Saffron is a popular and unique spice that’s been used and treasured for thousands of years. These days, we like to use it in our cooking for flavor, fragrance and color and sometimes we consume saffron for its health benefits too.
What does the history of saffron look like? How did the ancient elite make use of saffron, the most expensive spice in the world? Where did it all start?
The Origin of Saffron
The origin of saffron is not completely clear but it is believed that it originated in Iran, in ancient Persia. Greece and Mesopotamia could also be possible regions of origin. Humans may have bred Crocus cartwrightianus, the wild precursor of the domesticated saffron crocus we know today, to choosing specimens with abnormally long stigmas, resulting in the saffron crocus.
The saffron crocus was documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference and has been traded and used over four thousand years and used as a treatment for many disorders. It’s also been used for various other things by different cultures, some of which we’ll investigate below.
Egypt: Cleopatra’s Saffron Baths
Cleopatra was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt and legend has it that she used to bathe in saffron-infused mare’s milk before her encounters with men. She is said to enjoy the coloring and cosmetic properties of saffron and used the baths as a way to increase pleasure.
Egyptian healers also liked to use saffron as a treatment for gastrointestinal ailments and urinary tract infections.
The Greeks & The Romans: Saffron as Perfume and Deodorisers
Saffron has an amazing scent that the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed as a perfume. In Rhodes, the Greeks wore pouches of saffron around their necks when out among more common people to mask their scents. Both the Greeks and the Romans liked scattering saffron about in public places and along streets for special occasions – like potpourri. Wealthy Romans also enjoyed daily saffron baths and even stirred saffron threads into their wines.
The Middle East & Persia: Paints and Potions
In modern-day Iraq, saffron-based pigments have been found in prehistoric paints used to create cave-art. These illustrations and paints are 50,000 years old.
Slightly closer to modern day, the Sumerians in Mesopotamia used saffron gathered from wild crocus flowers as an ingredient for their remedies and potions. They believed that divine intervention alone enabled the medicinal properties of saffron.
In ancient Persia, in the 10th century BC, saffron was cultivated and saffron threads were interwoven into Persian royal carpets and funeral shrouds. It was also used here by worshippers as a ritual offering and as dye, perfume and medicine for various ailments.
The above are just some of the many interesting historic uses of saffron. These days, saffron is mainly used as a fragrant and tasty ingredient in cooking but some people take saffron supplements for the health benefits of saffron too.