From Ancient Times to the Present: The History of Saffron

From Ancient Times to the Present: The History of Saffron

Saffron can confidently be called one of the oldest and most popular spices in the world. It’s loved by pastry chefs, head chefs, and even doctors. After all, the healing properties of saffron have been known to mankind since ancient times.

The name of this spice has interesting origins. “Saffron” sounds like “crocus” in Latin and “za’faran” in Arabic. The name of this spice comes from the Greek word “kroke,” which translates to “thread” or “fiber.” From Arabic, “sepheran” translates to “yellow”.

Since ancient times, saffron has been used as a spice in various dishes. It gives food a unique delicate taste and aroma, coloring it in the golden hue of a ripe, juicy orange.

Saffron stigmas, brightly yellow-red in color, are used as spices. The flower stigmas of the crocus contain essential oil with a pleasant scent and taste, as well as pigments (crocin, safranal). Dissolving in water, crocin colors it yellow, while safranal gives it a red hue. That’s why crocus stigmas were used to obtain dye, which was used to color the clothing of royalty.



Saffron in the lives of ancient civilizations

The history of saffron dates back to ancient times. The earliest evidence of it dates back to the Stone Age, around 7,000 years before our era. Even then, our ancestors used saffron-based paints for cave paintings.

It is from the Neolithic period that the history of Aegean culture begins, the oldest human civilization that spanned the period from 3000 to 1200 years before our era and existed on the islands and coasts of the Aegean Sea. The center of this ancient culture is the island of Crete. The most famous architectural monument is the Knossos Palace. The earliest known fresco of Aegean culture is the “Saffron Gatherer.” According to scientists, it dates back, probably, to 1800-1700 years before our era. The fresco depicts a person bending over beautiful saffron flowers.

The next stage of Aegean culture is the Minoan civilization. At that time, saffron also had significant importance in the life of ancient society. After the eruption of the volcano on the island of Santorini (around 1630 years before our era), most of the land went underwater. Interestingly, this historical fact became the basis for the legend of the sunken Atlantis.

In 1964, archaeological excavations began on the ruins of the areas destroyed by the eruption on Santorini. Among other historical treasures of the ancient vanished civilization, frescoes depicting Minoan women gathering saffron were found. The women were adorned with splendid clothing and sophisticated hairstyles. Scientists believe that such images testify to the fact that the Minoan people were peaceful, with a festive and measured rhythm of life.

The first written mentions of saffron

The first documented mention of this unique spice dates back to 3000 BCE and was encountered by scholars during the study of Sumerian cuneiform. The Babylonian-Assyrian culture of the Sumerians is one of the ancient civilizations that consisted of the inhabitants of Mesopotamia (the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). This is the territory of modern-day Iraq. Therefore, it is established that saffron was first used in food in Mesopotamia.

Which country is considered the homeland of saffron?

There are various theories about the origin of this aromatic spice. Most scientists believe that the homeland of the crocus is South Asia, citing frequent mentions of the plant in Chinese medical treatises. Another theory suggests that the homeland of saffron is India, specifically the Kashmir Valley.

On the other hand, according to another theory, the homeland of the crocus is the Middle East. This is because the plant began to be cultivated there long before our era. Saffron is still prevalent in Syria, Palestine, and Persia. It was also known in Ancient Egypt: saffron is mentioned in texts dating back to 1500 BCE.

Here are the translations – Saffron: a collection of interesting historical facts


