Despite Prohibition, a Thriving Wine Trade May Have Flourished in Islamic Sicily

Chemical traces found in thousand-year-old wine containers have led researchers to believe the wine trade actually flourished in medieval Islamic Sicily.

An amphorae dating to between the 9th and 11th centuries. (Credit: University of York)

(CN) — New evidence suggests Sicily’s wine trade grew in stature between 600-800 A.D. while enterprising Muslims were running the show, contrary to previous belief.

Given the prohibitions against alcohol found in the hadiths and enforced throughout many Muslim countries today, it may be shocking to learn that Islamic Sicily was likely a major hub of the region’s thriving wine trade more than a millennia ago.

An international group of researchers from Italy and Britain describe the chemical analysis performed on ancient amphorae, more commonly known as jugs, to arrive at that surprising conclusion in a new study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A Muslim army first invaded Sicily in the seventh century A.D., and many scholars naturally believed the region’s existing wine trade diminished, if not disappeared entirely, after that time. 

As it turns out, business is business and researchers now believe that Sicily’s new rulers helped grow the local wine industry from a modest trading post into an important center of production, creating a new class of wealthy wine merchants in the process.

Containers believed to have held wine have been found as far away as Sardinia and Pisa, suggesting a vast trans-Mediterranean trade in the beloved elixir. Prior to the Muslim conquest, most wine in the region was imported and is thought to have been mainly brought in for consumption rather than sales. 

Muslim merchants may have changed all that by ramping up production and increasing exports across existing Mediterranean trade networks.

Researchers analyzed chemical residue found in containers that spanned the Islamic period in Sicily, along with those left over from the Roman and Byzantine era. The tricky part was differentiating containers that held wine from those that held other fruit juices and syrups, popular commodities at the time, as their residues are all chemically similar. 

The authors compared these containers with pottery shards from floor tiles and cooking pots, along with replica shards they buried for a year, to arrive at a baseline for comparison.

“In the absence of visible residues, marks, or labels, chemical analysis of organic compounds absorbed into the walls of amphorae offers the only direct approach for assessing changes in the commodities traded during this period,” note the authors in their study.

“We had to develop some new chemical analysis techniques in order to determine that it was grape traces we were seeing and not some other type of fruit, but the tell-tale organic residues found in the amphorae in Sicily, Palermo and elsewhere showed the content was almost certainly wine,” explained Léa Drieu, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of York’s Department of Archaeology in the U.K. and author of the study, in a related statement.

To distinguish wine from fruit juice, the authors quantified and compared the amount of tartaric acid found in the containers with that of malic acid. Fruit juice and wines have different ratios of the two chemicals and they degrade at different rates, making it possible to discern one from the other a millennia later. 

Researchers hope this new test can be used in the future to further map the history of the Mediterranean wine trade.

The only time the wine trade really diminished was during the eighth and ninth centuries when the region was in turmoil as the Byzantines were being overthrown. Yet, the authors believe the wine trade rebounded and grew by the tenth and eleventh centuries, centered in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, once the region fully came under Islamic control.

The authors don’t believe Muslims were the primary consumers of the wine being produced; it was likely being sold to Christian and Jewish communities who remained on the island, but it’s impossible to be certain given a lack of written records from the time.

It’s also impossible to determine the volume of wine passing through the region because perishable organic containers like barrels or skins were commonly used to transport goods. Fortunately, merchants of the day were big proponents of branding and they used a particular type of container for Sicilian wine which made it easier for researchers to identify, much like a thousand-year-old Coke bottle.

“Wine was supplied locally within Sicily but also exported from Palermo to ports under Christian control,” explain the authors in their study. “Such direct evidence supports the notion that Sicilian merchants continued to capitalize on profitable Mediterranean trade networks during the Islamic period, including the trade in products prohibited by the Islamic hadiths, and that the relationship between wine and the rise of Islam was far from straightforward.”

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