SESAME | LOLIETTOO MIDDLE EAST


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Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is a traditional warm season crop in south-west Asia and the Mediterranean basin. It is a flowering plant in the genus Sesamum (plant family Pedalaceae). It is highly appreciated for its oil which keeps fresh for a long time without turning rancid. 

Sesame was extensively cultivated in the Graeco-Roman world and at that time apparently more for its edible seeds then for its pure oil. But despite such wide Hellenistic and Roman use, sesame does not belong to the Near East crop assemblage. It probably arrived from further east and rather late. Archaeo-botanical evidence also supports a late introduction.

Wild Sesamum species are totally absent in the Near East and the Mediterranean basin. The genus is restricted to Africa south of the Sahara (numerous wild species) and to the Indian subcontinent (few). It is likely domestication of sesame should have started in India. No precise date has been established but most authors place it between 2250 and 1750 BC. The earliest remains of sesame seeds in the Near East come from Soviet Armenia. Four large jars containing carbonized sesame seed were excavated in Karmir Blur on the outskirts of Yerivan. They were dated between 900 and 600 BC. The site also contains elaborate installations for the extraction of oil from the seed. Another find of the same time comes also from the Urartu Kingdom (Bastam, Van district, east Turkey). Except for these finds no other sesame remains have been recovered from pre-classical Near East sites. It is therefore clear that S. indicum arrived in the Near East from the east. It was apparently taken into cultivation in the Indian subcontinent but it is still undecided when the crop was domesticated and how early it was introduced into Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East.

It is now widely cultivated for its edible seeds, which grow in pods (derived from a capsule). The flowers of the sesame plant are yellow, though they can vary in colour with some being blue or purple. It is an annual plant growing 50 to 100 cm tall, with opposite leaves 4 to 14 cm long with an entire margin; they are broad lanceolate, to 5 cm broad, at the base of the plant, narrowing to just 1 cm broad on the flowering stem. The flowers are tubular, 3 to 5 cm long, with a four-lobed mouth.