  • Ancient Persians used saffron during ritual sacrifices as far back as 10,000 BCE — they intertwined crocus threads into ceremonial fabrics. They also made aromatic oils based on saffron.
  • Alexander the Great enjoyed bathing with saffron and also added this spice to his wine. The warriors of Alexander used crocus to treat battle wounds.
  • Saffron is mentioned in the Old Testament as the “golden flower,” used as a dye and perfume.
  • Books of ancient Chinese sages call saffron a miraculous medicinal remedy.
  • Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt (69-30 BCE), loved taking saffron baths, considering them the secret to her astonishing beauty.
  • Egyptian physicians used saffron to treat gastrointestinal disorders.
  • Saffron was used for embalming.
  • In England, in Essex, ancient ruins of Saffron Walden Castle (1125-1141) were found. This castle was named after the crocus grown there; this English locality was the center of saffron production in Britain
  • The enigmatic Mediterranean Phoenician people conducted successful saffron trade through the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, from where it was shipped to Western Turkey and Greece.
  • In ancient Rome, saffron was used as medicine and perfume, and there was even a fashion for clothing in saffron shades. This flower was considered a true luxury item.
  • It is believed that it was thanks to the crocus that Nero became emperor – he ordered the roads of Rome to be sprinkled with golden flowers so that ordinary people could touch luxury for at least one day. By doing this, according to legend, he gained immense popularity.
  • It is known that the yellow footwear of the kings of Media, Babylon, and Persia was dyed with saffron, and under these kings saffron was known as a medicinal plant. Dresses and covers were also dyed yellow.
  • Jews also highly valued saffron. In ancient Hebrew, it was called “gomin,” from which the Greek name “krokos” is derived.
  • Buddhist monks have long dyed their robes with crocus; this custom arose after the death of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. To this day, lama monks, led by the Dalai Lama, are dressed in saffron-colored clothing. The crocus flower not only provides rich color to clothing, it also symbolizes a high concentration of spiritual energy in Tibet.
  • In the 10th century (from 978 to 993), in India, near the city of Shravanabelagola, a 17-meter-high stone statue of the Jain saint Bahubali was erected by General Chamundaraya. This statue is the most powerful monolithic monument in the world, leading the list of “Seven Wonders of India.” Every 12 years, numerous believers gather here to perform a special ritual called Mahamastakabhisheka, during which Jains sprinkle the statue of Gomateshwara with saffron and gold coins.

How did saffron appear in Europe?

The appearance of this spice on the territory of modern continental Europe is associated with the intensive development of seafaring during the Crusades in the 10th-13th centuries. Sailors brought crocus to Europe from the East. Later, in European countries, this spice became not only a symbol of wealth but also of high social status. Centuries later, similarly (via sea), saffron migrated from Europe to America.

With the development of trade in the 13th century, saffron finally established itself in Italy. Here it began to be used for medicinal purposes (as a sedative) as well as for dyeing fabrics. The plant was attributed with numerous healing properties, which made it extremely popular.

In the famous Italian region of Umbria, saffron also appeared in the 13th century. And already in 1279, an order was issued prohibiting foreigners from growing saffron on local lands. That’s Italian protectionism for you.

In 1537, another law appeared in Umbria, according to which all saffron producers had to inform the local authorities about the amount of collected flowers and, accordingly, pay a tax. Two years later, the authorities also taxed saffron sellers and buyers.

With renewed vigor, saffron became popular in Europe during the plague epidemic (14th century). After the fall of the Roman Empire, the use of crocus in European countries somewhat declined, but it regained strength when the plague epidemic began in the 14th century. Along with the need for other medications, the use of saffron also intensified.

For many centuries, the crocus sativus, or saffron, remained the only representative of the species. It had botanical, not just decorative, value in people’s eyes. But already in the 16th century, the first decorative crocuses appeared in botanical gardens in Europe:

  • narrow-leaved;
  • yellow;
  • spring.

It was this trio of the first decorative species that gave rise to the huge variety of varieties that exist today. The most famous hybrid decorative varieties are Dutch hybrids and a chrysanthemum variety that blooms in spring.

It was Spain that first began to cultivate this spice on plantations and sell it. Today, saffron remains extremely popular in this country as well. And starting in 1963, the Saffron Festival has been held annually in the Spanish municipality of Consuegra. The symbol of which, of course, is the crocus. The celebration is dedicated to the time of the plant’s flowering, until mid-autumn. In this historical region, 90% of Spanish saffron is collected. The indigenous inhabitants of the region respect and love this fragrant flower. On the day of the festival, numerous competitions related to the collection of the golden flower are held, and guests traditionally visit saffron fields.

Myths, Tales, and Legends about Saffron

The crocus holds a special place in mythology and literature. For example, according to legend, the Argonaut Jason, preparing to plow with fire-breathing oxen in Colchis, threw off his yellow-saffron clothes, in which he was dressed. The eastern god Bacchus wore a saffron-colored robe, and participants in banquets dedicated to him also wore such robes. The goddess of the dawn, Eos (Aurora in Roman mythology), was dressed in golden-yellow clothing dyed with saffron.

