Cinnamon was born in Asia. Where exactly in Asia is a little less clear. The species sold in modern markets have been around for so long, making it difficult to trace cinnamon’s biology. And though the spice often appears in ancient texts, these works obfuscate rather than reveal “true cinnamon”. Because of the differences in etymology and vocabulary, it is often difficult to tell which variety of cinnamon they refer to. This is especially true when they use the same word for multiple spices, mix up cinnamon with similar spices, or straight up name a completely different plant “cinnamon” because they think they kind of taste the same—similar to how American hot peppers, Indian chili pepper, and peppercorn are all commonly known as “pepper.” But a few somewhat reliable descriptions of cinnamon help track the history, if not the origins, of the spice.
“Your robes are redolent of myrrh, aloeswood and kasi’a [cassia]; harps entertain you in halls of ivory; princesses are among your waiting-women.” This quote comes from the 45th psalm, assembled in the 5th century along with the rest of the books of the Bible (the content itself is about a 1000 years older). Even earlier references to cinnamon—often misnamed “cassia”—appear in texts farther south, in Northern Africa. Ty-sps, the Egyptian word for both cinnamon and camphor, appears in texts dating to early 2000 BCE. By at least 200 BCE, people were using cinnamon throughout China. (Though most likely this was the Chinese variant, “cassia,” rather than species grown in Indonesia or India.)
In the Classical and post-Classical period, cinnamon appears in the works of many Greek and Roman writers. Pliny the Elder, Herodutus, and Sappho (though she also refers to it as “kasia”) all write on the subject. They praise cinnamon both for its scent and its luxury, and these qualities made it a popular ingredient in incense, though both the Greeks and the Egyptians used it in cooking as well. (As per course, the Egyptians also used the spice on their mummies.)
In Western Europe, cinnamon–when not being poured in buckets over the dishes of moneyed families—was added to both meals and medicines. Often a part of “medicinal” wines and other spiced drinks, cinnamon was one of the main staples of a wealthy kitchen, along with ginger and pepper. And like these other spices, cinnamon’s desirability caused strife throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
Ceylon, located off the coast of India and one of the oldest producers of cinnamon, suffered much for the cause of cinnamon. Their cinnamon brought many cinnamon-seeking colonists. The island was first controlled by the Portuguese in 1505, then by the Dutch in 1658, and then by the English in 1796. All of the these turnovers of power cost lives both on and off the island, only adding to the violence fought on other islands, over other spices. Each country exploited the island in its own way, though certainly the Dutch were the most ruthless. Selling even one stick of cinnamon without permission meant death. It wasn’t until Ceylon’s annexation in 1948 that the island began to control its own export.
The type of cinnamon Ceylon grew is now appropriately called Ceylon cinnamon—though today the island of Ceylon is known as Sri Lanka. Though Ceylon is often called “true cinnamon” because of the history of the island, about 70% of North America’s cinnamon is from a different species—Korintje cinnamon. And though this Indian import dominates the Americas, it is the Ceylon spice that is called “Mexican cinnamon”–Mexico gets the spice from Sri Lanka, then exports it. We can only hope that a thousand years from now, all these names won’t confuse historians trying to understand the history of the spice!