The History of saffron cultivation and usage reaches back more than 4,000 years and spans many cultures, continents, and civilisations. Saffron, a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), has remained among the world’s most costly substances throughout history. With its bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes, saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine.

Most scholars point to Greece as the origin of saffron, although a recent DNA study (Alavi-Kia et al. 2008) suggests that the plant may have originated in Mesopotamia. There are some 80 species of crocus distributed throughout southwestern Europe; Alavi-Kia et al. suggest possible wild progenitors for saffron as the Iranian forms C. almehensis or C. mickelsonii. A saffron harvest is shown in the Knossos palace frescoes of Minoan Crete which depict the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys. One of these fresco sites is located in the “Xeste 3” building at Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Santorini—the ancient Greeks knew it as “Thera.” These frescoes likely date from the 16th or 17th century BC` but may have been produced anywhere between 3000–1100 BC.

For the ancient Mediterraneans, saffron gathered around the Cilician coastal town of Soli was of top value, particularly for use in perfumes and ointments. Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, however, rated rival Assyrian and Babylonian saffron from the Fertile Crescent as best—to treat gastrointestinal or renal upsets. Greek saffron from the Corycian Cave of Mount Parnassus was also of note: the color offered by the Corycian crocus is used as a benchmark in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius[N 1] and similarly with its fragrance in the epigrams of Martial.

Cleopatra of late Ptolemaic Egypt used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm baths, as she prized its colouring and cosmetic properties. She used it before encounters with men, trusting that saffron would render lovemaking yet more pleasurable Egyptian healers used saffron as a treatment for all varieties of gastrointestinal ailments: when stomach pains progressed to internal hemorrhaging, an Egyptian treatment consisted of saffron crocus seeds mixed and crushed together with aager-tree remnants, ox fat, coriander, and myrrh. This ointment or poultice was applied to the body. The physicians expected it to “[expel] blood through the mouth or rectum which resembles hog’s blood when it is cooked”. Urinary tract conditions were also treated with an oil-based emulsion of premature saffron flowers mixed with roasted beans; this was used topically on men. Women ingested a more complex preparation.

In the 19th century, domesticated saffron (C. sativus) was reported growing near the Minoan towns of Khania and Rethymnon. 

Middle East

Saffron-based pigments have been found in the prehistoric paints used to illustrate beasts in 50,000-year-old cave art found in modern-day Iraq, which was even then northwest of the Persian Empire. The Sumerians used saffron as an ingredient in their remedies and magical potions. Sumerians did not cultivate saffron. They gathered their stores from wild flowers, believing that divine intervention alone enables saffron’s medicinal properties. Such evidence suggests that saffron was an article of long-distance trade before Crete’s Minoan palace culture reached a peak in the 2nd millennium BC. Saffron was also honoured as a sweet-smelling spice over three millennia ago in the Hebrew Tanakh.

East and South Asia

Various conflicting accounts exist that describe saffron’s first arrival in South and East Asia. The first of these rely on historical accounts gleaned from Persian records. These suggest to many experts that saffron, among other spices, was first spread to India via Persian rulers’ efforts to stock their newly built gardens and parks. They accomplished this by transplanting the desired cultivars across the Persian empire. Phoenicians then began in the 6th century BC to market the new Kashmiri saffron by utilising their extensive trade routes. Once sold, Kashmiri saffron was used in the treatment of melancholy and as a fabric dye.

On the other hand, traditional Kashmiri legend states that saffron first arrived in the 11th or 12th century AD, when two foreign and itinerant Sufi ascetics, Khwaja Masood Wali and Hazrat Sheikh Shariffudin, wandered into Kashmir. The foreigners, having fallen sick, beseeched a cure for illness from a local tribal chieftain. When the chieftain obliged, the two holy men reputedly gave them a saffron crocus bulb as payment and thanks. To this day, grateful prayers are offered to the two saints during the saffron harvesting season in late autumn. The saints, indeed, have a golden-domed shrine and tomb dedicated to them in the saffron-trading village of Pampore, India. However, the Kashmiri poet and scholar Mohammed Yusuf Teng disputes this. He states that Kashmiris had cultivated saffron for more than two millennia. According to Hindu religion Lord Krishna used to put Tilak (a mark on forehead) of Saffron daily.