The Story of Frankincense

Thu, Jan 12th 2012, 12:01PM

 

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

We all know what gold is, but what are frankincense and myrrh?

Both frankincense and myrrh start as a resinous sap inside a special family of trees that grow almost exclusively in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. At certain times of year the trees are cut with special knives, and the sap oozes out. Once the sap has dried in the sun, it is ready to be used. Harvested frankincense and myrrh are burned as incense because of their pleasing aromas, but historically they have a number of other uses as well:

Almost all frankincense comes from western Oman, where it is used for everything from deodorant and toothpaste to food and drink flavoring.

Frankincense and myrrh were so expensive in Europe that southern Arabia became known as Arabia Felix, “Arabia the Blessed.”

Because frankincense was in high demand from Europe to Asia, the kingdoms of southern Arabia became an integral part of global economy with shipping connections to India, the Mediterranean and the Silk Road.

Some of the earliest uses of the camel as a domesticated beast of burden took place in southern Arabia in order to make overland transport of frankincense and myrrh possible.

The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Israelites and numerous other cultures used frankincense and myrrh as part of their religious ceremonies.

Frankincense and myrrh were extensively used in burial rituals as an embalming material, an offering to the departed and a means to cover the odor of the dead body.

The Roman emperor, Nero, burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense at the funeral of his favorite mistress.

Frankincense has traditionally been used as a remedy for a wide variety of afflictions, including ulcers, hypertension, nausea, fever, indigestion, chest coughs and post-childbirth recovery.

The smoke from burning frankincense drives away mosquitoes and other flying insects, reducing incidences of malaria in afflicted regions.

Myrrh is also used medicinally to treat sore throats, cramps, inflammation, colic and digestive problems.

Frankincense
Fuel of the First Global Economy 500BCE to 500AD

http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/196501/inside.arabia.felix.htm

The Three Wise Men: The traditional telling of the Christmas story include a key moment where Wise men from the East arrive and present the Christ child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This brief mention of frankincense is usually the first and most common encounter that most people have with this special substance. Few people know much about it, or its wider significance in the establishment of trade routes between Europe and Asia.

But what IS Frankincense?

Frankincense begins as a resinous sap from a unique family of trees

Frankincense is an aromatic, congealed, resinous sap from a specific variety of trees in the genus Boswelia. Most of the trees in the Boswelia genus are aromatic, and many of them produce a scented resinous sap, but only one tree, Boswelia sacra produces the highest grade of frankincense, also known as “true” or “commercial” incense

Careful incisions are made in the tree at key times of year, and the sap slowly pours out

Once the sap dries and hardens it is ready to be used.

The first period of tapping occurs from January to March and the second from August to October. After tapping has continued for five/six years, the trees are rested.

 

Uses of Frankincense

The aromatic qualities of frankincense have been used in a variety of ways over the centuries.

To release its scent the frankincense is either burned or smoldered over hot coals.

The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Israelites and numerous other cultures used frankincense as part of their religious ceremonies

Frankincense was extensively used in burial rituals as an embalming material, an offering to the departed, and a means to cover the odor of the dead body

The Roman emperor Nero once burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense at the funeral of his favorite mistress

The smoke from burning frankincense is effective for driving away mosquitoes and other pests, thereby reducing incidences of malaria

Religious - In Egypt, Greece, and Rome it was burned in offering to various deities, and it was an essential component of the incense burned in both Israelite temples in Jerusalem. After the rise of the Christian church its popularity dropped of until the Catholic and Orthodox churches became more institutionalized. To this day it is still used in their services. Numerous ancient texts including the old testament make frequent mention of frankincense in a religious context.

In addition to its status as an offering to various deities, it was also burned in memory of the recently dead, partly because of it’s religious significance, and partly to mask the odor of the dead bodies. Historical accounts mention that, upon the death of his favorite concubine, Nero burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense, entirely disrupting the frankincense trade until the following harvest season.

The Egyptians took the aromatic qualities of frankincense even farther, and used it in the embalming process. Part of the process of mummification involved the removal of the viscera, which were then placed in special containers. Large quantities of frankincense were then packed into the body cavities to prevent decomposition, and to mask the odor. Additional stores of frankincense were placed with the other funerary supplies that were intended to accompany the Pharaohs into the afterlife.

Because frankincense grows almost exclusively in Oman, it has been a vital part of the Omani culture for millennia.

 

Other Uses for Frankincense

  • Clothing scent
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Food flavoring
  • Drink flavoring
  • Medicine

 

The frankincense smoke has other uses as well, though. Possibly the most important is its use as a pest repellent. The coastal regions of south Arabia are prone to pest-borne diseases like malaria. The smell of frankincense serves to drive the dangerous insects away.

The Omanis even go so far as to inundate their clothing with the smoke using special wicker frames. With each step, their clothing exudes the odor of frankincense, exotic to us, but ubiquitous in Oman.

Uses go far beyond simply its sweet smelling qualities. It is used as deodorant, as toothpaste, as a flavoring for food and drink, and in one other inescapable fashion: Medicine.

 

Medicinal Uses of Frankincense

 

  • Hypertension
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion
  • Chest coughs
  • Post-childbirth recovery

 

The granules of frankincense, the frankincense smoke, and frankincense dissolved in water are all used in various forms to treat a variety of ailments including nausea, indigestion, chest coughs, hypertension, and post-childbirth recovery

 

The frankincense tree, Boswelia Sacra, only grows in one area. The story of the frankincense tree begins in southern Arabia.The city of Marabat was built on a promontory that thrust out into Kamar Bay, and served as the collection point for the entire Hadramut region.The frankincense trade begins, obviously, in the place where the trees grow

 

 

As the demand grew, in the first millennium BCE, workers from Shabawa, capital of the pre-Islamic empire of Hadramat, were sent to build the port city of Moscha.

