Because of course a Byzantine would drink incense: Andalusian Sandalwood Syrup

I’ve been slacking in my period beverage making as of late. I’m still brewing mead, and my hibiscus mead just won 1st place in a mundane brewing competition down here in Florida, but as far as recreating a medieval recipe? Total slacker.

I’m very close to making craftsman level in the East Kingdom Brewers Guild (Yes, I live in Trimaris, but I still panel with the East because I can.) and it was suggested that I add more non-alcoholics or medicinals to my repertoire. I’m a fan of the 13th Century Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook for the weirdness and variety of its medicinal syrups, so I decided to give one a whirl.

I used Cariadoc’s translation of the cookbook on his site here:

The recipe I chose was the Syrup of Sandalwood, and it reads as thus:

“Take two ûqiyas each of red and white sandalwood, and an ûqiya of white manna of sugarcane. Then pound the sandalwood and cook it in rosewater until its substance comes out, and let there be five ratls of the rosewater. Then take the clean part of it and add it to two ratls of sugar, take the tabâshîr and put it in a bag, and cook all this until it forms a well-made syrup. Its benefits are to calm the heat of jaundice, to cut thirst, and to profit in the other ailments and fevers of jaundice. It leaves the nature as it is, without causing retention or thinness of urine. It fortifies the stomach, the liver, and the other organs, and in this it is most extraordinary.”

I mean, why wouldn’t I pick a syrup that was made with one of my favorite incenses? According to this article from the Getty, Sandalwood (as well as rose) was used in the home, but was also a luxury perfume. While we have serious lacuna regarding Byzantine foodways, these culture-adjacent recipes still provide a bit of a hint as to the smells and bells of what the Byzantine Empire could have enjoyed. Even though it’s a supposition, I feel like an expensive perfumed drink would be right up a Byzantine patrician’s alley.

A quick bit of internet research led me to this site for measurement conversions. Al-Andalus would be Maghrib/North African:

ratl = about 2 cups (16oz)

An ûqiya seems to literally translate from Arabic to English as “ounce”. So I went with that.

So let’s break this down into a modern redaction using these measurements:

2oz of White Sandalwood
20oz of Red Sandalwood
10 cups of Rosewater
1oz of Sugarcane manna…


What the heck is manna? Manna is basically the sap that extrudes from the joints in the cane, or simply the juice. This is not really all that easy to obtain for the average SCAdian unless you have a cane farm, nor is it something to put into a “bag” as described in the original recipe. So, what I did was cut a piece of fresh cane along the grain (it is very, very hard), and exposed the flesh. Sugar is made from reducing the juice from the cane into crystals, but again, this needs to be in a -bag-. So, after some thought and weighing what I had on hand, I decided to slice up and use 2 full ounces of sliced sugarcane for this project.

1oz  2oz of sliced sugarcane
4 cups of granulated sugar

There, that’s what you need!

A benefit to living in Florida is access to fresh sugarcane. I got too much, so I will be planting some and see how they do.

But rosewater is best when you make it, versus buying it in the store. How do you make it? Infusing roses into water, of course. Easy peasy. My general recipe is about 1/4 cup of dried roses for every 2 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, remove from heat, and let steep for an hour or until the roses lose their color. I recommend putting the roses in a bag or making “tea bags” for them out of coffee filters. It makes cleanup easier and results in less absorption and liquid loss. I made 5 ratls of rosewater, or, 10 cups, with a full cup of roses, and it was plenty strong enough.

A big pot of rose tea.

While the rosewater was steeping, I following the directions and got to pound up the sandalwood in a mortar and pestle to help it release more aroma and flavor. I purchased chips, versus powder, and I’m glad I did. It made it a bit better for infusion, I think.

I put my smashed incense into a larger saucepan, and added the rosewater. Like before, I brought it to a boil, and reduced the heat to a simmer. The recipe says to cook until “its substance comes out”, but this stuff is so aromatic, my entire house smelled of it, especially the red sandalwood, which is a stronger incense. I gave it a good simmer for 30 minutes, and removed it from the heat. I let it cool until I could handle the pot safely, and filtered out the sandalwood chips using a coffee filter in a funnel into a different pot. Fortunately, most of the chips sunk and stayed in the pot. This made cleanup super easy, where I doubt powdered incense would have had the same benefit.

Into the saucepan I added my granulated sugar with the sandalwood rosewater, and the sugarcane slices in a bag. I measured out my fragrant water and had only 6 cups instead of 10, so I topped it up.

Sugarcane is very tough to cut, and should be done with great care along the grain.
Ready to boil!

This is when the fun begins.

When I make sekanjabin, my ratio of sugar is higher than my ratio of water and vinegar, thus, a lower temp simmer does the job in 30 minutes, and you have a nicely sweet syrup. If you go higher in temp and bring it to a boil, you can scald the sugar and make it too thick. I wanted to avoid this. So I brought the entire cast of characters up to a boil, and then dropped it to a low simmer for a half hour. This resulted in no syrup. It was a pleasantly favored  and colored sweetened water. Damn. Where did I go wrong?

