An Aromatic Journey Into Time
In an era without photos, without videos and without the internet. The impression that we have on a place or a city is sometimes determined by its smell and aroma. For example, the bible often mentions a mysterious ancient country — “The Kingdom of Sheba”, and when mentioned, the strong scent of Frankincense may emerge in the minds of Israelis because it was where Frankincense was imported from. Another example would be the way the city of Shiraz (Iran) and the Kashmir region (India) is always associated with Saffron; a precious spice used in traditional european cuisines. Similarly, Chinese people from the Ming Dynasty may also immediately imagine the rich fragrance of Agarwood when the country name ‘Vietnam’ is mentioned.
It was also an era where other than Pilgrims and traders, no one really travel around the world. This was because leaving home for a long trip was considered dangerous and place people’s lives at risk, whether its from cunning bandits in the deep jungles or the enchanting mermaids living atop rocks in the deep sea who lure fisherman with their enticing voices.
This is why to most people, a whiff of a foreign fragrance is already considered a type of journey; a journey of smell. They would sometimes even make up many myths and fairytales around the scents and mysterious foreign places that they had not been able to visit. For example, the famous Greek historian Herodotus, told his readers that frankincense trees are always surrounded by a group of flying snakes who also want to harvest the spice. This is why frankincense harvesters must first burn the scent of another spice that will drive away the flying snakes who are especially afraid of this scent. Just like that, a simple scent is exchanged for a more rich and rare fragrance -Foreign fragrances seem to always be clouded with a mist of myths.
The trade of scents may have been the source of all human trade, different types of spices opened up many routes which are actually even more ancient that the Silk Road. The camels of the Arabs, the sailboats of the Indians and the Persians all come and go between the ports of Amman and China, creating the earliest globalised route in human history.
In this group of spiderweb-like routes and passages, fragrances are all that come and go. In order to obtain those legendary precious spices more directly, Europeans opened up what we later know as the ‘Great Navigation Age’. First it was the Portuguese, followed by Spain and the Netherlands and finally the United Kingdom and France, their fleets of ships, the many ‘East India companies’ brought back different types of spices and fragrances, but also some exotic country names: Muscat, Goa, Ceylon, Siam, Malacca, Batavia, Moluca…...
These places may not necessarily be the origin of all these great spices, instead they are often important trading ports. However, the names of these places will inevitably put on a complex coat of fragrances in people’s minds, and these scents seem to always follow the gust of wind blowing from the sea.
That was a magical era full of stories and adventures that we can never go back to at this time. Only the scents, and the memory of those scents are able to bring us back to that legendary time.