Saffron use in arts and literature (Historical)
There is probably no other spice as fascinating as saffron. The Saffron Express team invites you all to read the article below to find out how important was the saffron role in ancient history.
Annually, around 200 tons of saffron are produced worldwide, and Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Kashmir and Italy are the major producers of saffron. Its cultivation has even spread beyond these conventional boundaries to unconventional areas in countries like China, Afghanistan, France, Switzerland, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Japan, Australia (Tasmania), New Zealand, Argentina, and USA. In contrast there are some countries where its cultivation has almost disappeared (Germany, Austria and England), especially due to increasing labor costs.
Traces of Saffron in History
There is probably no other spice as evocative as saffron. This is evident from its association with Greek gods, cultivation in hanging gardens of Babylonia, reference in Bible (Song of Solomon) for its essence and aroma, utilization for medicinal purposes by practitioners like Hippocrates and Pliny, and as cosmetics by women like Cleopatra. Even after centuries it remains tantalizingly exotic, awakening a gluttonous desire. Nothing more than the dried stamens of fragile blossoms the autumn-flowering purple Crocus flowers is still gathered by hand from the ancient fields of Iran, Greece, Italy, Kashmir and Spain.
The archaeological and historical records are important for establishing the presence of saffron in an area as well for tracking its spread elsewhere and, finally, for arriving at a conclusion about the possible progenitor of saffron present in the same areas. The presence of saffron is very ancient in the Mediterranean area as is testified by records, pictures, written throughout the region. Saffron is a very charm fascinating plant, the long history of which fluctuates between myth, legend and history. According to the mythology Krokos was a beautiful boy in love with the nymph Smilax. At least until Hera, out of jealousy, transformed Krokos into the flower Crocus and Smilax into the climbing plant Smilax (Cattabiani 1996)
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According to a legend the Greek god Zeus slept on a bed of saffron. Another legend relates how Alexander the Great, during the campaign to the East, when he reached Kashmir, settled his army on a plain. The following morning, he saw an ocean of violet flowers around his tents and under the hooves of his horses. The flowers could only have been saffron (Aucante 2000).
Archaeological studies carried out on Crete, Cyclades Islands, and mainland Greece have revealed the presence of saffron in all these areas. Crocus was known in the Minoan period in Crete three thousand years ago.
On the wall of the Minos Palace, at Knossos (Crete), (1700-1600 B.C.) are frescoes depicting crocus-gatherers. Crocus flowers are also observable on the skirts and belts of small statues and other objects found in the same Palace (Chirassi 1968). Over 150 bosom bowls were widely distributed in both settlements and tombs throughout Crete, the Aegean and Byblos and Troy. These vessels were more popular during the Minoan civilization (1700-1425 BC) and were made of serpentine carved with a decoration of six broad petals. Such a design suggests a flower of saffron Crocus commonly depicted in Cretan wall paintings (Bevan 2007). Other important records are found in the Palace of Akrotiri in Thera (now Santorini) where frescoes represent young women collecting crocuses and offering them to a divinity.
Bronze age excavation of the Minoan town Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Thera ( Santorini); Xeste 3 building; detail of the ‘Saffron Gatherers’ fresco; two women are shown in a field of crocuses. The older woman is gathering the stamens of flowers and placing them in a basket. The younger woman has a partially shaven head, and is gathering stamens with both hands. Athens, Archaeological Museum
Archeologists interpret the depicted flowers as crocus saffron used in ritual ceremonies in the pre-Hellenic and Hellenic ages, in medicine (Forsyth 2000; Ferrence and Bendersky 2004) and as fine dye (Sarpaki 2000). Interesting is the contribution by Sarpaki (2000) on the way of collecting, preparing and using wild C. cartwrightianus in Thera in the past. They are similar to those adopted today in the same Island. In addiction any other Crocus was grown during Minoan and Cycadean era. Miniature frescos of the seventeenth century B.C. representing saffron flowers were found in Syria-Palestine, suggesting that this plant was known and used in the Near East (Niemeier and Niemeier 2000).
Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000-year-old depiction of prehistoric beasts in the region that now is Iraq. Later Sumerians used wild growing saffron in their remedies and magical potions (Willard 2001). Ancient Persian cultivated Persian saffron C. sativus hausknechtii in Derbena, Khorasan by the 10th century B.C.
