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Does the word “sugar” come from southern Jordan?

May 28, 2013

As I’ve mentioned before, my research on copper production has led me to be more interested in the history and archaeology of sugar production than I otherwise might be. This interest has exposed me, on several occasions, to a wonderful etymology for the English word “sugar.” Allow me to present a brief outline:

At some point in the second millennium AD, the technology of sugar production made its way west into the southern Levant, where sugar became a lucrative cash crop in Galilee, the Jordan Valley, and – the important part for our story – the lowlands (aghwar; أغوار) around the Dead Sea (the exact date is a bit unclear, but some time in the 12th century AD is likely for the area around the Dead Sea). One of the key centers of this production was a town to the southeast of the Dead Sea, in Ghawr al-Safi, known then as Zughar. Zughar produced a lot of high-quality sugar, some of which was exported to Europe. Because of its quality, or the amount they produced, or whatever else, the name of the town became so closely associated with sugar that people simply began using the name of the town to refer to the sweetener.

It’s a neat story, especially for those of us who work in southern Jordan, as it confirms our suspicion that our research area is the center of the world. That’s not to say that Zughar wasn’t an important place, of course. 19th century scholars like Le Strange (1890:287) noted that, “[t]o the Arab Mediaeval writers, Zughar, the City of Lot, was as well known a place as Jerusalem or Damascus,” which isn’t that much of an exaggeration. Al-Muqaddasī (1896:2), for example, calls the town a “little Busrah.”

Getting back on track, I’ve always wanted to repeat this story, but two things have stopped me from doing so. First, it’s simply too good a story, which raises my suspicions. Things that seem too good to be true, as the old adage goes, probably are. Second, it’s difficult to trace the origins of the story. For example, the Rough Guide to Jordan tells the story and attributes it to a museum display. Politis repeats the story in brief reports in the AJA and the ACOR Newsletter, but doesn’t give a source (Politis 1999:519; Politis 2010:4). I’m sure I’ve seen it in other sources (and I’ve been told the story in person on several occasions), but it’s difficult to make much sense of where it came from, and I’ve been looking.

I was rather content to regard this story as probably apocryphal without looking into it too much, but this quarter I’m TAing for a world history/writing course covering the period from 1200-1750 AD. One of the themes of this course is the commodification of luxury goods in the Early Modern period, and sugar is, of course, one of the goods that we’re discussing. I’m certainly no linguist, but I have a passing interest in etymologies (and I enjoy ruining everyone’s fun), so I decided to look into this one a bit to see if there was anything to it (tl;dr version: not really).

My first thought, before really looking into it, was that the word for “sugar” is more or less the same in most languages I’m familiar with, including Arabic, and a quick look at the OED more or less confirms this. The first example given in the etymology for “sugar” is the French sucre, and most European languages seem to use basically the same word, derived from the Arabic sukkar (سكر). The exceptions are, of course, English, which replaces the “k” sound with a “g,” and Spanish and Portuguese, which also include the Arabic definite article (in Arabic, al-Sukkar (السكر) is read “as-sukkar”). (Messner [1992] points out that leaving the article off is characteristic of Arabic words coming through Italian, apparently.) Ultimately, the Arabic word is derived from a Persian word, which in turn comes from an older Sanskrit word. All of this took place before sugar was produced in Zughar, so already things aren’t looking good for our story. Let’s not stop there, though.

It’s still possible that European sources conflated the two words (sukkar and Zughar), linking the two as sugar became more common in Europe. This also seems unlikely. As one example, William of Tyre‘s Historia refers to the town as “Segor” (see here, Book 10, section VII), but calls sugar zachara (unfortunately this isn’t in the Fordham Medieval Sourcebook version, but see here, for example). It doesn’t seem likely, then, that these two were closely associated, at least in William of Tyre’s mind.

The only thing we’re really left with is the anomalous English word, with its “g” sound. As the OED notes, though, this isn’t entirely uncommon in English, either. The word “flagon,” for example, is derived from the Old French word flacon, and even in Middle English was flakon. It seems much easier to attribute the English word “sugar” to this change, rather than to an association with a town that most people in England were certainly unaware of.

I wonder, to some extent, if the origins of this story don’t have as much to do with the true etymology of the English word “sugar” as they do with a bit of clever wordplay on the name of the town. Obviously there’s the “Sugar from a town called Sugar? No Way!” response that we can imagine. Beyond that, though, there’s this excerpt from Yāqūt in Le Strange (1890:291): “The name of Zughar, according to the same authorities, is also spelt Sughar and Sukar.” It seems fairly straightforward, then, to assume some connection between sukkar and Sukar. The hint to what’s going on here, though, is in the fact that Le Strange also calls Yāqūt “Yakut,” and generally transcribes the Arabic letter qaf as “k.” What he’s saying, then, is not that the town is also known as Sukar (سكر) but Suqar (سقر). And therein lies the punchline.

You see, one of the sources that gives this alternate name is al-Muqaddasī, who quips, “The people of the two neighbouring districts call the town Sakar” – (read: Saqar, سقر) – “(that is, ‘Hell’); and a native of Jerusalem was wont to write from here to his friends, addressing ‘From the lower Sakar (Hell) unto those in the upper Firdûs (Paradise)'” (1896:62). So it seems that Zughar was closely associated with hell before they ever produced sugar there. If you’ve ever been through Ghawr al-Safi in summer, of course, you know this is pretty accurate.

Overall, it doesn’t seem like there’s very much truth to this story. I definitely don’t blame people for repeating it. It’s certainly, to borrow a term from journalism, a story that’s too good to check. Of course, it often turns out when you do check them that they’re too good to be true, as well.

Works Cited

Le Strange, Guy
1890 Palestine under the Moslems: A Description of Syria and the Holy Land from A.D. 650 to 1500. London: Alexander P. Watt.

Messner, Dieter
1992 Further Listings and Categorisations of Arabic Words in Ibero-Romance Languages. In The Legacy of Muslim Spain. S.K. Jayyusi, ed. Pp. 452-456. Leiden: Brill.

1896 Description of Syria, Including Palestine. In The Library of the Palestine Pilgrims’ Text Society, Vol. III. Pp. 1-103. New York: AMS Press.

Politis, Konstantinos D.
1999 Deir ‘Ain ‘Abata and the Ghor es-Safi. Pp. 518-520 in Archaeology in Jordan. Virginia Egan and Patricia Bikai, eds. American Journal of Archaeology 103(3):485-520.

Politis, Konstantinos D.
2010 Ancient Landscapes of the Ghor es-Sāfī: Surveys and Excavations 1997-2009. ACOR Newsletter 22(2):1-5.

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