The Spice Routes, also known as Maritime Silk Roads, is the name given to the network of sea routes that link the East with the West.
- They stretch from the west coast of Japan, through the islands of Indonesia, around India to the lands of the Middle East - and from there, across the Mediterranean to Europe.
- It has a distance of over 15,000 kilometres and, even today, is not an easy journey.
From our very earliest history, people have travelled the Spice Routes. These journeys were not undertaken purely in the spirit of adventure - the driving force behind them was trade. Since ancient times, trade has had an important role in human life.
In the case of the Spice Routes the links were formed by traders buying and selling goods from port to port.
- The principal and most profitable goods they traded in were spices - giving the routes their name. As early as 2000 BC, spices such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China found their way along the Spice Routes to the Middle East.
- Other goods were exchanged too - cargoes of ivory, silk, porcelain, metals and dazzling gemstones brought great profits to the traders who were prepared to risk the dangerous sea journeys.
- But precious goods were not the only points of exchange between the traders. Perhaps more important was the exchange of knowledge: knowledge of new peoples and their religions, languages, expertise, artistic and scientific skills. The ports along the Maritime Silk Roads (Spice Routes) acted as melting pots for ideas and information. With every ship that swept out with a cargo of valuables on board, fresh knowledge was carried over the seas to the ship's next port of call.
Perhaps it was their strangeness and rarity that led great medicinal and spiritual values to be attributed to them.
- From ancient times, spices were burned as incense in religious ceremonies, purifying the air and carrying the prayers of the people heavenward to their gods.
- They were also added to healing ointments and to potions drunk as antidotes to poisons. To hide the many household smells, people burned spices daily in their homes.
- They were used as cooking ingredients very early on - not only to add flavour but also to make the food, which was often far from fresh, palatable, particularly in hot climates.
The profits to be made from spices were considerable. They were small and dried, and consequently could be transported easily. The wealth of the spice trade brought great power and influence and, over the centuries, bloody battles were fought to win control of it and the routes along which it took place.