The History of Saffron

The history of saffron is the history of humanity. The spice has been harvested for thousands of years, and cultivated for almost as long, from Spain to the Far East.

In this article, we’ll take you on a tour of saffron’s storied past—and let you know what lies ahead for the most valuable spice on Earth.

Prehistory

Saffron was used by human beings even before the dawn of recorded history!

Chemical analysis of prehistoric cave paintings in Iraq has revealed the use of saffron pigments in some of the most ancient art on the planet. These remarkable paintings have been dated at almost 50,000 years old, meaning that people have been working with saffron since the Old Stone Age.

Ancient Mediterranean

Long before the so-called “Golden Age” of Greece that we all learn about in school, civilization flourished on the various islands of the Mediterranean Sea.

And archaeological finds on these islands preserve some of the first recorded historical evidence of saffron harvesting. Fresco paintings in Crete and Santorini, dated at 3000-5000 years old, vividly depict colorful saffron harvest scenes.

Ancient Saffron Harvesting Painting

The saffron harvested here was probably the Crocus cartwrightianus species: the wild ancestor of the Crocus sativus that is the cultivated variety we know today.

Ancient Persia

The history of saffron is so ancient that it is impossible to say exactly who first used selective breeding to create the modern Crocus sativus variety from wild saffron.

But we do know that a variety of Crocus sativus was used in ancient Persia as long ago as 1000 B.C. In fact, the very word “saffron” most likely comes from the ancient Persian word for the plant: zarparan.

Ancient Persian texts are full of references to the miraculous healing properties of the plant, as well as its use in religious and cultural ceremonies. And even today, the soil and water quality of the Khorasan region of Persia are considered ideal for the cultivation of Crocus sativus.

The Classical Period

During the height of Greco-Roman civilization, saffron was prized for its color, fragrance, and medicinal properties.

Saffron even made its way into Greek mythology: a love-struck young man named “Crocus” was turned into a saffron flower by the gods, who took pity on the heartbroken lad.

And one of the greatest beauties of the ancient world, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, was said to have bathed in saffron and mare’s milk before meeting a lover, as she was convinced of saffron’s cosmetic and aphrodisiac powers! 

The Middle Ages

Saffron’s story took an interesting twist in Medieval Europe. The spice had become quite popular in French and Spanish cuisine (an influence which persists even today).

But the economic power of saffron came into full effect during the dreaded Black Plague. More valuable than ever due to its healing properties, it also became incredibly scarce after many of the farmers who grew the precious crop fell to the deadly disease ravaging Europe.

The result was an explosion of international trade and serious economic and political tension between the nobles of old Europe and the increasingly powerful merchant classes who had been enriched by the booming saffron trade.

And so it was that the little flower that had been with humanity since before the last Ice Age played a pivotal role in shaping the future of the West. 

Saffron Today

Saffron is now more popular than ever. And though it is cultivated all around the world, the finest and purest saffron still comes from the ancient farming regions of Persian Khorasan, where tiny family farms are still growing, harvesting, and processing saffron the way their ancestors have for thousands of years.

But that’s not to say that the story of saffron ends here. Cutting edge medical research is now investigating this ancient spice’s potential as a treatment for Alzheimer’s, MS, and cancer—meaning that the next chapter in the history of saffron has yet to be written!


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