Silk Route: Talkin’ Turkey

Constantinople, like the rest of Europe, was a fairly late comer onto the Silk Route trade scene. Which is ironic because Turkey is also where we find some of the oldest evidence of civilization. Places Göbekli Tepe and Çatal Höyük date back to 7000 BCE, conservatively.


Because of it’s location between Europe and the Middle East, toward the end of the expansion of the Silk Route, Constantinople became a powerful force in shaping the Mediterranean and the Middle East as we know them today. It’s only real rival was Antioch, to the south.

Much of the food you would have found in Constantinople in the 13th and 14th centuries would have been familiar. Other than the possibility of having to slaughter something yourself, you probably would have been quite comfortable with the food selection. Even people coming from the East would have felt a culinary connection with Constantinople (can I illiterate that any more?). The Mediterranean connoisseur would have found wine, grape leaves, lemons, rosemary, Greek style cheese, seafood and even Caviar. The Barbarian would have found game meat, cabbage, vinegar, and honey. The Persian or Asian eater would have found cinnamon, rice, anise, cumin, pepper, and spinach.

The Cuisine of Byzantium reflected it’s inherent nature as a crossroads of cultures, drawing from Easter European, Persian, Asian, Mediterranean and even some African ingredients. Most meals were boiled and flavored with spices. Food provided a bit of political stability to Byzantium by having a solid mix of local and imported ingredients. That meant that there was a strong local economy and a safe local food supply, but the food trade beyond boarders also bolstered the economy.

Bread was an essential staple of the Byzantine table and a guarantee of stability for the government in Constantinople. Bread in the early Byzantine era was a global enterprise. For the bakeries of Constantinople to produce the 80,000 loafs distributed daily to the people of the city, the farmers of Egypt had to produce a surplus, which they shipped on large fleets to the capital. Even in later days when Egypt was no longer part of the empire, feeding the capital was a major enterprise. The Constantinopolitans could count on a steady diet of bread, fish, much of it cured and preserved in salt, and olive oil. However, just like in contemporary Greece or Turkey, this diet was supplemented by vegetables that were produced in small gardens kept in the capital, in the smaller cities and in every village. The city of Constantinople had such a large space enclosed by its walls that most of its vegetables were produced locally.

Now we all love to think that our culture is unique and distinguishes us from “others”. Particularly our religions. The truth is most of Europe, much of the Middle East and even parts of Asia are fairly homogeneous and it’s getting more so every day. This is the legacy of global trade and the Silk Route was our first historic example of this. Places like Constantinople, that were the crossroads of trade, became melting pots where all ingredients were cooked down to a pan-Eurasian paste of humanity.

We can learn a lot from Constantinople if we pay attention. The first is that we have much more commonalities than we have differences. The second is that our actual differences, instead of provoking conflict, can instead be a source of richness that pulls us together rather than tears us apart. Third, that a balance of local business and international trade make for a strong economy, particularly when it comes to food goods.

Today I’m going to recommend to you an in-depth look at food history via my all time favorite human invention – writing.


In the last twenty-five years alone, the range of fruits and vegetables, even grains, that is available at most local markets has changed dramatically. Over the last 10,000 years, that change is almost unimaginable. This groundbreaking new work, from the editor of the highly regarded Cambridge World History of Food, examines the exploding global palate. It begins with the transition from foraging to farming that got underway some 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, then examines subsequent transitions in Egypt, Africa south of the Sahara, China, southeast Asia, the Indus Valley Oceanic, Europe, and the Americas. It ends with chapters on genetically modified foods, the fast food industry, the nutritional ailments people have suffered from, famine, the obesity epidemic, and a look at the future on the food front. Food, at its most basic, fuels the human body. At its most refined, food has been elevated to a position of fine art. The path food has taken through history is a fairly straightforward one; the space which it occupies today could not be more fraught. This sweeping narrative covers both ends of the spectrum, reminding us to be grateful for and delighted in a grain of wheat, as well as making us aware of the many questions that remain unanswered about what lies ahead. Did you know. . .
– That beans were likely an agricultural mistake?
– That cheese making was originated in Iran over 6000 years ago?
– That pepper was once worth its weight in gold?
– That sugar is the world s best-selling food, surpassing even wheat?
– That Winston Churchill asserted, in 1942, that tea was more important to his troops than ammunition?
– That chili con carne is one of the earliest examples of food globalization?
– That, by 1880, virtually every major city in America had a Chinese restaurant?
– That white bread was once considered too nutritious?
Kenneth Kiple reveals these facts and more within A Moveable Feast. – From


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