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.”[1] 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.

From 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 world.

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.[2] More significantly, however, it gave him control of the major transport routes between Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia (international routes known as “Via Maris” and “King’s Highway”), routes to the south of Arabia, as well as a land link between the Mediterranean and the Read Sea.

Along these routes Solomon developed extensive land and sea trade, bringing his kingdom tremendous economic advantage and greatly enriching the treasuries of his kingdom.[3] It has been suggested that the fortresses built in southern Israel during the tenth century BCE were constructed during Solomon’s 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 Trade:[4] “Although 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 king’s 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.”[5] "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 [6] documents and responsa[7] from the period.

With 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.

In 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.



[1] I Kings 5:1 [back]
[2] I Kings 5:1, 10:25 [back]
[3] I Kings 10:10, 25 [back]
[4] Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Ancient World. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1989. [back]
[5] Pliny, Natural History XII:65 [back]
[6] A hiding room or storeroom, usually connected with a synagogue, for the depositing of worn-out sacred books and sacred objects. [back]
[7] Answers to questions of Jewish law and observance written by halakhic scholars in reply to inquiries addressed to them. [back]



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