Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Last week I took a group to hike in Lower Nahal Og.  I had done the hike about 4-5 years ago when I started hiking with Yossie.  The hike is in one of the dry (or mostly dry) stream beds which leads from the Judean desert to the Dead Sea and, as such, descends for its entire length.  Along the path, as the chalk gives way to dolomite and the canyon becomes narrow and steep, and in order to continue to descend, you must navigate a series of three ladders.

“Ladders” in hikes in Israel are not what you may think of as ladders in other parts of the world.  “Ladders” here consist of metal u’s,  the width of 2 fists, which are stuck in the sides of rocks allowing you to descend/climb otherwise sheer rock faces.  The three ladders on the Lower Nahal Og hike are 4, 7, and 10 meters high (10 meters is higher than my house!).  You ease yourself over the cliff and carefully climb from rung to rung, often coached by those who have descended before you.  At points it sounds like a Twister game as shouts of “move your left foot a little to the right!” guide descent of one hiker after the next.

The hike starts in the Central Judean desert on the Plain of Hyrcania.  This is the driest part of the Judean desert – there is no residual moisture from the Judean hills to the west and are no springs of the Eastern Judean desert/Dead Sea valley.  It is a great hike for noticing the changing geology and plant life.

But besides nature, there is a historical human footprint in the area.  Despite the existence of a more heavily traveled road to the north in the area of Nahal Prat connecting Jericho to Jerusalem, there was also a secondary road which went along Nahal Og.

Why were there two parallel roads so close to each other?  The answer lies in a product which has fueled world politics and science, exploration and cuisine.  SUGAR!

In today’s world, we take sugar for granted, but it wasn’t always so.  Sugar domestication started about 10,000 years ago in the South Pacific – at approximately the same time as wheat was domesticated here in Israel.  The first sugar addicts chewed the sugar cane stalks to achieve their sugar high.  Later, the stalks were ground and soaked with the resultant liquid left to dry, leaving the sugary residue behind.

Meanwhile, in Israel, sweetness in food was obtained by adding honey (dvash) to foods.  “Dvash” in the Bible almost always (with the exception of the story of Shimshon’s riddle to the people of Timna) refers to sweetener derived from fruits such as dates.  When the Bible is speaking of Israel as a “Land Flowing with Milk and Honey”, it is speaking about fruit honey and not honey from bees or other plants. This meaning is preserved in Arabic where “Dibis” refers to sweetener made from any fruit.

Back to Sugar Cane….  Sugar (from sugar cane) became the main sweetener in India, finally making its way to the Arab world.  With the Moslem conquest of the Land of Israel, came also the taste for sugar from canes.  The Moslem conquerors soon discovered that the reeds around what is today Einot Tzukim were suitable for the production of cane sugar.  The plant requires both lots of water and lots of sunlight – both  available in abundance in the Dead Sea area.  It also can tolerate a relatively high level of salinity in its water source, leading it to take over areas closer to the Dead Sea where other plants could not survive.  The Moslem conquerors brought their engineering know-how and made the extraction of cane sugar more efficient and profitable.  They needed to bring their crop to the closest large market (Jerusalem) and also to service the Byzantine monks in the Judean desertand both Muslim and Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.  This is the famed Sugar Route which passes through Nahal Og, joins the monastery of St. Euthymius, to El Azaria and into Jerusalem.  With the coming of the Crusaders, sugar was introduced to the West.  The Europeans were crazy about the sweetener and from the beginning of the Crusader era, sugar refineries were present in Israel, not only for local consumption but for exporting to the markets of Europe.  These industrial installations required a mill, an aqueduct, hearths, and many ceramic pots for storing the resultant sugar powder and the molasses byproduct.   (These installations have been found by archaeologists around areas where sugar cane is grown, including along the Sugar Route.)  At the time of the Crusaders, sugar was just as expensive in the European markets as the spices which were brought from Yemen, such as cinnamon and cardamon.

When the Crusaders were kicked out of the Levant by the Mamelukes, the supply of sugar was now in the hands of the not-so-friendly Arabs who jacked up the prices.  As always, these market pressures forced people to become creative.  Sugar from beets, which are readily grown in Northern European climates replaced cane sugar.  This inferior product, however, was soon supplemented by sugar cane introduced, grown and processed in the New World.

As in Ramle with the development and export of the Gothic arch, in the Judean desert, we walk in the footsteps of history.  A fortuitous confluence of Eastern foods, the development of engineering which allowed for production on a mass scale and the opening of European markets led to the introduction of one of the staples of the modern Western diet.    And no matter what you think of sugar, it definitely  has clutched the stomachs of most of the people on the planet.

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