesting concentrated around the northern town of Safranbolu; the area still known for its annual saffron harvest festivals.

Indian and Chinese

Various conflicting accounts exist that describe saffron's first arrival in South and East Asia. The first of these rely on historical accounts gleaned from Persian records. These suggest to many experts that saffron, among other spices, was first spread to India via Persian rulers' efforts to stock their newly built gardens and parks. They accomplished this by transplanting the desired cultivars across the Persian empire. Another variant of this theory states that, after ancient Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocus corms were transplanted to Kashmiri soil. The first harvest then occurred sometime prior to 500 BC. Phoenicians then began in the 6th century BC to market the new Kashmiri saffron by utilising their extensive trade routes. Once sold, Kashmiri saffron was used in the treatment of melancholy and as a fabric dye.

The 17.8 m monolith of Jain prophet Bhagavan Gomateshwara Bahubali, which was carved between 978–993 AD and is located in Shravanabelagola, India, is anointed with saffron every 12 years by thousands of devotees as part of the Mahamastakabhisheka festival.

On the other hand, traditional Kashmiri legend states that saffron first arrived sometime during the 11th and 12th centuries AD, when two foreign and itinerant Sufi ascetics, Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin, wandered into Kashmir. The foreigners, having fallen sick, beseeched a cure for illness from a local tribal chieftain. When the chieftain obliged, the two holy men reputedly gave them a saffron crocus bulb as payment and thanks. To this day, grateful prayers are offered to the two saints during the saffron harvesting season in late autumn. The saints, indeed, have a golden-domed shrine and tomb dedicated to them in the saffron-trading village of Pampore, India. However, the Kashmiri poet and scholar Mohammed Yusuf Teng disputes this. He states that Kashmiris had cultivated saffron for more than two millennia. Indeed, such ancient indigenous cultivation is alluded to in Kashmiri Tantric Hindu epics of that time.

Ancient Chinese Buddhist accounts from the Mula- sarvastivadin monastic order (or vinaya) present yet another account of saffron's arrival in India. According to legend, an arhat Indian Buddhist missionary by the name of Madhyântika (or Majjhantika) was sent to Kashmir in the 5th century BC. When he got there, he reportedly sowed Kashmir's first saffron crop. From there, saffron use spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. In addition to use in foods, saffron stigmas were also soaked in water to yield a golden-yellow solution that was used as a fabric dye. Such was the love of the resulting fabric that, immediately after the Buddha Siddhartha Guatama's death, his attendant monks decreed saffron as the official colour for Buddhist robes and mantles.

Some historians believe that saffron first came to China with Mongol invaders by way of Persia. Saffron is mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts, including the vast Bencao Gangmu ("Great Herbal") pharmacopoeia (pp. 1552–78), a tome dating from around 1600 BC (and attributed to Emperor Shen-Ung) which documents thousands of phytochemical-based medical treatments for various disorders. Yet around the 3rd century AD, the Chinese were referring to saffron as having a Kashmiri provenance. For example, Wan Zhen, a Chinese medical expert, reported that "[t]he habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to the Buddha." Wan also reflected on how saffron was used in his time: "The [saffron crocus] flower withers after a few days, and then the saffron is obtained. It is valued for its uniform yellow colour. It can be used to aromatise wine."

Medieval European illuminated manuscripts, such as this 13th-century depiction of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket's assassination, often used saffron dyes to provide hues of yellow and orange.

In modern times, saffron cultivation has spread to Afghanistan because of the efforts of the European Union and the United Kingdom. Together, they promote saffron cultivation among impoverished and cash-strapped Afghan farmers as an ideal alternative to illicit and lucrative opium production. They stress Afghanistan's sunny and semi-arid climate as ideal for saffron crocus growth.

Post-Classical European

Saffron cultivation in Europe declined steeply following the fall of the Roman Empire. For several centuries thereafter, saffron cultivation was rare or non-existent throughout Europe. This was reversed when Moorish civilisation spread from North Africa to settle most of Spain as well as parts of France and southern Italy. One theory states that Moors reintroduced saffron corms to the region around Poitiers after they lost the Battle of Tours to Charles Martel in AD 732. Two centuries after their conquest of Spain, Moors planted saffron throughout the southern provinces of Andalucia, Castile, La Mancha, and Valencia.

