The history of saffron
Just as it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the cultivation of saffron originated, so it is with the name of the world’s most expensive spice. But we can trace the history of saffron as far as the existence of the Persian word zarparān (which means ‘having golden stigmas’) from which the Arabic word za’farān was believed to have been derived instead of the Arabic adjective asfar (which means ‘yellow’); it is also very similar to the Persian word za’ferân which gave rise to the Old French word ‘safran’, from where the Latin word ‘safranum’ emerged.
Finally, the English word ‘saffron’ does come from the Latin ‘safranum’ from which originated the Spanish word ‘azafrán’ and the Italian word ‘zafferano’ (both meaning saffron). The other terms for saffron in various languages are: ‘azupiranu’ (Akkadian), ‘azafrán’ (Galician), ‘azafrai’ (Basque), ‘saffran’ (German), ‘szafran’ (Polish), ‘shafran’ (Russian), ‘kesar’ or ‘zafran’ (India), ‘hong hua’ (China), ‘zaferen’ (Turkish), ‘saframi’ (Finnish), ‘sáfrány’ (Hungarian), ‘safrána’ (Latvian), ‘safranu’ (Romanian), ‘safárum’ (Malaysian), ‘khekhrum’ (Armenian), ‘kurkum’ (Farsi) and ‘safrà’ (Catalonian).
The similarity of these terms reveals the global journey that the famous spice have taken in time and space.
History of Uses
Eons and eons of time had elapsed and now we only have vague ideas as to where saffron was first grown, just like how it got its name. But it would be interesting to know how far back in time saffron had been appreciated for its value and which countries had peculiar utilizations for it.
The earliest indication that the East Mediterranean people were already growing saffron crocus as early as 2300 B.C. was the mention of a great king, Sargon of Akkad, a great ruler of the Akkadian empire having hailed from the city of Azupiranu, referred to in Ancient History texts as Saffron City. To be known as such, this quaint city must have grown saffron crocus on a large scale, or the cultivation of the spice plant must have been concentrated in that area during those times.
Frescoes dating back in 1600 BC found in Knossos, Greece and another one from 1500 BC in Santorini, Greece, respectively portrayed the whole process of saffron harvest and finally making an offering in a ritual worship, and young girls and monkeys plucking saffron filaments. In Thebes, Egypt, a medical papyrus also dated 1600 BC that was discovered in a tomb alluded to the medicinal function of saffron. These frescoes and documents are concrete evidences of the saffron culture existing even in the olden days. As a matter of fact, modern day analyses of said frescoes established the fact that they do quite emphasize the medicinal aspect of crocus more than anything else.
Saffron was a luxury saved for the nobility back then. Kings, queens, pharaohs and monks wore saffron perfumes, donned saffron-dyed robes, ate food and had drinks laced with saffron spice, bathed in saffron water for healing wounds and as prelude to romance, slept comfortably in beds speckled with saffron threads, and prayed to their gods with saffron offerings.
World literature mentions how the ancient people treasured saffron. Saffron crocus is the krakom indicated in the Bible in Solomon’s Song of Songs. It is krokus in the writings of several Greek authors such as Hippocrates, Sophocles and Homer. Ovid, Virgil and other Roman poets also made saffron a subject in their poems. Iran’s famous poet Ferdowi mentioned in his poems the use of saffron in triumphant celebrations. Kashmiri poet and Mohammed Yusuf Teng pointed out that cultivation of saffron had long been mentioned in Kashmiri Tantric Hindu epics in the past.
Treasured as it was, the trade for saffron became indeed lucrative as it fetched a great amount of gold. The old traders of saffron were known as saffron grocers. Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, Europeans and Asians engaged in this trade, and so we know how saffron came to be widely dispersed in these times: by trade, and by smuggling.
During the pandemic Black Death (Bubonic Plague) in the 14th century in Europe, saffron played a significant role in trade history. The exigency of the ingredient to medical cures led to its importation from abroad, and to inevitable piracy of shipments. One such incident went down in history when a shipment of saffron en route to Basel was intercepted by a baron, and a three-month long battle ensued to recover the shipment. History now remembers the incident as the Saffron War which, on the positive side, established Basel then as a center and take-off point for cultivation of crocus Sativus in Europe.
With saffron trade becoming active, regulations had to be made to ensure equity in market prices and purity of the content in every pack of spice. The Safranschou code was established and fraud was deemed punishable by fines, imprisonment, and death by fire.
Looking at history, it is clearly obvious that back in the past, saffron was most sought after for its magical powers to heal a whole line of ailments. Different nations have evidences of the use of saffron in traditional medicine, having the property to soothe and heal simple discomforts to serious disorders of babies, toddlers, teenagers, adult men and women and even the aged.
In India, saffron is used predominantly in ayurvedic medicine. In the Middle East, it is listed in the 12th century botanical dictionary found in the Assurbanipal Library as a medicinal entry. In Germany, Crocologia, a book about saffron mentioning its medical properties was published in 1670. In London, Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal described saffron’s medicinal strength in a quaint paragraph.