In the 7th century BC, Thera (today’s Santorini, Greece) was a fast-growing Greek town. But around 640 BC, it faced a devastating seven-year drought. The city elders went to the Oracle of Delphi, who advised them to shift and settle near Cyrenaica in today’s Libya, North Africa.
There in 631 BC, a group of Ancient Greeks settled around an oasis in an arid desert. They named the new town Cyrene.
It was a stroke of luck, for that was the only place in the world where a hitherto unknown plant grew in the wild. The plant would make Cyrene one of the richest cities in Africa and a thriving cultural centre. The miracle plant was Silphium.
Silphium turned out to be very special. It had a delicious and fragrant sap that had medicinal and culinary properties.
Hippocrates wrote that it could be used to treat cough, sore throat, fever, indigestion, warts, aches and pains. It was also used as a contraceptive by the Greeks and Romans.
Its crunchy stalks could be roasted and eaten. Its raw roots were edible, especially delectable when dipped in vinegar. Something magical happened to animals that were fed Silphium—their meat became tender and juicier.
Soon, it found its way into Greco-Roman cooking, pushing up its cost. Master chefs of the land grated its dried sap and sprinkled it over their signature dishes. Its juice was considered the best aphrodisiac of those times.
Silphium’s flowers yielded a delicate perfume. Many royal ladies flaunted their riches by wearing exorbitantly expensive perfume for special occasions.
Cyrene and Silphium
The Cyrenian economy started booming with the Silphium trade. Cyrene became the most important town in Libya with trade links to all the Greek cities, reaching its height of prosperity in 460 BC. As a token of respect, the Cyrenians put Silphium on their silver coinage.
The citizens of Crete incorporated a separate plant glyph in their script. Greeks wrote poems on it; Romans composed songs praising the plant. Legends started floating around saying that Silphium was a gift to mankind from the Olympian deity, Apollo.
Julius Caesar stored seven hundred kilograms of it in his official treasury. It was a plant worth its weight in Gold.
Uniqueness of Silphium
Everyone wanted a piece of this action.
Some Greeks took Silphium seeds and saplings to Europe to cultivate. But there was one problem: Silphium would not grow anywhere else. It thrived in the wild, and astonishingly, only in a strip of land about 200 km long and 40 km wide around Cyrene. Back in Greece, Theophrastus, the father of botany, admitted that he did not understand why Silphium would not grow in captivity.
People started over-cropping the plant around Cyrene. Its high market price prompted thieves to sneak into private properties to steal the plants. Social unrest followed.
Soon, the trade attracted unscrupulous elements who located duplicate Silphium. When Alexander the Great returned from his conquests, his soldiers found a plant in Parthia (modern Iran) that was very similar to Silphium but had a yucky smell. The crooks would adulterate the Silphium resin with the stinky goo from this fake Silphium and pocket huge margins.
Extinction of Silphium
Slowly, the plant became more and more scarce, increasing its value even more in the eyes of consumers.
In 96 BC, Cyrene shifted from Greek to Roman control. By now, Silphium was already struggling for its survival. Finally, in 60 AD, there was just one living plant left in the entire world. The elders of Cyrene plucked it and gifted it to their ultimate master, Emperor Nero of Rome, who probably kept it aside and continued playing his lute.
Silphium, one of the most important culinary and medicinal plants ever discovered by mankind, had gone extinct.
Decay of Cyrene
With the Silphium trade gone, Cyrene lost its prominence to the competing cities of Carthage and Alexandria, fading into a deserted town and then a vast ruin. It is a fascinating tale of how the fortunes of many civilisations are inextricably linked to nature.
Very soon, Europe forgot about the extinct Silphium. The recipes and medicinal concoctions slowly stopped mentioning Silphium resin as an ingredient.
The Bollywood Twist to the Saga
But the story was not over yet. The wisdom of the ages about Silphium had survived in another corner of the world. The duplicate, fake Silphium still grew in Perthia. It had all Silphium’s medical and culinary benefits but had a stinky, horrendous smell. Since it was a down-market reject from Europe, the Iranian locals were marketing it to the only place that never had access to Silphium: Asia.
By the land route, the traders of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan were bringing the counterfeit Silphium into India, which had trade links with those regions since ancient times.
This stinky resin slowly started permeating Indian cuisine. Then, it entered the annals of Ayurveda, the Indian medicinal system, finding numerous uses even Silphium had demonstrated. Mahabharat, the Hindu epic, and many other Hindu and Buddhist texts of those times mentioned this plant. Eventually, it ended up in the highest echelons of Indian society, in Prasad or religious offerings to the Gods.
And to think of it, this was a cheap knockoff of Silphium. But it survived while Silphium could not. What a history lesson:
From Thera to Cyrene to Macedonia to Perthia to modern India, the legend of Silphium lives on in every Indian kitchen today through its look-alike: Asafoetida (Hing)!
Most of the information in this article is taken from my upcoming book to be published by Macmillan Publishers in Nov 2023. The book discusses a thousand such preventive health tidbits. It covers twenty superfoods, their nutrients, health benefits, recommended amounts and excess levels. It also explains how to select and store and who should avoid them. Some of the superfoods are tomatoes, coconut, capsicum (Shimla mirch), drumsticks, amla (Indian gooseberry), jamun (Java plum), turmeric, cinnamon, flax seeds, asafoetida (hing), and sabja (sweet basil seeds).
A brief version of the above story appears at the start of the Asafoetida chapter in the book.
To Read More
- BBC Future: The Mystery of the Lost Roman Herb
- Almaty Technological University Library: A History of Food (downloadable book)
- The Greek Reporter: Cyrene: The Stunning Ancient Greek City of Libya
- World History Encyclopedia: Cyrene
- Conservation Biology Journal: Pliny the Elder’s Silphium: First Recorded Species Extinction
- BBC News: Asafoetida: The smelly spice India loves but never grew
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First Published on: 16th July 2023
Image Credit: Image by Freepik
Last Updated on: 21st July 2023