Salt

Salt by Mark Kurlansky Read Free Book Online Page B

Book: Salt by Mark Kurlansky Read Free Book Online
Authors: Mark Kurlansky
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Africa, Europe, and Asia, reported visiting the city of Taghaza, which, he said, was entirely built of salt, including an elaborate mosque. By the time Europeans first discovered it in the nineteenth century, the fabled western Saharan city of salt had been abandoned. Taghaza was not the earliest report of buildings made of salt. The first-century- A.D. Roman Pliny the Elder, writing of rock salt mining in Egypt, mentioned houses built of salt.
Taghaza is imagined as a sparkling white city, but it was swept by Saharan sands, and the pockmarked salt turned a dingy gray. Though its salt construction impressed later travelers, salt blocks were the only material available for building, and Taghaza was probably a miserable work camp, inhabited mostly by the slaves forced to work it, who completely depended on the arrival of caravans to bring them food.
In ancient Taghaza, salt was quarried from the near surface in 200-pound blocks loaded on camels, one block on each side. The powerful animals carried them 500 miles to Timbuktu, a trading center because of its location on the northernmost crook of the Niger River, which connects most of West Africa. In Timbuktu, the goods of North Africa, the Sahara, and West Africa were exchanged, and the wealth from trade built a cultural center. Timbuktu became a university town, a center of learning. But to the locals in Taghaza, salt was worth nothing except as a building material. They lacked everything but salt.
It was said that in the markets to the south of Taghaza salt was exchanged for its weight in gold, which was an exaggeration. The misconception comes from the West African style of silent barter noted by Herodotus and subsequently by many other Europeans. In the gold-producing regions of West Africa, a pile of gold would be set out, and a salt merchant would counter with a pile of salt, each side altering their piles until an agreement was reached. No words were exchanged during this process, which might take days. The salt merchants often arrived at night to adjust their piles and leave unseen. They were extremely secretive, not wanting to reveal the location of their deposits. From this it was reported in Europe that salt was exchanged in Africa for its weight in gold. But it is probable that the final agreed-upon two piles were never of equal weight.
The fact that in ancient Egypt the poor were mummified with sodium chloride and the rich with natron suggests that the Egyptians valued natron more. But the reverse appears to have been true in other parts of ancient Africa. Generally, the richer Africans used salt with higher sodium chloride content, and natron was the salt of the poor. In West Africa white natron was used for bean cakes of millet or sorghum, called kunu. The natron in this dish was thought to be beneficial to nursing mothers. Natron was preferred to salt for bean dishes because it was thought that the carbonate counteracted gas. It was also used, and still is, as a stomach medicine—a natural bicarbonate of soda. Natron was believed to be a male aphrodisiac as well.
In Timbuktu, which was a center of not only the salt trade but the tobacco trade, a mixture of tobacco and natron was chewed. The Hausa also used natron to dissolve indigo so that the color could be fixed. Soap was made from natron and an oil from the kernel of the shea butter tree.
The African salt market has always distinguished between a wide assortment of salts, most of them impure. Salt that was mainly sodium chloride was used exclusively for eating. Sodium chloride, natron, and other salts of varying impurities, from different locations, were widely known by their own names. African merchants, healers, and cooks were well versed in this array of salts. Trona was the name of a well-known natron valued for food; it was gathered from the shore of Lake Chad.
Africans have maintained a tradition of a wide variety of different salts for different dishes, but they always treat any salt as a valuable

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