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A History of Western Herbalism Part II: The Middle East, the Link between East and West.

Updated on January 26, 2010
The Trade Routes from East to West and Back Again
The Trade Routes from East to West and Back Again

Oldest Medical Text 4000BC

Oldest Medical Text
Oldest Medical Text

Mesopotamia: The Crossroads of the World

When the people of Asia began trading with Mesopotamia is lost in the mists of time. As long ago as 4000BC, the area surrounded by the Tigris and Euphrates was already trading in herbs from Asia. Syrian myths talk of the gods drinking sesame wine. DNA studies have shown that sesame plant originated in India.

The oldest recorded herbals are those written on the clay tablets of the Assyrians. These tablets list many herbs that are we are still familiar with today. Herbs such as:

  • · belladonna native to Europe
  • · opium poppy native to Turkey
  • · Cannabis native to the Mediterranean
  • cloves that only grow in the Spice Islands of Malaysia

were all familiar to the ancient peoples of the Middle East.

Map of the Spice Islands
Map of the Spice Islands

These ancient lands of Mesopotamia stood between the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and the cultures and herbs of China, India and the countries of Southeast Asia. What made herbs such an important part of the commerce between the ancient cultures? They were both portable and profitable. Herbs, like silk, could survive long trips under harsh conditions because they were light and wouldn’t spoil. 

  All routes had to pass through the Middle East.  It didn’t matter whether the routes were overland caravans or ships traveling across the Indian Ocean.  Because of their strategic position, the Middle East and especially the Arabian Peninsula controlled the trade between the Far East, Europe and Africa. The demand for the herbs and spices of Asia by the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean proved to be a source of riches for the countries of both Asia and the Middle East. They monopolized the trade in herbs and spices dates to before written history began well continued well into the 15th and 16th centuries.

Opium know throughout ancient world for its gift of pain relief
Opium know throughout ancient world for its gift of pain relief

Time Line


The clay tablets of the Assyrians are the oldest records of the many uses of herbs. As far back as 3000BCE Assyrian myths tell of their gods drinking sesame wine. Genetic studies show that the sesame plant origins are on the subcontinent of India.

The early people of the Middle East were familiar with herbs from around the world.

· belladonna native to Europe

· opium poppy native to Turkey and

· Cannabis native to the Mediterranean

· Cloves that grow only in the Spice Islands of Malaysia

2600 BC

The builders of the Great Pyramid of Cheops fed the laborers on herbs from Asia to keep up their strength.

Rani Under a Pomegrante
Rani Under a Pomegrante


Cloves grown only in the Malaysian islands known as the Moluccas or Spice Islands where already popular in Syria


The Code of Hammurabi(1796BC-1750BC (check correct name& BD) introduced severe penalties for poorly performed surgery.  The physicians of the time already knew of the great healing powers of the herbs that originated in Asia.  This demand for Asian herbs lead to the establishment of the trade routes that eventually reached from the Spice Islands to Europe


The Ebers Papyrus lists the herbs that were used in the embalming process of the pharaohs. This list included cassia, cinnamon and turmeric, all native to Southeast Asia and Malaysia.


Hatshepsut (1508 BC - 1458 BC) a famous female Pharaoh, sent expeditions into present day Somalia returning with herbs from not just the horn of Africa but via the Middle East from Asia as well.

Ramses II
Ramses II
The Pepper plant, its seeds were more valuable than gold
The Pepper plant, its seeds were more valuable than gold

One of her descendants, Rameses(sp?) II who died in 1213BC was buried with peppercorns inserted in each nostril. Again, peppercorns are native only to the Spice Islands indicating trade between Asia and the Mediterranean via the Middle East was already well established.

  In time peppercorns were worth their weight in gold.  They were used across all cultures in lieu of money.

Ships of the Desert
Ships of the Desert

By Land or Sea All Trade Routes Lead Through the Near East

 In the beginning all trade moved overland. The first caravans used donkeys as beasts of burden but by 1000BC the domestication of the dromedary camel revolutionized caravan trading. Not only did camels require less care than donkeys, they could cover more ground faster and with heavier loads.

These overland routes eventually fell prey to the more efficient trade routes from the shores of the Arabian Peninsula across the Indian Ocean to the Indian subcontinent. By timing the sailing of their ships to the monsoon season of Southeast Asia, the Arab traders could safely traverse the Indian Ocean. Thus cutting both time and cost of transporting the herbs of the Spice Islands to the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea.

From Turkey to Morroco
From Turkey to Morroco
The Dhowd,the camel of the Indian Ocean.
The Dhowd,the camel of the Indian Ocean.

