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What spice used to be more valuable than gold?

Cinnamon was once more valuable than gold

The woody, warming spice we sprinkle with abandon on top of holiday cookies, baked goods, and seasonal coffees is native to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and India. But very few people knew where cinnamon came from when merchants first began selling spices throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa as far back as 3,000 years ago — and spice traders capitalized on that lack of knowledge to charge high prices. Harvested from the inner bark of Cinnamomum trees, cinnamon has been used for thousands of years as medicine, for religious practices and funerals, and in cuisine, but with a big price tag: It was once considered more precious than gold.

What did our ancestors smell like? Archaeologists and historians have pieced together how numerous cultures ate, dressed, relaxed — in short, lived — but it’s generally been harder to tell how people once smelled. Thanks to one archaeological find, however, we have a clue as to how Egyptians may have perfumed themselves, and perhaps even Cleopatra — a royal known for a cinnamon-laced scent so seductive, it’s credited with attracting Julius Caesar. In 2012, archaeologists unearthed ruins north of Cairo suspected to be an ancient Egyptian perfume factory; that dig inspired a team of historians and perfume experts to recreate fragrances that hadn’t been worn in nearly 2,000 years. Using recipes from ancient Greek texts that may have borrowed from Cleopatra’s own formulas — a book of recipes that no longer exists, but was often referenced by other perfumers — researchers blended cinnamon, myrrh, and other herbs with olive oil to create a viscous fragrance akin to what ancient Egyptians once donned. While we’ll never know for sure if Cleopatra wore this specific scent, the experiment gives us an olfactory link with history.

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