Eighth Century Trade in the Mediterranean & the Spread of Sugar

While searching for something utterly different, I came upon a fascinating document that details the Transfer of Islamic Technology to the West. The following entry on the origin and dissemination of sugar, and photo, are taken from volume three.

Sugar cane depicted and described in an Arabic manuscript on natural history

Sugar cane depicted and described in an Arabic manuscript on natural history

Sugar is a basic commodity that owes most of its development and spread to the Islamic civilization. It is thought that sugar-cane originated in eastern Asia from where it spread to India and then to Persia before Islam.

When Islam came to Persia in 642 AD sugar-cane was being grown and unrefined sugar was known. With the rise of the Arab-Muslim Empire sugar-cane spread into all the Islamic Mediterranean lands including Sicily and Spain and sugar production became a large scale industry.

Sugar refining was developed greatly and several qualities of sugar were produced and exported. Sugar became a foodstuff as well as a medicinal material in all Muslim countries and then in Europe.

Sugar was first known to western Europeans as a result of the Crusades in the 11th century AD. Crusaders returning home talked of this “new spice” and how pleasant it was. The first sugar was recorded in England in 1099. It became a luxury commodity in high demand. It is recorded, for instance, that sugar was available in London at “two shillings a pound” in 1319 AD. This equates to about US$100 per kilogram at today’s prices.Pegolotti in his lists of goods imported into Italy between 1310 and 1340 wrote that these included powdered sugar of Alexandria, Cairo, Kerak, Syria and Cyprus. Also lump sugar, basket sugar, rock candy, rose sugar, and violet sugar from Cairo and Damascus. England was importing its sugar from Morocco as well. We may remember that the words sugar and candy are both of Arabic origin.

From Spain sugar-cane plantations were established in the 1400’s in Madeira, the Canary Islands, and St. Thomas. The Islamic technology of sugar-cane processing and sugar refining were established there.

In 1493 Columbus carried sugar cane cuts from the Canaries to Santa Domingo, and by the mid 1500’s its manufacture had spread over the greater part of tropical America.

The author is Professor Emeritus of the Institute for the History of Arabic Science (IHAS), University of Aleppo. His webpage,  History of Science and Technology in Islam, is well worth exploring – Rachel Laudan would find it interesting (but may already know about it)!

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Cuisine, History, Middle East, Technology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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