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A History of Western Herbalism Part II: All Roads Led through the Middle East.

A retired Medical Technologist with a love of gardening that led me to herbs, their history, and their many uses.

All Routes from Africa, Asia and the Spice Islands moved through the Near East

Overland Routes

Overland Routes


The ancient lands of the Middle East are connected by land to three continents, Asia, Africa, and Europe. To the east was Asia including the subcontinent of India and the Spice Islands. Now known as the Moluccas of Indonesia. To the west was Europe connected through Rome and Athens. Africa was connected to the Middle East from the south.

Herbs because they could be preserved by drying were both portable and profitable. Like silk, herbs could survive long trips under harsh conditions during the long trips from their homelands. They were carried over harsh deserts and dangerous oceans to the waiting markets all over the known world..

All routes had to pass through the Middle East. It didn’t matter whether the routes were overland caravans or ships traveling across the Indian Ocean. Because of their strategic position, the Middle East and especially the Arabian Peninsula controlled the trade between the Far East, Europe, and Africa. The demand for the herbs and spices of Asia and Africa by the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean proved to be a source of riches for both Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Their monopolization of the herbs and spices trade dates to before written history began and continued well into the 15th and 16th centuries.

Mesopotamia: The Crossroads of the Old World

When the people of Asia began trading with Mesopotamia, predates written history. As long ago as 4000BC, the areas surrounded by the Tigris and Euphrates were already trading in herbs and spices from Asia.

Herbs such as

  • Opium poppy which is native to Turkey
  • Cannabis is native to the Mediterranean
  • Cloves that only grow in the Spice Islands. Now known in the Molucca Islands of Indonesia.
  • Cinnamon is another spice that also grows only in the Spice Islands of Indonesia.

were all familiar to the ancient peoples of the Middle East. Even Syrian myths talk of the gods drinking sesame wine. DNA studies have shown that the sesame plant originated in India.



Cannabis sativa - Marijunia



Cinnamon verum-Cinnamon

Cinnamon verum-Cinnamon

Syzgium aromativa-Cloves

Syzgium aromativa-Cloves

How Where the Routes Kept Secret for Thousands of Years?

To keep other ancient cultures away from Asia, the peoples of the Middle East invented fantastic stories about the trials and tribulations of obtaining the herbs that were so highly valued in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures.

One of the tales spread by the peoples of the Middle East is retold by Herodotus, an author of ancient Greece. "Their manner of collection the cassia is the following: They cover all their body and their face with the hides of oxen and other skins, leaving only holes for the eyes, and thus protected go in search of the cassia, which grows in a lake of great depth. All around the shores and in the lake itself there dwells a great number of winged animals much resembling bats, which screech horribly and are very aggressive. They must be constantly on guard for these monsters while gathering the cassia.

The tale that was told about how they collected cinnamon was even better. Where the cinnamon actually grew was a carefully guarded secret. It was hinted that it came from the land where the god Bachaus lived. Great birds, they say, took the sticks called cinnamon, and carried them off to make their nests. The sticks are fastened with a sort of mud to a sheer face of rock where no foot of man is able to climb. So the Phonecians, to get the cinnamon, used a trick. They cut all the oxen and asses and beasts of burden that die in their land into large pieces, which they carried with them to the cliffs and left them on the ground below the nests. The great birds in their greed carried off these great pieces of meat and took them up to their nests The nests could not support the extra weight. This caused the nests to fall to the ground. Whereupon the Phoneicinans returned, collect the cinnamon which was then carried from Phonecia into other countries.

Neanderthals and Early Humans Used Herbs

As far back as 50,000 years ago, humans and their near relatives were gathering herbs for their medicinal and culinary uses. Neanderthals at the El Sid site left traces of the plants they ate. From bits of plant material trapped beneath their dental calculi fifty thousand years ago, researchers used DNA to identified Chamomile and Yarrow. Both of the herbs are recognized for their medicinal purposes today. Chamomile for its calming properties and Yarrow for its ability to stem the flow of blood from wounds.

