Wundor Author Essay

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Sugar in the Holy Land

Sam Bully-Thomas

 

“There is a reed, from which flows a very sweet juice, called cannamelli zachariae; this honey they eat with bread and melt it with water, and think it more wholesome than the honey of bees. Some say that it is the honey that Jonathan, the son of Saul, found in the earth and disobediently tasted. With the juice of this reed our men, at the siege of Albarria, Mara and Archa (Acre), often stayed their hunger”.

 

– Jacques de Vitry (1160-1240), Historian of the Crusades and Bishop of Acre.

 

Jacques de Vitry writes here of the European Crusaders discovering sugar in the Jordan Valley in Syria. It seems fitting that the first time that the West came across sugar was during the Crusades, which began in 1096 and continued for nearly five centuries. The Crusaders set out on one expedition of power and enterprise in the name of religion, and before the end of it they had begun to transfer that same passion to a commercial commodity: sugar.

 

The soldiers encountered many new products during the Crusades, but they soon realized the appeal and importance of sugar. As early as 1099 they were managing production in the conquered areas around Jerusalem, until 1187 when Saladin won the territory. There are still remains of one of these sites – the ‘sugar mills’ near Jericho. Sugar production expanded greatly during this period. The Knights of Malta planted the crop near Tripoli and in Acre. The Knights of St. John were successful manufacturers in Cyprus. And sugar cultivation also expanded across Sicily, Crete, and Rhodes, which all came under mostly Christian rule.

 

The Crusaders’ sugar industry became increasingly important to the European Latin countries after the fall of the sugar trade with Syria during the wars. In a 1306 letter appealing to Pope Clement to revive the Crusades and reconquer the Holy Land, Marino Sanuto outlined a full plan of attack, with a special emphasis on sugar:

 

 In the land of the Sultan sugar grows in quantity, and from it the Sultan and the  Saracens draw large incomes and taxes. If the Christians could seize these lands great  injury would be inflicted on the Sultan.

 

This operation would have involved blocking the Muslim world’s land trade routes, a highly risky affair.

 

As far back as 966, sugar had been transported to Venice by sea. And the Venetian businessmen had wasted no time in developing sugar ventures on Crete and Cyprus, a move that would make their city very prosperous. Along with the Genoese, the Venetians capitalized on trading Egyptian sugar, which was known then as Alexandrian sugar. They were also the first country to ship the commodity to England. The earliest mention of this trade between Italy and England dates back to 1306, when Genoese ships are spotted at Southampton. Prior to this, there was barely any record of this luxury in England.

 

For the Arabic-speaking Mediterranean countries, the situation was markedly different. Far from being a scarce luxury, sugar apparently dominated everyday life. This was particularly the case in Egypt. By 800 there is a record of a souk in Cairo, ‘used exclusively by salt dealers, sugar bakers and confectioners’. One report tells of an opulent Ramadan feast in 990:

 

 Over 100 cooks were engaged in using up to 20 tons of sugar, which was distributed  among the guests according to their rank, in quantity from 25lb to 1lb. Among these  delicacies were young hens boiled in syrup, and the tables were adorned with statues  of elephants, lions, giraffes and deer, all made of sugar. Two castles requiring almost  a ton of sugar were on display, which beggars were invited to carry away at the end of  the feast.

 

1492 marked the completion of the Reconquista, and so the end of Muslim rule in Iberia. In January of 1492, Isabella of Castile arrived in Granada to collect the keys to the final Muslim city to fall to the Christians. In March, she and Ferdinand of Aragon expelled all Jews from Spain. On 3rd August of the same year, Christopher Columbus set sail for the land that would be named America. Columbus himself was no stranger to sugar cane propagation. On his second voyage of 1493, he took his first samples of cane from the Canary Islands to the New World. He was able to report back to Isabella that ‘the sugar canes had germinated in seven days’: a record time.

 

Following this, the cane went everywhere the conquistadores went.

 

 

 

The Myth of Sugar

 

It was a long time

before he came back.

 

Meet me by the shore.

 

As the ocean swayed sleeping,

well-loved by the passing storm,

we swam together.

 

He split into eels, softly

lashing my legs,

turned back again.

 

We were there

through the night.

 

Here.

 

He drew a blade, slim

and moon-bright from his side.

 

Watch me as I sleep,

and slice me clear and quick.

 

Take my blood in this bowl

and also my heart.

 

Then cut off my head

and bury them near.

 

I did as he told me.

 

In the morning,

five tall shoots rose from the field.

In hunger, I ate of them.

 

My body still full with him,

when the strangers arrived.

 

 

 

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Sam Bully-Thomas' first collection of poems, Cane,

is published by Wundor Editions.

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