Salt is a precious commodity, both economically and physiologically. Throughout the ages, its enormous value has led to taxation and revolt, but also to it becoming a symbol of hospitality across the world.
Salt in Ancient Times: Worth the Risk
From the very beginning, salt was recognized as a life-sustaining element for humans and livestock. We now know that it plays a critical role in regulating blood pressure, pH and volume. It also helps produce stomach acid and facilitates fluid regulation, nerve function and muscle function. Without it, humans and their livestock faced sickness that could lead to coma and death.
The ties between salt and hospitality date back to at least eight 6000 BC, when Egyptians used the mineral in religious offerings and trade agreements. Over the centuries, salt and bread became closely intertwined in greetings and celebrations across the Middle East and Europe, not only because of their nutritional value but because they were widely available and could be offered even by the poor.
Because of its vital nutritional role, salt became especially essential for travelers. Before modern transportation, travel between cities could mean days or weeks of walking through hostile environments. In countries as diverse as Albania, China, France, and India, salt was provided to arriving guests as a much needed element of recovery.
Salt, often paired with bread, is also deeply rooted as a sign of health and prosperity in many religious texts, including the Bible, the Torah and the Quran. In many Arab cultures, eating bread and salt together forms a symbolic alliance among two people, representing protection and gratitude. In the Jewish tradition, bread called Challah is dipped in salt and eaten at festive occasions, and salt and bread remain traditional housewarming gifts to this day.
Growing Popularity Leads to More $
As the cultural significance of salt continued to grow, so did its price tag. Salt could be mined or produced in a range of environments including oceans, marshes, lakes, former bodies of water, and rock caves.
With salt continuing to gain value in cooking and preservation, governments sought to control the lands where it could be gathered. When they could not, they entered negotiations with the local producers and began to tax salt exorbitantly. China was the first known country to levy such a tax, around 300 BC. The practice quickly spread across Western Europe and into India.
Starting in the 1300's, France even introduced the gabelle, a tax requiring every resident over age 8 to purchase a certain amount of salt annually. Such taxation led to uprisings and revolts in France and elsewhere across the Middle East and Europe. Many historians today believe salt to be the most taxed commodity in the history of civilization.
High Cost = A Greater Symbol of Hospitality
However, salt remained essential for life, so the soaring prices only made it more prized, especially for the poor. For some, working in the salt industry was the only way to afford a share of the spoils. Others sacrificed most of their income to afford the precious mineral, and the massive need led to smuggling and black market sales. Offenders faced death.
Though many of the poor across the Middle East and Europe could scarcely afford enough salt to live on, they clung to their traditions and proudly continued to offer salt and bread to their guests. It was the most sincere and most precious gift of hospitality they could present.
A modern gift rooted in deep traditions
Salt and bread remain affixed in hospitality traditions today. The offering of bread and salt often can be seen when dignitaries meet or at multicultural events such as the Olympics. Some churches continue to greet high-ranking clergy with bread and salt at the front door.
In Russia, the tradition of sharing bread and salt with guests is so ingrained that the word “khlebosolnye,” meaning a hospitable host, literally derives from the Russian words for “bread” and “salt.” Russians even carried the practice into space, with cosmonauts settling for crackers and salt tablets while in orbit.
The next time friends and family move into a new home, consider showering them with a gift of salt. It's a tradition anchored in the past and symbolic of well wishes and good fortune!