Did those 4 cups of water I added back in screw the pooch? What could I do? I let it cool overnight, and woke up to no syrup. I needed to troubleshoot this. I could add more sugar, yes, but it was already pretty sweet. What I ended up doing was going against my initial judgment, and giving it a boil at med-high heat for another 30 minutes, and THAT did it. The recipe says, “cook until this forms a syrup”, and that is what you have to do. You have to observe, you have to be medieval. We get so stuck in our modern ways of cooking with times and measures, that we forget that sometimes you just need to use your eyes. I periodically checked on the boil and watched it reduce. I could probably reduce it more if I wanted, but I decided to leave it be at this point. It was a syrup, not molasses.

The final product is a deep reddish-brown liquid that is pretty opaque.

Demonstrating the color and opacity of my final product in a Carlo Rossi jug, which is a testament to my refined taste. These small jugs are the perfect size for keeping syrup batches at home before decanting into better bottles.

I let it cool completely, and then spooned some into a glass of water to test it. It is basically a face full of sandalwood with a sweet, nutty, rosey taste. It’s very pleasant. I wouldn’t drink it all the time, but adding it as a sweetener to tea, or as an iced beverage on a hot day, and it could be lovely. It is definitely “Middle Eastern”, and definitely different for those that may not particularly be familiar with floral beverages, but I like it. I think it will panel well, and I’m going to give out some small bottles as gifts along with some of my cinnamon sekanjabin as I never drink all of my syrups. That’s A LOT of sugar, and these are supposed to be a treat, or medicine, you know, in case we need to calm the heat of jaundice.

For those looking for a less-chatty version of my redaction, here it is:


Syrup of Sandalwood
An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century
Redaction by Anna Dokeianina Syrakousina


For the Rosewater:
1 cup dried roses

For everything else:
2oz White Sandalwood chips
2oz Red Sandalwood chips
2oz sliced sugarcane
4 cups of granulated sugar

Make the rosewater by infusing 1 cup of roses into 10 cups of water. Bring water to a boil, remove from heat, and let steep for 1 hour or until the roses lose their color. Discard roses. (I recommend making tea bags out of muslin bags or coffee filters to control the roses better.)

Pound each sandalwood in a mortar and pestle to release additional aroma and flavor. 5-10 minutes of stress-relieving pounding for each variety.

Place rosewater and sandalwood in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Drop to a low simmer and steep for 30 minutes. Filter out sandalwood, and transfer liquid into a clean pot.

Place sugarcane in an infusion bag into pot with sandalwood-rosewater and 4 cups of sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to med-high as to have a constant boil, but not one that will cause the sugar to foam and boil over. (This makes a huge mess.) Boil for 30-40 minutes or until a syrup is rendered. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Bottle.

Sugar syrups should keep indefinitely as long as the bottles are sealed. Add to cold or hot water to taste.


Smashing the idea of the “Byzantine Period.”

So, you want to have a Byzantine persona? Welcome to the ranks of the mysterious  medieval orient.

This, and more, are going to become a page here on my site shortly *points up to links*, I just need to find time to sit down and do it. Until then, I feel the information I am presenting here is somewhat necessary for SCAdians to find direction in their path, either to a full-fledged persona, or a garb project for a themed event.

Often, when people ask me what a Byzantine should wear, I respond with, “What period?”

This gets me a look of total confusion, and a response of, “You know, Byzantine.” I take a deep breath, and prepare to either bore the poor individual to tears with a well-rehearsed speech on the massive construct that was over 1000 years of history, or I open the flood gates and get them more excited about digging into more. I always hope it’s the latter, but the foremost argument I have to make is this:

There is no “Byzantine period.”

Repeat after me:

There is no “Byzantine period.”

That is the equivalent of asking somebody for French garb, and nobody ever just says “French”, there’s usually a century attached to it. Why is this never the case when it comes to Byzantine? Byzantine, like French, is a culture, it’s a place, it’s not a standalone period.

The Byzantine Empire, which is an anachronistic term for the Eastern Roman Empire, was the longest running medieval culture in Christendom. I use that term specifically, since it was not really a European culture, as much as it was an “Eastern” culture, or, generally referred to as “oriental.” Of course, that word today has a completely different connotation that comes across as somewhat pejorative of the Far East, but in actuality, it literally just means “eastern”, and that is exactly how the Western Europeans viewed the Romans, whom they referred to as Greeks. Both are correct, but a Roman would never call themselves Greek. 😉 They barely viewed themselves on the same plane of existence as the rest of the continent, as it was, and as my brother just haughtily remarked on my Facebook page less than 3 minutes after announcing I was writing this post, viewing the Eastern Romans as “medieval” is even somewhat insulting, but for the sake of the instructional nature of what I’m trying to do, this is the approach I’m taking. (What can I say? Byzantines were snooty people.)

