The History of Saffron Spice

Updated: Mar 12, 2020

The history of saffron dates back to the ancient times with Cleopatra, the last Egyptian pharaoh and a beauty goddess having records of saffron use as an aromatic and seductive essence.

While it’s quite impossible to pin Egypt as the saffron origin (since it does not have the correct weather condition for the flower to grow), it is safe to say that the spice has been on a global journey, spanning many cultures, continents, and civilizations.


The English word 'saffron' came from the Latin 'safranum' from which originated the Spanish word 'azafrán' and the Italian word 'zafferano' (both meaning saffron). The other terms for saffron in various languages are: 'azupiranu' (Akkadian), 'azafrán' (Galician), 'azafrai' (Basque), 'saffran' (German), 'szafran' (Polish), 'shafran' (Russian), 'kesar' or 'zafran' (India), 'hong hua' (China), 'zaferen' (Turkish), 'saframi' (Finnish), 'sáfrány' (Hungarian), 'safrána' (Latvian), 'safranu' (Romanian), 'safárum' (Malaysian), 'khekhrum' (Armenian), 'kurkum' (Farsi) and 'safrà' (Catalonian).

Tracing the Saffron Journey

Saffron was first documented in a 7th-century BC Assyrian botanical reference compiled under Ashurbanipal. Since then, documentation of saffron's use over a span of 4,000 years in the treatment of some illnesses and as a food spice has been well presented. From its supposed oriental and middle eastern origin, Saffron slowly spread throughout much of Eurasia, later reaching parts of North Africa, North America, and Oceania.

Iran and Afghanistan currently produce 85 percent of the world’s saffron, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (2015). It is said that both locations are ideal for growing saffron mainly for their relatively dry, sunny climate and the soil that favor the spice cultivation.

While tracing its origin is a bit tricky, it’s likely that it was first discovered in Bronze Age Greece, where the spice is highly appreciated for its coloring and aromatic properties.

Saffron and it’s uses

From the grounds of Cleopatra and the old Egyptian pharaohs, Saffron has been used historically to treat several illnesses such as heartaches to hemorrhoids. The spice is also widely used by traditional healers in treating some cardio-vascular diseases.

Modern studies have shown the high levels of antioxidants in the spice which may help ward off inflammation in the body. Saffron is also distinct for its several skin and beauty benefits.

Aside from all its human body benefits, saffron is also a great addition to many dishes. With its distinct flavor and aroma, saffron has been a staple to many Paella dishes, fish stew, yeasted rolls, cakes, and pies found different cities and continents.

A recipe for swan from Le Viandier de Taillevent, a cookbook published in 1300, calls for a rather graphic skinning of the bird, then cooking it on a spit. Once the bird is on the fire, you must “glaze it with saffron; and when it is cooked, it should be redressed in its skin, with the neck either straight or flat. Endorse the feathers and head with a paste made of egg yolks mixed with saffron and honey.”

Truly, saffron has been a mark of affluence for many dishes and there’s no doubt that this spice is one of the few “wonder spices” of the world.

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