World Saffron History

Dear readers, No saffron researcher till today has defined well when first saffron cultivation has begun on earth, but it is believed by majority of the historians that this might have happened during pre-historic Greek times. According to Greek mythology, handsome mortal crocus fell in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. But alas, his favors were rebuffed by Smilax, and he was turned into a beautiful purple crocus flower. However the history of saffron cultivation and usage reaches back more than 3000 years and spans many cultures, continents and civilizations.

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A view of thick Kashmiri Saffron Threads/Filaments

Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (crocus sativus) has remained among the world’s most costly substances throughout history. Some believe that origin of saffron is located on a vast area of earth like, Greece, Turkey, Iran and central Asia. According to other historical evidences saffron was brought to India by the Persian rulers around 500 B.C.

Although the origins of saffron are confusing. One of the first historic references to the use of saffron comes from ancient Egypt, where it was used by Cleopatra and other Pharaohs as an aromatic and seductive essence, and to make ablutions in temples and sacred places. The ancient Greeks and Romans also prized saffron for its use as a perfume and deodorizer. They scattered it at public places such as royal halls, courts. The use of saffron was common during the Roman Empire, The Emperor Nero is said to have had the streets of Rome sprinkled with saffron for his official entry into the city.

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                              A view of Greek Saffron Flowers                                                                      Three Saffron Filaments attached with Stem

During the middle age, saffron became well known in Britain. The legend says that, in the period of Edward III, a pilgrim brought a bulb of saffron hidden in a hole in his stick from Middle East to the town of Walden. There the bulb was grown and reproduced giving prosperity to the town. However, long term saffron cultivation only survived in the light, well-drained chalk based soils of the north Essex country side. Indeed, the Essex town of saffron Walden got its name as a saffron growing and trading centre.

When it comes to the geography of saffron, Spain is an obvious starting point according to the producers of saffron in Spain. Since the 14th century, Spain has been a prominent exporter of the higher quality of saffron in the world. In the past, Spanish saffron was cultivated over a remarkably large surface area. In the 1970,s it was the world’s largest producer of saffron with around 6000 hectares under cultivation. Total acreage under cultivation has since decreased to less than 100 hectares. In spite of the rapid decline in saffron cultivation, a few hundred Spanish farmers passionately sustain this labor intensive cottage industry.

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An Iranian woman carrying Saffron Flowers in a basket

Some renowned historians believe that numerous of references testify that saffron should have first appeared in Iran. American scientist, Barteld Loufter wrote in his research in 1917, saffron is a self growing Iranian plant, its cultivation exists since ancient years. The cultivation process and consumption were spread widely from Iran to all over the world. Southern Khorasan region is specifically the most ideal place for the growth of saffron in Iran. Historical documentations and evidences indicate that from the old times, Iranians were deeply interested in cultivating and planting saffron eagerly.Historical evidences state that King of Iran was rubbing his body with fragrant oil, comprised of mixture of saffron. The history reveals that it was the Iranian saffron growers who introduces saffron among royal Arabs.

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           Some Iranian women harvesting Saffron crop from their Saffron Farms                   A viewof one of the type of dried Iranian Saffron called "DASTEH"

Saffron based pigments have been found in the pre-historic paints used to depict beasts in 50,000-year-old cave art in what is today Iraq. Saffron was also honored as a sweet-smelling spice over three millennia ago in the Hebrew Tanoak.

Your lips drop sweetness like honeycomb,
my bride, syrup and milk are under your tongue,
and your dress had the scent of Lebanon.
Your cheeks are an orchard of pomegranates,
an orchard full of rare fruits, spikenard and saffron,
sweet cane and cinnamon......................SONG OF SOLOMON.

An Iranian Saffron Farmer gaurding his Saffron Fields

Various conflicting accounts exist that describe saffron’s first arrival in South and East Asia. The first of their rely on historical accounts gleaned from Persian records. These suggest too many experts that saffron, among other spices, was first spread to India via Persian rulers. Another variant of this theory states that, after ancient Persia conquered Kashmir, Persian saffron crocus corns were transplanted to Kashmir soil. The first harvest then occurred sometime prior to 500 B.C.

Ancient Chinese Buddhist accounts from the Mula-Sarasvativadin monastic order, present yet another account of saffron’s arrival to India. According to legend, an arhat Indian Buddhist Missionary by the name of Madhyantika was sent to Kashmir in the 5th century B.C. When he got there he reportedly sowed Kashmir’s first saffron crop.

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Some Afghan farmers harvesting Saffron Crop from their Saffron Fields

Some historians believe that saffron first came to China with Mongol invaders by way of Persia. Yet saffron is mentioned in ancient Chinese medical texts. The Chinese were referring to saffron as having a Kashmiri province. Wan Zhen, a Chinese medical expert reported that the habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to Buddha in the 3rd century. In modern times saffron cultivation has spread to Afghanistan because of the efforts of the European Union and the United Kingdom. Together, they promote saffron cultivation among Afghan farmers as an ideal alternative Ti Illicit and lucrative opium production. They stress Afghanistan’s sunny and semi-arid climate as ideal for saffron crocus growth.

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Picture showing some Kashmiri women and children seperating Saffron Stigmas out of Saffron Flowers at home in a nearby village of Pampore

On the other hand we all Indians believe upon the theory of Traditional Kashmiri Legends who state that saffron was brought to Kashmir region by two Sufi ascetics, Khwaja Masood Wali (R.A) and Sheikh Sharif-u-din Wali (R.A) who wandered into Kashmir. The foreigners, having fallen sick, beseeched a cure for illness from a local chieftain. When the chieftain obliged, the two holy men reputedly gave them a saffron crocus bulb as payment and thanks. To this day grateful prayers are offered two the two saints during the saffron harvesting season in the late autumn. The saints indeed have a golden-domed shrine and tomb dedicated to them in the saffron trading town of Pampore, India. However, the famous Kashmiri poet and scholar Mohammed Yusuf Teng differed with this theory of saffron and stated that the plant had been cultivated in Kashmir for more than two millennia. The Kashmir tantric Hindu epics of that time mention about saffron cultivation as well.

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A view of Saffron Flowers coming out of Soil and Surrounded by Snow in Switzerland

Today saffron is not only for Asians but also for the entire world. The greatest saffron producing countries are Iran, Spain, India and Greece. The largest saffron importers are Germany, Italy, U.S.A, Switzerland, U.K, and France etc.