Year in year out Spain produces 1,500 kilos of that delicate spice, saffron, sold wholesale for US$700 per 100 grams. Gourmets were puzzled a few years back when 1900 kilos of Spanish saffron hit the market. Food inspectors soon discovered that the yellow powder contained traces of the flavorless plant root, or worse, animal droppings. The huge increase in volume came from the diversion of Iranian saffron, whose sale is stifled by the American embargo, to Spain’s packagers. Along the way crooks put their fingers on the scale by adding the impurities. Similar scams were practiced by spice dealers in 13th-century Damascus, involving precious products like myrobalan, agarwood, ginger, indigo, musk, ambergris. “Wise up to these things,” exhorts the Book of Charlatans, this newly translated compendium of tricks, cheats and phony spells.

The area where the country of Yemen is now found was long known to geographers by the Latin Arabic Felix; felix meant “fertile” but also “happy” or “lucky”. Yemen is much in the news today and little of it is either happy or lucky. When Peter Schlesinger visited the Yemen Arab Republic (the northern half of a country still split in two) in 1976—hitching a ride, as it were, with his friend Eric Boman, who had been invited to do a story for a French fashion magazine—the country had only just emerged from civil war and entering an all-too-brief period of peace and hope.

Arabia Felix: Happy Arabia. Who wouldn’t want to go there and find out why it was such a happy place? In fact, in 1761 not that many Europeans were going there, which left an opening for the culturally and scientifically minded king of Denmark, Frederik V, to make a name for himself and his country by supporting a Danish expedition to that fortunate land. New scientific discoveries could be there for the making and new accurate maps drawn, as well as a chance to prove some of the stories told about Moses and the Israelites; could they have left inscriptions as they fled from Egyptian persecution, writings which might be transcribed by a competent philologist?