6500 years ago, birch bark gum was found with a tooth impression of a thirty to forty year old human that had a cavity. Birchbark contains tannins. Tannins have many healing qualities that include antimicrobial activities as well as anti-inflammatory. Was this person trying to ease the pain of a toothache? Or maybe a sore throat as Birchbark gum was often chewed to ease throat pain.

Ancient Summarian Text from 4000BCE

The earliest records of herbal use are in the ancient cuneiform texts of the ancient Suamians. These texts contained twelve herbal formulas. These formulas referred to over 250 herbs and medicinal plants. These plants included poppy, mandrake, and henbane.

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Oldest Assyrian Medical Text from                 4000 BCE

Oldest Assyrian Medical Text from 4000 BCE


2600 BC

The builders of the Great Pyramid of Cheops fed their laborers garlic to keep up their strength. Garlic is native to Central Asia and northern Iran, or Persia as it was known in ancient times.


Allium santivum

Allium santivum


Cloves are grown only in the Indonesian Islands known as the Moluccas or Spice Islands where already popular in Syria


The Code of Hammurabi(1796BC-1750BC) introduced severe penalties for poorly performed surgery. The physicians of the time already knew of the great healing powers of the herbs that originated in Asia. This demand for Asian herbs lead to the establishment of the trade routes that eventually reached from the Spice Islands to Europe.


The Ebers Papyrus listed 800 herbal formulas that used over 700 plants species for the treatment of diseases and the embalming of the pharaohs This list included pomegranate, castor oil plant, aloe, senna, garlic, onion, fig, willow, coriander, juniper, common centaury, tumeric and many others.




Hatshepsut (1508 BC - 1458 BC) a famous female Pharaoh, sent expeditions into present day Somalia returning with herbs from not just the horn of Africa but via the Middle East from Asia as well.



1213 BC

One of her descendants, Ramesses II who died in 1213BC was buried with peppercorns inserted in each nostril. Again, peppercorns are native only to the Spice Islands indicating trade between Asia and the Mediterranean via the Middle East was already well established.

In time peppercorns were worth their weight in gold. They were used across all cultures in lieu of money.

Ramses II

Ramses II

The Pepper plant, its seeds were more valuable than gold

The Pepper plant, its seeds were more valuable than gold

The Fall of the Roman Empire

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Hippocrates 400 BCE

The works of Hippocrates (459–370 BC) contain 300 medicinal plants classified by physiological action: Wormwood and common centaury (Centaurium umbellatum Gilib) were applied against fever; garlic against intestine parasites; opium, henbane, deadly nightshade, and mandrake were used as narcotics; fragrant hellebore and haselwort as emetics; sea onion, celery, parsley, asparagus, and garlic as diuretics; oak and pomegranate as astringents.[Hipp*}

Theophast 371-287 BCE

Theophrastus classified over 500 medicinal plants and their uses in his book "De Hisotira Platarium". Herbs such as mint, hellebore, pomegranate, cardamon, and were included..

Greece and Rome

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By Land or Sea All Trade Routes Lead Through the Near East

 In the beginning all trade moved overland. The first caravans used donkeys as beasts of burden but by 1000BC the domestication of the dromedary camel revolutionized caravan trading. Not only did camels require less care than donkeys, they could cover more ground faster and with heavier loads.

These overland routes eventually fell prey to the more efficient trade routes from the shores of the Arabian Peninsula across the Indian Ocean to the Indian subcontinent. By timing the sailing of their ships to the monsoon season of Southeast Asia, the Arab traders could safely traverse the Indian Ocean. Thus cutting both time and cost of transporting the herbs of the Spice Islands to the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean Sea.

From Turkey to Morroco

From Turkey to Morroco

Ships of the Desert

Ships of the Desert

The Dhowd,the camel of the Indian Ocean.

The Dhowd,the camel of the Indian Ocean.

From Overland to Maritime routes

By 950BC

The Nabataean traders from what was once Phoenicia had firmly established the overland routes to China, the Indian subcontinent, and the Straits of Molucca


The trading of herbs and spices switched from a mostly overland route to a maritime one. This is when the Arabian Peninsula became the center of the trade-in herbs and spices. The Arabian Peninsula remained in control of the trade routes until the European Age of Discovery.

