Black pepper was already mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures in Sanskrit, where it was called “pipali”, and has been exported since time immemorial. In ancient Egypt we come across the spice in the year 1213 B.C., in the nostrils of the mummy of the pharaoh Ramses II, to be precise. The Greeks have been using it since the 4th century at least, but it were the Romans who started to import the peppercorns on a grand scale. It was the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. that gained them access to the Red Sea and thus to the trade route to Malabar in India.
After the downfall of the Roman Empire, the Persians and Arabs took over the trade in spices. The precious wares were sold in the cities along the Eastern Mediterranean to merchants from the Italian city-states, mainly from Venice and Genoa. With their heavily armed galleys they dominated the Eastern Mediterranean and with it the trade in cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper, which commanded big money on the European continent. It all went smoothly until the Turks came to spoil the party.
The misery started somewhere in the tenth century, when a Turkish tribe by the name of Seljuk left their homes around the Caspian Sea and came to the Middle East. In the eleventh century they had put a foothold in Anatolia, until then part of the Byzantine Empire, where in 1071, at the Battle of Manzikert, they hacked a large Byzantine army to pieces and captured the Emperor Romanus. Although it took a few centuries more, it meant the beginning of the end for Byzantium, while the star of the Turks was rising. Slowly, bit by bit, the coastline from the eastern and southern Mediterranean came under Turkish influence.
When Osman Gazi took the helm of what under his descendants was going to be called the Osmanian (or “Ottoman”) Empire they seriously set to work. The Turks crossed the Bosporus and occupied one after the other Byzantine city. Their conquests already reached far into the Balkans when Sultan Mehmet II, nicknamed “the Conqueror”, turned his attention to the capital, Constantinople. A shock of horror went through the Christian world when finally happened what anyone could have seen coming for years. In May 1453, the city was taken. Byzantium had ceased to exist, and it finally dawned on the Europeans that the Ottoman Empire was no longer a far-flung event, but a factor to be reckoned with. The Turks, who by now were in control of the entire Eastern Mediterranean region, dominated the lucrative spice trade. The prices of pepper were soaring.
© 2016, Marcel Wick