Travel the Spice Route: Maps and Tips to Plan Your Trip

sinai spices sharm el-sheikThe ancient Spice Route (probably named as a result of the ancient Incense and Perfume routes) was an epic journey which initially began in Arabia, but eventually evolved to link Moluccas (the Indonesian Spice Islands) with Arabia and from there into Europe.

The route generally is believed to take in Malacca, Sri Lanka, and Kerala in India. At Kerela, it split into two, with one route to Europe going via Baghdad and the other Accra.

Arabia had the monopoly on the spice route for over 2000 years, and its said that both the Roman invasion of Persia in 24 BC and the discovery of America are partially attributed to Europeans wanting to break that monopoly.

The Spice route was initially an overland route but it later developed into a marine route. This resulted in Alexandria becoming a major port and the naming of its Pepper Gate entrance as a consequence.

Now I should imagine the route is predominately an airborne one, but visitors still go to these places, both for trade and holiday purposes.

Spices in Antiquity

The ancient Egyptians used spices in their embalming process as early as 3000 years BC and in 2600 BC, records indicate labourers building Cheops great pyramid were fed Asiatic spices to give them strength. Hatshepsut also brought aromatic herbs and spices back from Punt (modern Ethiopia/Eritrea).

Archaeological evidence in Syria suggest cloves, which could only be obtained from the Moluccas, were popular in Sumeria (circa 2400 BC) and there are even biblical references to the Spice route, with Joseph (he of the coat of many colours) being sold to a spice caravan by his brothers.

The Route in Arabia

The Spice Route through Arabia - Click the image to view a larger version.Perhaps the Nabateans can be credited with developing the first spice routes circa 950 BC when they began trading with India and China using camel and donkey caravans. These early routes focused on getting incense, perfumes and other spices that could bypass the Persians then be sold to the Greeks.

This route began in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, where some of the finer perfume and spice plants were already being grown. The spices then travelled north, following a route parallel to the Red Sea. There are reportedly approximately 65 resting stations along this section.

At Dedan, in Northern Saudi Arabia, the route divided with one veering north eastward, towards Mesopotamia, and two others towards the sea. These second two deviations ultimately brought the perfume, spices and incense to the Nabatean capital, Petra; one continued inland directly to Petra while the other went southward to the port of Leuce Come, on the east shore of the Red Sea. From there this route continued by land to Petra.

Once in Petra, the route splits again with one route heading north to Damascus, and the other heading west. This western route went through Israel to Gaza and from there to Egypt or to Greece and Rome in Europe.

There were two routes through Israel to Gaza; one taking in points at Moa, Mahaml, Avdat and Haluza and a secondary route via Hazeva, Mamshit (Mampsis) and Beersheba. This has been approved, recognised and acknowledged as the World Heritage Perfume Route by UNESCO since 2005.

Places to Visit

Travel in Saudi Arabia is can be difficult, particularly for single women, so perhaps its best to start at Petra. This magnificent rock city was the main point for spices arriving from the Far East and I assume, it was here traders would decide on what was to follow the northern or western routes.

There are specialist operators offering tours which take in the points of the Spice route in Israel and Jordan. Given the terrain and location of some of these sites, many of these tours, are done predominantly in 4x4s and involve camping (or glamping if you’re lucky). Along the route, as well as major towns, you can see the ruins of stopping stations for the camel trains, (known as caravanserais or kahns) as well as army outposts usually built on hills to protect the caravans with their valuable cargos.

Route via Moa, Avdat, Shivta and Halutza

Although the ruins at Moa, Katzera and Ein Saharonim are minimal, the surrounding scenery is stunning. You can often get glimpses of desert wildlife at Ein Saharonim which boasts of being the deepest point in the Ramon Crater.

Flour mill in MampsisFor more substantial remains, Avdat is definitely worth a visit. Situated 650m above sea level, some of its impressive structures include walls, pillars and Roman baths, Shivta has impressive arches and other structural remains.

Quite a few of the structures in Halutza were destroyed at the end of the Ottoman period, but you can still see walls and building remains.

Route via Hazeva, Mamshit (Mampsis) and Beersheba

Although Mamshit was quite a small city, it is one of the best preserved in the area.It has a bath house, and mosaics can be seen in the church.

Sometimes known as the capital of the Negev, Beersheba is a vibrant modern city. Excavations of the remains of ancient Beersheba began in earnest in the late 1960s and visitors can now see well preserved buildings such as houses, stables (or storehouses) and an altar.

Although it would be nice to visit the final part of the Spice route in Israel, currently the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advices against travel in Gaza.