Other probable origins
Toponymy suggests the presence of saffron in sites such as Krocos at Kozani in Greece and in Safranbolu (Turkey), the town chosen as a World Heritage City by United National Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1994 due to its well-preserved Ottoman houses and architecture. This is a site where saffron is grown and every year around the city the Festival of Harvest Saffron is celebrated. Another site is the unknown town Azupirano, “The City of Saffron”, on the banks of river Euphrates, Iran. It is the city where Sargon, founder of Akkadian Empire, is born about 2300 BC. By 1000 B.C. saffron was being widely used in Iran where it was a symbol of love and luxury (Basker and Negbi 1983). In the 4th century B.C., a main cultivation area of saffron was Corycos in Cilicia, the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. It is probable that the name of Corycos derives from Crocus. Other toponymy is Saffron-Walden in England.
Many Greek, Roman, and Egyptian historians, reported the use of saffron as a precious component to stain cloth, to give special color and taste to food and drink, and for use in medical therapy (Basker and Negbi 1983; Tammaro 1987; Porter 2000). In “Oedipus at Colonus” Sophocles wrote that “the bodies of Demetra and Core were embellished by a crown of Narcissus and Crocus”. Aeschylus in “Persea” describes the Queen invocating her husband King Dario with “shoes dyed with Crocos”. Plautus (255-184 B.C.) in “Aulularia” mentions “the dyers of crocos”.
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From the above reported citations it is possible to deduce that the Mediterranean region is one of the probable sites of saffron origin; another site could being in the East, in Turkey-Iran- India, where saffron cultivation is reported to be thousands of years old. According to some Authors (Alberini 1990; Winterhalter and Straubinger 2000) saffron originated at first in Iran and Kashmir from where Phoenicians introduced it to the Greek and Roman world. Later (about 960 A.C.) it was brought by the Arabs and Moors to Spain. In effect the term in ancient Greek is “koricos”; the Roman’s used the term “crocum”; by contrast saffron probably originates from the Arabic word Zafaran, zaafar (Gerarde 1636). The Arabic “safran” is quite similar in various other languages: English, saffron; Italian, zafferano; French, safran; Spanish, azafran; German, saffran; Russian, shafran; Turkish, zaferen. This consideration suggests how ancient is its use worldwide.
Did you enjoy this article? Are you familiar with any other proofs which shows the historical use of saffron in ancient lands?
Alberini M (1990) Saffron: sapore e colore. Lo zafferano. Proceedings of the International Conference on Saffron (Crocus sativus L.). L’Aquila, Italy, pp 39-46
Aucante P (2000) Le Safran, Artes Sud, Arles, France, pp 16-28
Basker D, Negbi M (1983) The uses of saffron. Economic Botany 37, 228-236
Bevan A (2007) Stone Vessels and Values in the Bronze Age Mediterranean, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 301 pp
Cattabiani A (1996) Florario. Miti, leggende e simboli di fiori e piante. Mondadori, Milan, Italy
Chirassi E (1968) Elementi di culture precereali nei miti e riti greci. Il Croco. Edizioni dell’Ateneo, Roma, Italy, pp 125-134
Ferrence SC, Bendersky G (2004) Therapy with saffron and the goddess at Thera. Perpsectives in Biology and Medicine 47, 199-226
Gerarde J (1636) The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, A. Islip, J. Norton, and R. Whitakers, London, 1677 pp
Husaini, A (2010) Saffron, volume 4, Special issue 2, 2010
Niemeier B, Niemeier W-D (2000) Aegean frescoes in Syria-Palestina: Alalakh and Tel Kabri. In: Serratt S (Ed) The Wall Paintings of Thera: Proceedings of the First International Symposium, Thera Foundation, Athens, pp 763-797
Sarpaki A (2000) Plant chosen to be depicted on Theran wall paintings: tentative interpretation. Proceedings of the First International Symposium “The Wall Paintings of Thera” Vol II, pp 657-680
Willard P (2001) Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’S Most Seductive Spice, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, pp 24
Winterhalter P, Straubinger M (2000) Saffron-renewed interest in an ancient spice. Food Reviews International 16, 39-59