Saffron is also mentioned in Homer’s “Iliad”: “And strong Zeus embraced his wife. Quickly under them, the earth grew lush with flowering herbs. Moist lotus, saffron and dense hyacinth flowers. Flexible, which lifted the gods from the earth.”

Ancient Greeks also have a legend about the origin of saffron:

A young man named Crocus was practicing discus throwing with the messenger of the Olympic gods, Hermes. During the competition, the disc accidentally hit Crocus, and the boy instantly died. From the blood spilled on the ground, a crocus flower (saffron) grew.

According to another version, Crocus (Croc) was in love with a nymph, and they were never separated. When the gods grew tired of watching them, they turned the nymph into a bush and the young man into a beautiful plant, which later became known as saffron.

Saffron is also mentioned in the famous legend of Saint Valentine.

According to ancient accounts, there were two Valentine saints who died in Ancient Rome in 269 (according to other sources, in 270) AD and were honored on the same day, but no one remembers exactly which one the holiday was dedicated to. It is only known that one of them, the younger one, was a preacher and physician in Rome. He was executed during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Claudius.

The other Valentine, the Bishop of Terni, lived near Rome and died a martyr’s death at the hands of pagans in the same year, 269 (270) AD.

It was the physician Valentine who was concerned that the medicines he prescribed to patients had an unpleasant taste. Therefore, to improve the taste qualities, he mixed bitter mixtures with wine, milk, or honey. Valentine also washed wounds with wine and used aromatic herbs to ease pain.

Saint Valentine was also a preacher. And although Christians were persecuted in Rome at that time, he later became a priest. Valentine lived during the reign of Claudius II, who was famous for his numerous military campaigns. When Claudius encountered problems recruiting new soldiers into the army, he decided that the reason lay in the soldiers’ attachment to their wives and families. And he abolished weddings and engagements.

Then Valentine began not only to pray for the health of his patients but also secretly married couples in love. One day, a jailer of the Roman emperor knocked on Valentine’s door. He was holding his blind daughter by the hand. He had heard about Valentine’s wonderful treatment and begged Valentine to cure his daughter of blindness. Valentine knew that the girl’s illness was almost incurable, but he promised to do everything possible to cure her.

The preacher-doctor prescribed an ointment for the girl’s eyes and told her to come back in a while. Several weeks passed, but the girl’s sight did not return. However, the jailer and his daughter did not doubt their faith in Doctor Valentine and continued to take the prescribed herbs and infusions.

Meanwhile, rumors of Valentine’s secret marriages reached the emperor. And one day, Roman soldiers burst into Valentine’s house, destroyed the medicines, and arrested him. When the father of the sick girl learned of Valentine’s arrest, he wanted to intervene but could not help in any way. Valentine knew he would soon be executed. He asked the jailer for paper, a pen, and ink and quickly wrote a farewell love letter to the girl. Valentine was executed later that day, on February 14th.

When the jailer returned home, his daughter greeted him. The girl opened the note and found inside it a yellow crocus flower. The note said “From your Valentine.” The girl took the saffron in her hand, and its shining colors illuminated her face. A miracle happened: the girl’s sight was restored.

And finally, let’s mention an ancient Buddhist legend. Ancient legends say that saffron was born in Kashmir, brought from heaven by the arhat Nematun, who sowed it in this country.

Whether any of these legends are close to the truth, we will never know. But such tales make the history of saffron even more multifaceted and interesting.

Where is saffron grown today?

The peculiarity of this wonderful plant lies in the fact that it has managed to avoid industrialization. Like many centuries ago, saffron is harvested only by hand — no other methods are used. And crocus is grown in Iran (the leading supplier of saffron), India (Kashmir province), Spain (Khorasan-Razavi province), Greece, France, England, America (Pennsylvania state), and Georgia. And now there is huge potential for growing this plant in Ukraine as well.

About 15 years ago, there was also a question of reviving the ancient tradition of saffron cultivation in Umbria (an Italian region). This tradition was lost centuries ago. But now professors from the agricultural faculty of the University of Perugia, as well as the association of agricultural workers of Perugia, are working on its restoration. They founded the Association of Cassia Saffron, established the strictest rules for the production of the spice based on historical evidence. The association includes 25 saffron producers. However, any farmer willing to grow saffron qualitatively, adhering to age-old traditions, can join it.

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