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by Archaeology Newsroom

The medieval, sugar-processing workshop on the island of Rhodes

The homeland of sugarcane is India, where Nearchus, admiral of Alexander the Great, first saw it. Sugarcane and its product, sugar, are also mentioned by the great physicians of late antiquity, Galen, Archigenis of Apamia, Alexander of Aphrodisia and Orivasius, while later literary references to sugar are made by Theophanis, Constantine Porphyrogennetos, Eustathios of Thessaloniki and others. Sugarcane was transplanted from India to Khouizistan, north of the Persian Gulf, and was later transferred by the Arabs through their conquests to those Mediterranean countries that had a suitable climate for its cultivation, namely Syria, Palestine, Morocco, Spain and Egypt. Sugar probably arrived in Western Europe in the 9th century when the Arabs conquered Sicily and brought with them the cultivation of sugarcane. Western Europeans acquired sugarcane plantations after they had subdued Syria and Palestine during the Crusades. After their withdrawal from the Middle East they encouraged the cultivation of sugarcane in their own territories where the climatic conditions were favourable, as in Sicily, Rhodes and Cyprus. The first reference to Rhodian sugar dates from the second quarter of the fourteenth century and is made by Francesco Balducci Pegolotti. The toponyms Zacharomylos (sugar mill) and Masari (from the Arabic masera or massera, meaning sugar mill) on the eastern coast of Rhodes offered a vital lead for the location of the sugar workshop on the island. Excavations on the site Zacharomylos, brought to light rectangular workshop rooms, a millstone measuring 3.20 metres in diameter and a vast number of shards of conical vessels that were used for refining sugar.