Salt

Salt by Mark Kurlansky Read Free Book Online Page A

Book: Salt by Mark Kurlansky Read Free Book Online
Authors: Mark Kurlansky
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and on to the West African coast.
The Phoenicians are also credited with the first alphabet. Chinese and Egyptian languages used pictographs, drawings depicting objects or concepts. Babylonian, which became the international language in the Middle East, also had a long list of characters, each standing for a word or combination of sounds. But the Phoenicians used a Semitic forerunner of ancient Hebrew, the earliest traces of which were found in the Sinai from 1400 B.C. , which had only twenty-two characters, each representing a particular sound. It was the simplicity of this alphabet as much as their commercial prowess that opened up trade in the ancient Mediterranean.

I NLAND FROM THE port of Sfax are dried desert lake beds where salt can be scraped up in the dry season. This technique, the same as was used 8,000 years ago on Lake Yuncheng in China, and referred to as “dragging and gathering,” was the original Egyptian way of salt gathering, the method used for harvesting natron in the wadi of Natrun. The Arabs called such a saltworks a sebkha, and on a modern map of North Africa, from the Egyptian-Libyan border to the Algerian-Moroccan line, from Sabkaht Shunayn to Sebkha de Tindouf, sebkhas are still clearly labeled.
In ancient times, the Fezzan region, today in southern Libya, had contact with Egypt and the Mediterranean. Herodotus wrote of the use of horses and chariots for warfare in Fezzan, which was unusual at the time. Even more unusual, horses also may have been used to transport salt. By the third century B.C. , Fezzan was noted for its salt production. Fezzan producers had moved beyond simply scraping the sebkhas. The crust was boiled until fairly pure crystals had been separated, and they were then molded into three-foot-high white tapered cylinders. Traders then carried these oddly phallic objects, carefully wrapped in straw mats, by caravan across the desert. Salt is still made and transported the same way today in parts of the Sahara.
Because a profitable salt shipment is bulky and heavy, accessible transportation has always been the essential ingredient in salt trade. In most of Asia, Europe, and the Americas, waterways have been the solution. Salt was traded either through seagoing ports or, as in Sichuan, by a sprawling river system. But in the African continent, where a wealth of salt was located in the wadis and dry lake beds of the waterless Sahara, another solution was found—the camel.
The earliest known journeys across the Sahara, in about 1000 B.C. , were by oxen and then by horse-drawn chariots. Trans-Saharan commerce existed in ancient times, but crossings were rare events until the third century A.D. , when the camel replaced the horse. The camel was a native of North America, though it became extinct there two million years ago. Around 3000 B.C. , relatively late in the history of animal domestication, camels were domesticated in the Middle East. The wild species has vanished. Between the domestication of the camel and its use in the Sahara, several millennia passed. But once the domestic camel made its Sahara debut, its use spread quickly. By the Middle Ages, caravans of 40,000 camels carried salt from Taoudenni to Timbuktu, a 435-mile journey taking as long as one month. Since then, continuing to this day, caravans of camels have moved bulk goods across the Sahara to western and central Africa. As the trade prospered, so did banditry, and the caravans grew in size for protection. As salt moved south, gold, kola nut, leather, and cotton from Hausaland, in present-day Nigeria, was traded north. Later, products for Europe, including acacia gum, which was needed for fabric sizing, and melegueta pepper, the seeds of an orange West African fruit that were a Renaissance European food craze, were also brought north. Slaves, too, were taken on this route and even at times traded for salt.
In 1352, Ibn Batuta, the greatest Arab-language traveler of the Middle Ages, who had journeyed overland across

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