Sharbat is a delicious and pleasant-smelling drink that stems from ancient Persia, a place we now call “Iran.” Considered a thirst-quencher, sharbat is usually served cold and is associated with joyful moments. You may have heard of some derivatives of sharbat such as syrup, sherbet, sorbet, and even julep! These different beverages and tasty treats all originated from what may be considered the world’s first soft drink.
Sharbat was traditionally made with cane juice, but in modern times it is commonly made with sugar and water or other sweeteners like honey mixed with something tangy and combined with floral and herbal water. It is common throughout western and southern Asia and can be made in a variety of ways with different fruits, spices, flowers, and herbs.
In some cultures, sharbat is typically eaten with a spoon, but in its original form, the fruits and flowers in sharbat were mixed into a syrup that was diluted with water to make a drink. A similar drinkable version of sharbat still exists today in homes throughout Iran, Turkey, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other Middle Eastern countries. These days this refreshing treat can even be found as a delectable soft drink in places like the United States.
Origins of Sharbat
Sharbat has been around for thousands of years making it one of the oldest beverages we know of! Considered to have many health benefits, one of the earliest records of sharbat being mentioned is in the 11th-century Canon of Medicine. The Canon of Medicine is a five-volume encyclopedia written by famous Persian physician and philosopher Ibn Sīnā, also known as Avicenna in the West. Ibn Sīnā is considered the “father of early modern medicine” and is one of the greatest philosophers of his time. In his encyclopedia, he explains the various uses of Sekanjabin, considered one of the oldest sharbat drinks in history. He believed that the herbal extracts used in sharbat had medicinal benefits and could be used to treat a variety of ailments.
Many of the herbs and floral elements used in sharbat come from the Persian city of Shiraz, one of the world’s most ancient cities that has endured throughout history. With its beautiful gardens, Shiraz originally became famous for its delicious grapes and the fine wine they were made into. Known as the city of poets, Shiraz is home to the tombs of renowned Persian poets like Hafiz and Saadi, who often wrote about the taste and symbolism of Shiraz wine in their books of poetry.
While Persia had been well known for its love of wine and its wine-making capabilities, its 7th-century Muslim conquerors made wine illegal due to the fact that alcohol is forbidden in Islam. As such, Persians changed the name of wine to “sharāb,” hoping to get away with drinking it in spite of the prohibition. This, however, did not last, and a sweet new, non-alcoholic drink was formed to take its place: sharbat.
By the 12th century, sharbat had become well-known and was continually praised for its medicinal benefits. Even royal Persian physician Ismail Gorgani wrote down various types of sharbat in his medical encyclopedia, Zakhireye Khwarazmshahi. It was also mentioned for its healing abilities in the famous collection of tales, The Thousand and One Nights. The later translation by English explorer Sir Richard Burton reads as follows:
“Thereupon Shahryar summoned doctors and surgeons and bade them treat his brother according to the rules of art, which they did for a whole month; but their sherbets and potions naught availed…”
Sharbat Spreads Throughout the World
As the Mongol Empire expanded throughout Central Asia in the 13th century, the transfer and exchange of various goods began to grow. The Silk Road cultures, which extended from the Mediterranean to Eastern China with Persia sat in the middle, interacted with each other through trading different commodities unique to their specific regions. These regions also traded medical knowledge and pharmaceutical imports, including syrup derived from the Persian sharbat and herbs of Shiraz. The term ‘sharbat’ was changed to ‘shelibie’ or ‘shecibi’ in Chinese.
In the 16th century, sharbat made its way to India. The first Mughal Emperor popularized the drink because he thoroughly enjoyed iced delicacies such as the traditional Indian ice cream “kulfi.” They would have ice shipped from the Himalayas in order to make their delicious sharbat and other chilled treats.
At the same time, the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul began growing fruits and spices to be used in sharbat. This makes sense as the Mughal Emperor’s son traveled to Persia and brought back much of Persian culture, and the Ottoman Empire assisted the Mughal Empire in conquering India. The Turkish called sharbat “şerbet.”
In the 17th century, Turkish sharbat became popular in Venice and then spread to the rest of Italy. The Italian word “sorbetto” became the French word “sorbet,” and then England began importing “sherbet powders,” hence the distinct spelling by Burton in his translation of The Thousand and One Nights. This sherbet powder can still be found in the United Kingdom today.
Given the fact that there were very few ways to preserve fresh fruits at the time, turning fruits into dried powders or syrups was one of the few ways people could continue to enjoy them as the seasons changed. This made sharbat very popular in Europe and throughout the Eastern hemisphere.
The English sherbet eventually evolved into what is now known as sorbet, an iced dessert rather than a drink. Other variations such as julep also came along and the delicious sharbat of history had become mainly relegated to Asian households. That is until its latest resurgence in the West.
How Did Ancient Persians Keep Sharbat Cold?
If you’ll remember, sharbat is meant to be served cold, whether that’s by pouring it over ice or chilling it. In ancient times, there were no modern refrigeration appliances, so how did this chilled summer beverage become so popular?
Ice houses weren’t introduced to England until the 17th century when the popularity of sharbat began to rise. India shipped ice over from the Himalayas to make their delicious drinks. But Persians had their own method for collecting ice.
Persians created an ice pond by using an underground canal called a qanat to bring in a shallow amount of water to the ‘pond’ in the evenings. Because it did get cold in the winter overnight, the water would then freeze. However, in order to use this ice in drinks and other things, Persians had to find a way to store it during the daytime and in the summer months.
They created what is known as a Yakhchāl, which translates to “well of ice.” This was a huge pit -- as deep as a swimming pool that you can dive in -- with a dome as tall as a 4 story building over it. Once the ice pond froze, they would dig out the ice and move it to the Yakhchāl to keep it cold. This method worked so well that it was used all the way up until the 1960s and could store more than 3 million ice cubes per year!
Ancient Persians created one of the first delicious and beneficial beverages, sharbat, and found a way to keep it cold even in warm temperatures. This ancient civilization has inspired so many of our modern-day innovations like the refrigerator and even popularized some ideas we take for granted now, such as human rights. While Persian culture remains prevalent in Iran and sharbat can be found at almost any celebration in the country, many people in the West have missed out on this delicious chilled beverage.
That’s why here at Sharbat Republic, we’ve created refreshing sharbat drinks with ancient origins and distinct flavor profiles to uplift your spirit and transport you to ancient Persia. Learn more about our story and the beneficial ingredients we use at SharbatRepublic.com.