When the Black Death ravaged Europe between 1347 and 1350, demand for saffron and its cultivation skyrocketed. It was coveted by plague victims for its medicinal properties, but many of the European farmers capable of growing it died off. Large quantities of saffron imports thus came from non-European lands. Yet the finest saffron threads from Muslim lands were unavailable to Europeans because of hostilities beginning with the Crusades. Thus imports from places such as Rhodes supplied central and northern Europe. Saffron was one of the contested points of hostility that flared between the declining nobleman classes and increasingly wealthy merchants. For example, the fourteen-week-long "Saffron War" was ignited when an 800-pound (360 kg) shipment of saffron was hijacked and stolen by noblemen. The saffron load, which had been destined for the town of Basel, would at today's market prices be valued at more than US$500,000. That shipment was eventually returned, but the saffron trade in the 13th century remained the subject of mass theft and piracy. Indeed, pirates plying Mediterranean waters would often ignore gold stores and instead steal Venetian- and Genoan-marketed saffron bound for Europe. The ordinary people of Basel, wary of such future piracy, thus planted their own corms. After several years of large and lucrative saffron harvests, Basel grew extremely prosperous compared to other European towns. Basel attempted to protect its status by outlawing the transportation of corms outside the town's borders; guards were posted to prevent thieves from picking flowers or digging up corms. Nevertheless, after ten years the saffron crop failed, and Basel abandoned cultivation.

Persian saffron threads from Iran.

The centre of central European saffron trade then moved to Nuremberg, while the merchants of Venice continued their dominance of the Mediterranean sea trade. There, saffron varieties from Austria, Crete, France, Greece, the Ottoman Empire, Sicily, and Spain were sold. Also sold were many adulterated samples, including those soaked in honey, mixed with marigold petals, or kept in damp cellars in order to increase the saffron threads' weight. This prompted Nuremberg authorities to pass the so-called Safranschou code, which sought to regulate saffron trading. Saffron adulterators were thereafter fined, imprisoned, and executed via immolation. Soon after, England emerged as a major European saffron producer. Saffron, according to one theory, spread to the coastal regions of eastern England in the 14th century AD during the reign of Edward III. In subsequent years saffron was fleetingly cultivated throughout England. Norfolk, Suffolk and south Cambridgeshire were especially heavily planted with corms. Rowland Parker provides an account of its cultivation in the village of Foxton during the 16th and 17th centuries, "usually by people holding a small amount of land"; an acre planted in saffron could yield a crop worth £6, making it "a very profitable crop, provided that plenty of unpaid labor was available; unpaid labor was one of the basic features of farming then and for another two centuries."

However, long-term saffron cultivation only survived in the light, well-drained, and chalk-based soils of the north Essex countryside. Indeed, the Essex town of Saffron Walden got its name as a saffron growing and trading centre. Its name was originally Cheppinge Walden and the name was changed to show the importance of the crop to the local area; and today the town's arms feature crocus blooms ( ). Yet as England emerged from the Middle Ages, rising puritanical sentiments and new conquests abroad endangered English saffron's use and cultivation. Puritanical advocates favoured more austere, simple, and un-spiced foods. Saffron was also a labor-intensive crop, which became an increasing disadvantage. Lastly, an influx of additional spices from Eastern lands due to the growing spice trade meant that the English, as well as other Europeans, had more seasonings to choose from.

This trend was later documented by the Reverend William Herbert, who was the Dean of Manchester. He collected samples and compiled information on many aspects of the saffron crocus. He was concerned about the steady decline in saffron cultivation over the 17th century and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. This was due to the introduction in Europe of such easily grown crops as maize and potatoes, which steadily took over lands formerly dedicated to saffron corms. In addition, the elite who traditionally comprised the bulk of the saffron market were now growing increasingly interested in such exotic and new arrivals as chocolate, coffee, tea, and vanilla. Indeed, only in the south of France, Italy, and Spain, where saffron had been deeply incorporated into the local cultures, did significant cultivation remain.

North American

A saffron crocus flower

Saffron made its way to the Americas when thousands of Alsatian, German, and Swiss Anabaptists, Dunkards, and others fled religious persecution in Europe. They settled mainly in eastern Pennsylvania, in the Susquehanna River valley. These settlers, who became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, were by 1730 widely cultivating saffron after corms were first brought to America in a trunk owned by German adherents of a Protestant sect known as the Schwenkfelder Church. Schwenkfelders, as members were known, were great lovers of saffron, and had grown it back in Germany. Soon, Pennsylvania Dutch saffron was being successfully marketed to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean, while healthy demand elsewhere ensured that its listed price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange was set equal to that of gold.

However, the War of 1812 destroyed many of the merchant vessels that transported American saffron abroad. Pennsylvanian saffron growers were afterwards left with surplus inventory, and trade with the Caribbean markets never recovered. Nevertheless, Pennsylvania Dutch growers developed many uses for saffron in their own home cooking, including cakes, noodles, and chicken or trout dishes. Saffron cultivation survived into modern times mainly in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

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