So, as a newcomer, consider the Byzantines the medieval Greeks, because that is exactly who they were.  Wash the romantic imagery of draped clothing, columns, and Socrates out of your head, because I know that’s exactly where you went. 😉 While ultra-early Byzantine would be basically Roman, let’s fast forward a bit to the 6th Century, during the reign of Justinian and Theodora. Here, we find what most scholars refer to as the shift into what is considered “Byzantine,” versus Late Antiquity. The culture did shift, and with that, so did clothing, language, religion, law, architecture, etc.

This is the period most SCAdians view as “Byzantine”, the 3 pages in their Western Civilization textbook devoted to the laws of Justinian and how his wife may have been a prostitute, and onto the feudal system you go in the next chapter. This is where I need my readers to start thinking outside of this box, because you’re looking at a total of 38 years encapsulated within the time Constantine renamed the Greek town of Byzantium to the new Roman capital of Constantinople in 330, to 1453 when Constantinople was taken by the Ottoman Turks. That’s a lot time to assume that everybody wore exactly what Justinian and Theodora wore in the San Vitale mosaics.

I break the Byzantine Empire down into 4 parts for ease of understanding culturally, but there were still shifts within. Heck, I just got an older book this week on the cultural changes between the 11th and 12th Century, which is where I “live”, so even I still need to do more nailing down.

The Byzantine Periods According to Anna:

Roman Period 330-500 CE
Early Byzantine Period (including Iconoclasm) 500-900 CE
Middle Period (Golden Age) 900-1204 CE
Late Period (Collapse) 1261-1453 CE 

Important dates you NEED TO KNOW:

First Iconoclastic Period: 726-787
Second Iconoclastic Period: 814-882
Establishment of the formal Varangian Guard: 980’s
Sack of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade: April 12th, 1204
Latin Empire/Empire of Nicaea: 1204-1261
Empire of Trebizond: 1204-1461
Despotate of Epirus: 1204-1479
Fall of Constantinople: May 29th, 1453

I’m not going to go into a detailed history of the Fourth Crusade and the successor empires during this post, but as you can see, after the sack in 1204 by the crusaders, things kinda hit the fan and shattered. The Empire did not recover fully, and it remained unstable through to the absolute fall at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453. In my opinion, both scholarly and SCAdianly, anybody who wants a persona post-1204 has their work cut out for them. It can be done, it SHOULD be done, but I have yet to really see anybody nail it. My persona was probably dead by the mid 12th Century, so it’s all science fiction to me. 😛 Likewise, anybody looking for sources during the 8th and 9th centuries will also run into a lot of dead ends. Iconoclasm resulted into the loss of most artistic record from that period and earlier, which is why we have more illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, and mosaics from the 11th and 12th centuries than we do the 6th and 7th. These are all unfortunate events that are part of the Empire’s history, and as researchers and re-creators, we need to come to terms with it. Some things will just not be done easily, but what you can find could be incredibly rewarding.

I’m going to wrap up this post with a short selection on clothing, since that’s what a lot of people want to know about. When I make my full page, I’ll go into more detail regarding other factors.

Sumptuary laws are, and always were, a thing. Many pieces of artwork we have are just of imperials, and the average aristocrat, and certainly not the commoners, would be wearing the same fashions as their rulers.  While, as far as I know, there are no harsh rules in the SCA regarding dress aside from peerage elements and coronets in some kingdoms, in period a fashion faux pas could be devastating depending on when and where you lived, so if you plan to take the Byzantine route seriously, such laws need to be taken into account when it comes to your wardrobe, both male and female. Even shoe color was regulated. That idea of Byzantines always wearing red shoes? Drop it. That was for Imperials ONLY according to De Cerimoniis, a court manual written in the 10th Century. Prior to that? It seemed to be more widespread. Little things like that can make the difference between, “That guy in the clavii striped tunic and red shoes is a Byzantine” to, “Wow! You’re wearing something I’m not familiar with as Byzantine, tell me more.” There is so much of this culture that the SCA has just not explored.

Look at the differences between the clothing in the images below just to get a sense of how much things really changed over time.

6th Century Imperial and Attendants, showing a variety of fashions from the reign of Justinian I.
14th Century Imperial fashions from the Lincoln Typikon, showing the encroaching Ottoman Turkish styles present in dress, 100 years before the Empire fell. Tell the 14th Century Mafia to step aside, this is how it’s done.

The purpose of this post is, of course, not to chastise, but rather remind folks that there’s so much more out there to explore. Break out of the SCAdian conscience of just “Being Byzantine”, and find your home somewhere within your own personal One True Century, within the One True Empire.

Image may contain: 1 person, hat
Konstantia made this for me. This is why we can’t have nice things. (I was making sekanjabin en masse for an event. I SWEARRRRRR!)