Mint, an herb long cultivated across the Middle East and North Africa, is renowned for its cooling and healing properties. Its modern name came from an ancient Greek myth. Persephone, the jealous wife of Pluto, transformed the object of her husband’s lust, the lovely young nymph, Minthe into a plant so all could trample her. Unable to reverse the spell, Pluto instead gave Minthe a pleasant scent that intensified when she was tread on. The name Minthe eventually evolved into Mint. The versatile plant was used by the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans in aromatic baths, as a salve for sports injuries, and as an appetite stimulant. In Rome, Pliny the Elder advised his students to wear wreaths of mint to sharpen their minds, and senators wore mint sprigs in the hope of enhancing their oratory skills and suppressing their tempers. It has long been known to serve as a digestive aid, as an antiemetic, and as a cough suppressant. It is refreshing when served cold and soothing when served warm.
Historically, mint is a symbol of hospitality. The Greeks and Romans would rub mint on banquet tables to greet their guests, and today, Moroccans are quick to offer a glass of mint tea as a gesture of friendship.
Both mint lemonade and mint tea are widely drunk throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They are both easy to make, healthy (as long as you are much more conservative with the sugar than they are in the Middle East), and de-licious!
The Middle East and North Africa have some of the world’s most well-preserved Roman ruins. From Volubilis in Morocco to Jerash in Jordan to Palmyra in Syria to my personal favorite site, Baalbek in Lebanon. The Roman Empire encircled the Mediterranean Sea, borrowing influences from each outpost to form a singular “Mediterranean” culture, which is still evident today. Rome imported wild animals (for the gladiator games) and grain from its MENA cities while introducing innovations such as aqueducts, roads, and arches.
The temples at Baalbek are dedicated to Jupiter, Aphrodite, and Bacchus, and are some of the largest and most artistic Roman temples ever built. They represent the wealth and creative output of the Roman Empire at its apogee.
While tulips are most often associated with the Netherlands, they are actually native to Central Asia, and were first cultivated under the Ottomans in Turkey. They were introduced to Holland when several bulbs were given as a gift from Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to Ogier de Busbecq, a Flemish Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. They were then cultivated throughout the Low Countries by Carolus Clusius, a famous botanist, which set off Tulip Mania throughout the 1630s. Tulip, “lale,” in Turkish, got its English name from the Turkish word for “turban,” “tulbend,” as they were perceived to resemble the traditional Ottoman turban. The tulip was a very popular symbol in the Ottoman Empire, representing abundance, indulgence, and paradise on Earth. It was often featured in Iznik pottery, and tiles, which were used to decorate the sultan’s palace and many imperial mosques. Celebration of the tulip continues today in modern Turkey, where festivals coincide with the flower’s blooming season, and artisans continue to reproduce Iznik designs.