Europeans wanted to find their own routes to Asia. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europeans began looking in earnest for another way to the Spice Islands. It was not until Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Horn of Africa in 1488 was the Middle East's stranglehold on the herbs and spices from the East broke.

The Culture of Islam photo by Rashid

The Culture of Islam photo by Rashid

After Islam

Before the advent of Islam and the unification of the peoples of the Middle East, the trade in herbs was between one merchant to another. this happened very slowly from east to west, ending in the trade caravans that took them to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, across the Sahara, and beyond.

With the emergence of Islam in 622CE, the cultures of the Middle East were united. The solidarity of the Islamic states of the Middle East cemented the control of the flow of herbs from Asia firmly in the hands of the inhabitants of the Middle East. They held this monopoly until the Portuguese found an alternate route around the continent of Africa.

Description of Herbs in an Arabic Herbal

Description of Herbs in an Arabic Herbal

Descordes works saved and  translated by Muslim scholars

Descordes works saved and translated by Muslim scholars

Medical School in  Timbuktu

Medical School in Timbuktu

The City of Timbuktu was a Center of Learning

It was famous for not only it's vast libraries but for schools of medicine as well. It was a mecca for scholars and physicians.

Illustration in Islamic Medical Text

Illustration in Islamic Medical Text

From the Fall of Rome to the End of the Middle Ages

When the western Roman empire fell in 478CE and the rule of Romulus Agustulus came to an end, the Dark Ages of western civilization began. During this time much of the written knowledge from both the ancient Greeks and Romans became lost to western civilization.

As great cultures that surrounded the Mediterranean waxed, the great cultures of the Middle East blossomed. From the mountains of Turkey to the medical schools in Timbuktu, the science and the arts flourshed. The scribes of Islam not only produced treatises on math, science and medicine of their own but preserved the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

All across their vast empires, that stretched from Persia across the north of Africa and even into Spain, culture spread. The trade routes that first brought the herbs of Asia to the Western World, now carried the faith of Islam and the richness of culture and learning, that it encouraged. Without the caravans and dhows of the Middle East much that was great would have been lost.

Many of the herbals and medical writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans survived in the Arab world to resurface in western Europe after the Crusades and the beginning of the Renaissance.

Another Chapter

Again, I have just scratched the surface in the  fascinations history of herbs. My next article will be on the history of herbs in the Middle Ages. Then on to the Age of Discovery and finally Herbs in Colonial America. Looks like I have my work cut out for me. Thanks for all who stop to read my hubs. Any comments even if it is on how to improve them will be greatly appreciated. Enjoy!


{Hipp Bojadzievski P. The health services in Bitola through the centuries. Bitola: Society of science and art; 1992. pp. 15–2}

Historical review of medicinal plants' usage Biljana Bauer Petrovska , Pharmacogn Rev. 2012 Jan-Jun; 6(11): 1–5. doi: 10.4103/0973-7847.95849, PMCID: PMC3358962 PMID: 22654398

Historical Perspective of Traditional Indigenous Medical Practices: The Current Renaissanceand Conservation of Herbal Resources PMCID: PMC4020364, PMID: 24872833

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Foot Notes

Historical Perspective of Traditional Indigenous Medical Practices: The Current Renaissance and Conservation of Herbal Resources (

Historical Perspective of Traditional Indigenous Medical Practices: The Current Renaissance and Conservation of Herbal Resources

My Suggestion

Books on Islam



reddog1027 (author) from Atlanta, GA on August 05, 2011:

Thanks much saif, I am glad you found the hub interesting.

saif113sb on August 05, 2011:

very nice and interesting hub. thanks

Sammieshears2710 on May 19, 2010:

Lots of useful and interestinf information.

Varenya on May 04, 2010:

You are right, as far as my researches go, there are so many things to discover...I even doubt if it is possible to come to know all details of this awe-inspiring story of herbs! Many thanks for this hub!

reddog1027 (author) from Atlanta, GA on January 12, 2010:

I think I will have to write a book. There are so many interesting facts that I have only begun to scratch the surface.

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