The Book of Kings describes how Solomon welcomed
to Jerusalem the Queen of Sheba, whose kingdom was in South Arabia. She came
with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold,
and precious stones.
Although scholars debate whether in fact this story is 100% factual, it is accurate
that during this period (tenth century BCE), the spice trade between African
countries and southern Arabia, and between Syria and the Mediterranean lands,
was already brisk.
ancient times, perfumes and spices were popular commodities in the near East,
and the spice trade was a particularly active one. From both the Bible and other
classical sources it appears that the valuable plants from which the coveted
aromatic resins, incense, spices, and medicinal potions were produced, were
grown mainly in the kingdoms of southern Arabia. From this area, major land
and sea trade routes branched out to all the great trading centers of the ancient
King Solomon had inherited from his father David a kingdom which
extended from the Euphrates (including Syria and Transjordan) to the border
of Egypt. This dominion brought with it direct economic benefits and political
sway, such as tributes in the form of precious metals and raiment, spices and
horses. More significantly,
however, it gave him control of the major transport routes between Egypt, Mesopotamia
and Anatolia (international routes known as Via Maris and Kings
Highway), routes to the south of Arabia, as well as a land link between
the Mediterranean and the Read Sea.
these routes Solomon developed extensive land and sea trade, bringing his kingdom
tremendous economic advantage and greatly enriching the treasuries of his kingdom.
It has been suggested that the fortresses built in southern Israel during the
tenth century BCE were constructed during Solomons reign to protect the
spice caravans passing along the caravan routes, from south to north.
Israel Museum curator Michal Dayagi-Mendes writes in her essay The Spice
all these trade routes were well established, the transportation of perfumes
and spices was still long and hazardous. Many dangers lurked along the desert
routes for the spice caravans, and for the ships there were the various perils
of the sea, pirates among them. In addition, heavy taxes were imposed on carriers
of spices, especially on the overland caravans. Natural historian Pliny records:
Fixed portions of frankincense are also given to the priests and the kings
secretaries, but beside these the guards and their attendants and the gate-keepers
and servants also have their pickings. Indeed, all along the route they keep
on paying, at one place for water, at another for fodder or the charges for
lodging... So that expense mount up to 688 denarii per camel before the Mediterranean
coast is reached.
"It is no wonder that under such conditions, the prices of perfumes
and spices soared to exceeding heights....
In later centuries, in their Diaspora settlements in the East
Mediterranean and Near East, Jewish merchants continued to trade in spices (as
well as other luxury goods). Although the Syrians at first led this trade, the
Jews took the leading position after the Arabs had conquered the Syrian coast.
They moved such commodities as musk, aloes, camphor and cinnamon from the Far
East along the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade routes and ports; these
activities were flourishing in the 11th to 13th centuries, as attested to in
genizah  documents
and responsa from
the Turkish conquest, the Eastern routes fell into disuse. Christians became
more active in overseas trade, and they restricted the commercial activities
of the Jews; Italians soon replaced the Jews as intermediaries with the Orient.
By the sixteenth century, political and economic processes including the
growing trade with the New World, the opening of a direct route to East India
by the Portuguese, and the subsequent development of Portuguese and French maritime
trade with India and China moved Jewish merchants back into the arena
of spice trade.
the mid-sixteenth century, the New Christian Mendes family came to control a
major part of the commerce in pepper and other spices in northern Europe (the
largest market in Europe at that time). In the seventeenth and early eighteenth
centuries, Jews were trading actively in spices from Yemen and India, from Lisbon
(and following the expulsion from Spain and Portugal) and Amsterdam, serving
as agents in the European trading companies as well as independent merchants.
I Kings 5:1 [back]
 I Kings 5:1, 10:25 [back]
 I Kings 10:10, 25 [back]
 Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Ancient
World. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1989. [back]
 Pliny, Natural History XII:65 [back]
 A hiding room or storeroom, usually connected
with a synagogue, for the depositing of worn-out sacred books and sacred
 Answers to questions of Jewish law and
observance written by halakhic scholars in reply to inquiries addressed
to them. [back]