Like the origins of most recipes that came from Old Countries to enrich the dinner tables of the Americas, the exact origin of baklava is also something hard to put the finger on because every ethnic group whose ancestry goes back to the Middle East has a claim of their own on this scrumptious pastry.
It is widely believed however, that the Assyrians at around 8th century B.C. were the first people who put together a few layers of thin bread dough, with chopped nuts in between those layers, added some honey and baked it in their primitive wood burning ovens. This earliest known version of baklava was baked only on special occasions. In fact, historically baklava was considered a food for the rich until mid-19th century.
In Turkey, to this day one can hear a common expression often used by the poor, or even by the middle class, saying: "I am not rich enough to eat baklava and boerek every day".
The Greek seamen and merchants traveling east to Mesopotamia soon discovered the delights of Baklava. It mesmerized their taste buds. They brought the recipe to Athens. The Greeks' major contribution to the development of this pastry is the creation of a dough technique that made it possible to roll it as thin as a leaf, compared to the rough, bread-like texture of the Assyrian dough. In fact, the name "Phyllo" was coined by Greeks, which means "leaf" in the Greek language. In a relatively short time, in every kitchen of wealthy households in the region, trays of baklava were being baked for all kinds of special occasions from the 3rd Century B.C. onwards. The Armenians, as their Kingdom was located on ancient Spice and Silk Routes, integrated for the first time the cinnamon and cloves into the texture of baklava. The Arabs introduced the rose-water and cardamom. The taste changed in subtle nuances as the recipe started crossing borders. To the north of its birthplace, baklava was being baked and served in the palaces of the ancient Persian kingdom. To the west, it was baked in the kitchens of the wealthy Roman mansions, and then in the kitchens of the Byzantine Empire until the fall of the latter in 1453 A.D.
In the 15th Century A.D., the Ottomans invaded Constantinople to the west, and they also expanded their eastern territories to cover most of ancient Assyrian lands and the entire Armenian Kingdom. The Byzanthion Empire came to an end, and in the east Persian Kingdom lost its western provinces to the invaders. For four hundred years from 16th Century on, until the decline of Ottoman Empire in 19th Century, the kitchens of Imperial Ottoman Palace in Constantinople became the ultimate culinary hub of the empire.
The artisans and craftsmen of all Guilds, the bakers, cooks and pastry chefs who worked in the Ottoman palaces, at the mansions of Pashas and Viziers, and at Provincial Governor (Vali) residences etc., had to be recruited from various ethnic groups that composed the empire. Armenian, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian and occasionally Serbian, Hungarian or even French chefs were brought to Constantinople, to be employed at the kitchens of the wealthy. These chefs contributed enormously to the interaction and to the refinement of the art of cooking and pastry-making of an Empire that covered a vast region to include the Balkans, Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Persia, Armenia, Iraq and entire Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and the Mediterranean and Aegean islands. Towards the end of 19th Century, small pastry-shops started to appear in Constantinople and in major Provincial capitals, to cater the middle class, but the Ottoman Palace have always remained the top culinary "academy" of the Empire, until its end in 1923.
Here, we must mention that there's a special reason for baklava being the top choice of pastry for the Turkish Sultans with their large Harems, as well as for the wealthy and their families. Two principal ingredients, the pistachio and honey, were believed to be aphrodisiacs when taken regularly. Certain spices that were added to baklava, have also helped to fine-tune and to augment the aphrodisiac characteristics of the pastry, depending on male or female consumer. Cinnamon for females, and cardamom for males and cloves for both sexes.
From 18th century on, there was nothing much to add to baklava's already perfectioned taste and texture. There were however, some cosmetic modifications in shaping and in the presentation of baklava on a baking tray (called Sini). The Phyllo dough (called Youfka) which was traditionally layered and cut into squares or triangles, were given a "French touch" in late 18th century. As the Empire began opening itself to Western cultural (and culinary) influences, the General manager (Kahyabasi) of the Imperial Kitchen didn't miss the opportunity to hire Monsieur Guillaume, a former pastry chef of Marie Antoinette, who in exile at the Ottoman Turkish Palace after learning how to bake baklava, created the "dome" technique of cutting and folding of the baklava squares which was named "Baklava Francaise" (Frenk Baklavasi) after the nationality of its creator.