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Cumin, Camels, and Caravans

Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey

Gary Paul Nabhan
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 332
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  • Book Info
    Cumin, Camels, and Caravans
    Book Description:

    Gary Paul Nabhan takes the reader on a vivid and far-ranging journey across time and space in this fascinating look at the relationship between the spice trade and culinary imperialism. Drawing on his own family's history as spice traders, as well as travel narratives, historical accounts, and his expertise as an ethnobotanist, Nabhan describes the critical roles that Semitic peoples and desert floras had in setting the stage for globalized spice trade.Traveling along four prominent trade routes-the Silk Road, the Frankincense Trail, the Spice Route, and the Camino Real (for chiles and chocolate)-Nabhan follows the caravans of itinerant spice merchants from the frankincense-gathering grounds and ancient harbors of the Arabian Peninsula to the port of Zayton on the China Sea to Santa Fe in the southwest United States. His stories, recipes, and linguistic analyses of cultural diffusion routes reveal the extent to which aromatics such as cumin, cinnamon, saffron, and peppers became adopted worldwide as signature ingredients of diverse cuisines.Cumin, Camels, and Caravansdemonstrates that two particular desert cultures often depicted in constant conflict-Arabs and Jews-have spent much of their history collaborating in the spice trade and suggests how a more virtuous multicultural globalized society may be achieved in the future.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95695-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Recipes
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of Spice Boxes
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction: The Origin of “Species”: Trading Spices to the Ends of the Earth
    (pp. 1-15)

    Perhaps my lifelong love of aromatics—from allspice toza’atar—served as the genesis of this reflective inquiry. But somewhere along the line, I realized that one could not truly love spices without conceding that their use is never politically, economically, or even culturally neutral. It is impossible to reflect on the significance of aromatics and their history without acknowledging that imperialism, cultural competition and collaboration, religious belief, and social status are embedded in every milligram of cardamom, cinnamon, or cumin.

    And so, this book is less the story of any single spice or spice trader and more about...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Aromas Emanating from the Driest of Places
    (pp. 16-36)

    I am tracking a scent across the desert. I meander up a slope between boulders of limestone almost too hot to touch, dodging dwarfed trees and bushy shrubs, all with spiny branches twisted and punctuated with greasy but fragrant leaflets. A few spindly milkweeds with toxic sap cling to the cliff face beside me.

    As I stop for a moment to catch my breath, I let my eyes scan the arid terrain rolling high to the south of me, up the mountain plateau called Jabal Samhan. I am witness to a stark and largely unpopulated landscape. It is not totally...

  8. CHAPTER 2 Caravans Leaving Arabia Felix
    (pp. 37-59)

    Following the trail of smoke rising from the tears of frankincense and myrrh, I leave the Arabian Peninsula, cross over to the Horn of Africa, and put my feet back on the lava-strewn earth along the volcanic rim of the Blue Nile Gorge. Near the seven-hundred-year-old monastery of Debre Libanos, I smell a mix of spices being shared on ancient market grounds beneath a gigantic tree within sight of the Abay River, a tributary of the Blue Nile. A clamor of brilliant color and strange sounds welcomes me as I enter the grounds where merchants from near and far have...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Uncovering Hidden Outposts in the Desert
    (pp. 60-89)

    The desert shimmered before me, chimerical by its very nature. After days of visiting the spice souks of Alexandria and Cairo, Father Dave Denny and I were making our way across the Sinai with two Cairene van drivers in an old Volkswagen bus. It was the time of year when the Sinai is hot, dry, and desolate, with barely a cloud or a caravan in sight. For hours, we gazed out the window and saw sandy swales on the edges of hamadas, regs, and limestone ridges where it seemed as if every cobble was covered with a shiny black desert...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Omanis Rocking the Cradle of Civilization
    (pp. 90-104)

    It is late spring, and I find myself on the shores of the Gulf of Oman, walking around Sohar Fort with my friend Sulaiman Al-Khanjari. I approach the fort’s pale, stuccoed walls, which have been plastered with lime year after year over the centuries. They rise above me nearly as high as the date palms planted alongside them. It is a hot, sunny day and the brilliant sheen on both the sea and the snow white walls of the fort nearly blind me with their intensity.

    Sulaiman must see that I am squinting. He beckons me to follow him, and...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Mecca and the Migrations of Muslim and Jewish Traders
    (pp. 105-132)

    It is a moonless night along the beaches that front the resort hotels of Abu Dhabi. And yet, I struggle to find any darkness at all in the desert itself as I speed across a stretch of the Arabian Peninsula. The land itself remains illuminated with as many foot-candles as crude oil can buy. There are roving spotlights, laser shows dancing across the bay, and blazing digital billboards. I glimpse concert halls and stadiums surrounded by parking lots with metal halide floodlights kept so bright that you could read a newspaper without any visual aids.

    As I speed along the...

