Minuscule: Salts of Amun

In Classical times there was an oasis in the Libyan desert. It grew to be a great caravanserai, thriving for hundreds of years. It became as well-known for the trading of camels and Arabian horses as the fair at Champagne for the barter of wool and sheep.

The place was sand-desert, hot and dry all year. Every year herds of camels would come to this spot, thousands of them, tens of thousands, and they would mill about as they were traded and sold, sometimes for weeks on end. Over decades and centuries the layer of excreta they left behind them began to accrete. Moistened by camelid urine and packed to the ground by cloven hooves it became a kind of pavement. Fired in the sun it became like baked clay, with everything but its basic matter forced out of it.

The stink was apparently of mythological proportions. The kind of stuff that makes descriptions of demons sound trite in comparison. But it was too hot and too dry for bacterial growth to cause the stink. It was caused by the natural essence of the camel shit coming through.

As with any major hub of civilization, especially of trade, there was a temple at this site. This was a temple to Amun Ra, the all-purpose deity of the later Egyptian empire. They offered the various necessities of life: food; water; a place to lay oneself to rest; music; whores; God. They also became involved in the local commerce. For a small fee you could conduct all your business under the watchful eye of the priests (the SEC of the New Kingdom) who would guarantee the fairness of the bargain, recording it with their magical ability to write.

Whenever the caravans were not before the temple, the priests had little enough to do. They did find that when they used the accrued dung as a fertilizer it invigorated even the wan Punic soils into something out of tales of Babylon. The fullers of the temple found also that the cake, when dissolved in water, produced a powerful cleaning solution, whatever its scatological origins.

Yet they had far more of the stuff than they could use themselves, and more arriving every year. So they, in the mercantile spirit of their milieu, began to sell it. They would have their temple servants go off and harvest the stuff, crush it into a powder, wrap it in cloth, and send it to the markets of Athens and Rome, of Cartego Nova and Jerusalem, of Persepolis and Susa, of Mecca and Medina. It sold well, and became known the world over.

The world knew it after the people who made it. They called it the salts of Amun, most likely in the Punic tongue which dominated Mediterranean trade at the time. As Greek replaced Phoenecian it was called halas hammonos. When the Mediterranean became a Roman lake and Latin the language of trade in the Western world, it was known as sal ammoniacus, wherever it may have come from. The pure spirit of the compound were isolated by Geber (al-Jabir) in the 8th century; when this knowledge came to Christiandom some half a millennium later, the Europeans called the part as they had once called the whole.

They called it ammonia. After the temple of Amun.

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~ by davekov on 4 June 2010.

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