From Overland to Maritime routes

By 950BC

The Nabataean traders from what was once Phoenicia had firmly established the overland routes to China, the Indian subcontinent and the Straits of Molucca


The trading of herbs and spices switched from a mostly overland route to maritime one.  This is when the Arabian Peninsula became the center of the trade in herbs and spices and remain in control of it until the European Age of Discovery.  Because of the huge profits being made in the trading of herbs and spices, Europeans wanted their own cut.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans began looking for their own routes to the Spice Islands.  It was not until they sailed around the continent of Afica and crossed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, that the Arab world lost its monopoly of the river of herbs and spices that flowed out of Asia.

Strange Tales
Strange Tales

Keeping It a Secret for Thousands of Years

To keep other ancient cultures away from Asia, the peoples of the Middle East inventing fantastic stories about the trials and tribulations of obtaining the herbs that were so highly valued in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures.

One of the tale tales spread by the peoples of the Middle East is retold by Herodotus, an author of ancient Greece.

"Their manner of collection the cassia is the following: They cover all their body and their face with the hides of oxen and other skins, leaving only holes for the eyes, and thus protected go in search of the cassia, which grows in a lake of know great depth.  All around the shores and in the lake itself there dwella number of winged animals much resembling bats, which screech horribly, and very valiant.  These creatures they must keep from their eyes all the while that they gather the cassia.  Still more wonderful is the mode in which they collect the cinnamon.  Wher the wood grows, and what country produces it, they cannot tell only some, following probability, relate that it comes from the country where Bacchus was brought up.  Great birds, they say, bring the sticks which we Greeks, taking the word of the Phoenicins, call cinnamon, and carry them up in the air to make their nests.  These are fastened with a sort of mud to a sheer face of rock where no foot of man is able to climb.  So the Arabians, to get the cinnamon, use the following artifice.  They cut all the oxen and asses and beasts fo burden that die in their land into large bieces, which they carry with them to those region, and place near the nests:then they withdraw to a distance and the old birds, swooping down, seize the pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests: which not being able to support the weight break off and fall to the ground. Whereupon the Arabians return and collect the cinnamon which is afterwards carried from Arabia into other countries.

The Culture of Islam photo by Rashid
The Culture of Islam photo by Rashid

After Islam

Before the advent of Islam and a unification of the peoples of the Middle East, the herbs used in the trade were transported between one merchant to another, slowly from east to west eventually ending in the trade caravans that took them to the eastern coast of the Mediterran, across the Sahara and beyond.

With the emergence of Islam in 622CE, the cultures of the Middle East were united. The solidarity of the Islamic states of the Middle East cemented the control of the flow of herbs from Asia firmly in the hands of the Muslims. They held this monopoly for until the Portuguese found an alternate route around the continent of Africa.

The Fall of the Roman Empire
The Fall of the Roman Empire
Descordes works saved and  translated by Muslim scholars
Descordes works saved and translated by Muslim scholars
Medical School in  Timbuktu
Medical School in Timbuktu
Illustration in Islamic Medical Text
Illustration in Islamic Medical Text

From the Fall of Rome to the End of the Middle Ages

When the western Roman empire fell in 478CE and the rule of Romulus Agustulus came to an end, the Dark Ages of western civilization began. During this time much of the written knowledge from both the ancient Greeks and Romans became lost to western civilization.

As great cultures that surrounded the Mediterranean waxed, the great cultures of the Middle East blossomed. From the mountains of Turkey to the medical schools in Timbuktu, the science and the arts flourshed. The scribes of Islam not only produced treatises on math, science and medicine of their own but preserved the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

All across their vast empires, that stretched from Persia across the north of Africa and even into Spain, culture spread. The trade routes that first brought the herbs of Asia to the Western World, now carried the faith of Islam and the richness of culture and learning, that it encouraged. Without the caravans and dhows of the Middle East much that was great would have been lost.

Many of the herbals and medical writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans survived in the Arab world to resurface in western Europe after the Crusades and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Description of Herbs in an Arabic Herbal
Description of Herbs in an Arabic Herbal

Another Chapter

Again, I have just scratched the surface in the  fascinations history of herbs. My next article will be on the history of herbs in the Middle Ages. Then on to the Age of Discovery and finally Herbs in Colonial America. Looks like I have my work cut out for me. Thanks for all who stop to read my hubs. Any comments even if it is on how to improve them will be greatly appreciated. Enjoy!


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    • reddog1027 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Thanks much saif, I am glad you found the hub interesting.

    • saif113sb profile image


      8 years ago

      very nice and interesting hub. thanks

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Lots of useful and interestinf information.

    • Varenya profile image


      9 years ago

      You are right, as far as my researches go, there are so many things to discover...I even doubt if it is possible to come to know all details of this awe-inspiring story of herbs! Many thanks for this hub!

    • reddog1027 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      I think I will have to write a book. There are so many interesting facts that I have only begun to scratch the surface.


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