  12. PLATES
    (pp. None)
  13. CHAPTER 6 Merging the Spice Routes with the Silk Roads
    (pp. 133-160)

    I am now following the waft of fragrances into the deserts and steppes of Central Asia. My wife, Laurie, and I are making our way up to the crowded entrance of a market known as Shah Mansur. We have been dropped off by our friend Jumbaboy on the corner of the Nissor Muhammad and Lahati Boulevards in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and we pause by the market’s gate to gulp down the aromas and take in the scene. Staged in a rather dingy, Soviet-era pavilion, this “green market” has been so sanitized and standardized by the Russians that it doesn’t seem as...

  14. CHAPTER 7 The Flourishing of Cross-Cultural Collaboration in Iberia
    (pp. 161-180)

    On a mountainside overlooking the city known as Gharnata in medieval times, I am immersed in the aromas of jasmine, lavender, roses of all colors and sizes, myrtle, and olive wood. I have pursued the promise of these fragrances throughout my travels on the way to the southern reaches of the Iberian Peninsula, and at last I have inhaled their intoxicating scents. Many kinds of citrus surround me, though the season for the release of their perfumes passed several months ago. Nevertheless, enough volatile oils are wafting through the air here to keep anyone mesmerized.

    Just as I’m imagining that...

  15. CHAPTER 8 The Crumbling of Convivencia and the Rise of Transnational Guilds
    (pp. 181-197)

    Once again in charge of Moorish Spain, the Berbers brought in a long series of Muslim emirs, princes, and generals to take the place of the Banu Umayyah. They maintained strong ties with their kin in Morocco, in case they should ever need to escape from Christian forces. Likewise, the Sephardic Jews forged more substantial trading alliances with other Jews in Portugal, Provence, Belgium, Sicily, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey. They regularly negotiated for musk from Tibet, silk from China, and ambergris from the Atlantic coast of Africa, probably from Mauritania.¹ They likely perceived no risk at all in bringing...

  16. CHAPTER 9 Building Bridges between Continents and Cultures
    (pp. 198-213)

    I have come to search for the old stone bridges of Zayton, an ancient harbor on the East China Sea now hidden within the concrete and steel structures that form the modern city of Quanzhou. My friends and I are being chauffeured around the sprawling metropolis by an impetuous Chinese taxi driver who becomes sullen when we ask him to leave the paved streets between the skyscrapers to search among industrial dumps for the bridges and the harbor they once supported. We see some egrets flying up to the right of us and decide to shadow them, hoping that they...

  17. CHAPTER 10 Navigating the Maritime Silk Roads from China to Africa
    (pp. 214-230)

    The Arab, Persian, Sogdian, and Chinese use of the Silk Roads for spice trade was closed down for much of the last quarter of the fourteenth century, largely because of the growing power of the Turkic conqueror variously known as Timur, Timur-e Lang, Tarmashirin Khan, or in the Western world, Tamerlane. His multiregional dominance, like that of Kublai Khan and Genghis Khan in the centuries before him, had pervasively disrupted overland trade routes between the West and the East. Based in Samarkand, Tamerlane was particularly vengeful in his relations with the Han Chinese, for they had overthrown his Yuan cousins...

  18. CHAPTER 11 Vasco da Gama Mastering the Game of Globalization
    (pp. 231-242)

    It is a long way from Zayton, the Chinese port town that was once associated with olive branches, to Lisbon, the Portuguese metropolis where olives, known asazeitonas,still grow along the boulevards. And there was just as much psychological distance between their favorite sons, Zheng He and Vasco da Gama. It is difficult to imagine two “explorers” and fleet commanders more dissimilar in their personal and diplomatic styles.

    Vasco da Gama missed encountering Zheng He off the coast of East Africa by only about seventy years. The Portuguese spice and slave traders had begun to work their way down...

  19. CHAPTER 12 Crossing the Drawbridge over the Eastern Ocean
    (pp. 243-269)

    It was almost too outrageous to record when it occurred at two o’clock in the morning on October 12, 1492, in the misty seascape surrounding a scattering of islands. On that now-legendary expedition westward led by Christopher Columbus, who was bankrolled by the fervently intolerant Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, the very first man to catch sight of previously undiscovered land was not a Catholic Spaniard but a converso, one whose father was amoriscohidalgo. It is not clear whether Rodrigo de Triana had become a voluntary convert, orcristiano nuevo—what other Jews called ameshummadinin Hebrew...

  20. Epilogue: Culinary Imperialism and Its Alternatives
    (pp. 270-276)

    At first glance, the political ecology of the spice trade today seems far different from what it was during other eras over the last four millennia. As I write this, the economic downturns in southern Europe and the United States have dovetailed, and China seems to be ascending as a global economic power once again. Nations in North Africa and in parts of the Middle East are struggling to see what “season” may follow the Arab Spring. And although both business acumen and wealth are well represented in the Middle East, neither Israel nor any single Arab country appears to...

  21. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 277-278)
  22. Notes
    (pp. 279-292)
  23. Index
    (pp. 293-306)
  24. Back Matter
    (pp. 307-308)