To harvest frankincense, a simple procedure is followed. Strategic slashes are made in the outer bark using a specially designed knife, and the liquid pours out of the incisions. Another harvesting method used is to simply scrape away portions of the bark without making deep incisions and allowing the resin to flow from this wound. During the cooler parts of the year a slightly different method is used: a similar set of incisions are made on the tree, and for several weeks as the weather warms up, the resinous sap slowly oozes out of the cuts on the tree in small droplets that steadily builds up into spherules that sometimes reach the size of a hen's egg before they are finally harvested.

The first period of tapping occurs from January to March and the second from August to October. After tapping has continued for five/six years, the trees are rested.

There is debate over which tapping provides the best quality of frankincense, but the grade and value determined by four characteristics

The harvested frankincense was collected and taken to the city of Moscha

Almost all of the harvested frankincense was sent to Marabat for sorting, grading, and packaging. This is where the business of the large-scale incense trade begins

To minimize risks and maximize profits the frankincense trade was carefully organized.From Shabwah, the overland faced numerous challenges along the way. The trip to the Mediterranean was described by Pliny as taking as many as 17 stages, with some stages requiring as much as eight days.

 

From Moscha, frankincense was transported along the coast and up river to Shabwah by boats and barges. Once there it was sorted, graded, taxed, and sent north by camel.

Once the Kingdom of Hadramat became involved in the large scale frankincense trade Shabwah became the starting point for all overland shipping. Frankincense was brought west from Marabat and then floated up river on rafts and barges to Shabwah. The careful controls on frankincense allowed taxation, to the tune of 25%.

The caravans would stretch for miles across the desert, with camels often numbering in the hundreds. The continual stream of caravans made Medina one of the most important global trade centers of its time.

From Nejran the caravans continued past Mecca and on to Medina, which was probably the most important trade center in the Arabian penninsula

From Medina, trade routes spread in every direction.

The high cost of frankincense led purchasers to imagine Southern Arabia as a land of fabulous wealth

The market for frankincense was unlimited. Whereas other exotic spices and aromatics were luxury items, frankincense, though expensive was a household necessity. For many families throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East frankincense was a basic staple just as things like toothpaste and deodorant are always on the grocery list today. Oman did not confine its exports to raw frankincense, or olibanum. By blending this with a form of tallow, it was possible to process it into incense for religious rites. Ivory and perfumes were also among Oman's exports during the Neolithic Period. Investigative surveys stumbled on a quantity of Sumerian tablets bearing the name bokhur (incense) and records have described bokhur as "extracted from the frankincense bush". Around 2000 BC the region probably witnessed a change of climate and the environment began to experience drought and gradual desertification. This happened around the time inhabitants began to domesticate the camel for use in the overland caravan route. Archaeological findings in the peninsula and in Egypt prove that the land trade became an established reality circa 1500 BCE.

 

The Ocean Trade Routes

Qana was the center of the Oceanic frankincense trade and the home port for ships heading in all four cardinal directions

The location of Marabat was carefully chosen for its logistical convenience.

At marabat the frankincense was loaded on boats or rafts and sailed or floated along the coast to Qana. In the early days of Marabat almost all shipping was out of Qana. This allowed the Nabataeans to monitor and regulate the incense trade rigorously, and enabled careful price and quality control. From Qana, the cargo, largely frankincense and myrrh, went either to the north, east, or west.

On the northern route the ships sailed north through the Straits of Hormuz with its cargo ending up in Babylon and Persia, forming a crucial link between the spice road and the silk road.

Upon reaching the Silk Road, frankincense and other products from southern Arabia
were exchanged for silks and other products from the far east.

 

Eastern Route to India and Beyond

Additionally, ships went east to Karachi, Calcutta and even farther, sometimes going past Sri Lanka to Indonesia, Thailand, and even as far as China. The route served as a cultural bridge between Arabia and India, making spices a greater part of Arabian culture, and frankincense an important facet of Indian culture.

On the eastern route, frankincense was exchanged for exotic spices from India and southern Asia

 

This is a matter of geographic good fortune that south Arabia became so important to the global trade

The Mediterranean trade gave South Arabia numerous advantages that they might not have otherwise had

The trade exchange was an ongoing cycle. Gold and goods from Africa and the Mediterranean were shipped south down the Red Sea, past the Gulf of Aden and east to Qana.

The frankincense trade also brought currency, crafts, and new technology from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, steadily revolutionizing life in South Arabia

 

Three areas of innovation that came out of the frankincense trade:

  • The use of the camel as a pack animal
  • Early adoption of a written language
  • Rapid advances in shipbuilding

 

The Camel as a pack animal

Some of the earliest uses of the camel as a beast of burden took place in Oman as part of an effort to streamline the frankincense trade while lowering overhead.

Around 2000 BCE southern Arabia witnessed a change of climate and the environment began to experience drought and gradual desertification. This happened around the time inhabitants began to domesticate the camel for use in the overland caravan route. Archaeological findings in the peninsula and in Egypt prove that the land trade became an established reality circa 1500 BCE.

Although no conclusive evidence has been found yet, the development of the camel as a pack animal (which is tricky, due to the camel’s physiology) was a breakthrough

 

Written Language

Because trade was essential to the local Omani economy, the advantages of a written language were quickly recognized and implemented for administrative and economic reasons. As a result, the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula are a treasure trove of written records that archaeologists have barely begun to explore.

Shipbuilding

Because the southern Arabian coast was host to ships of all styles from across the known world, Omani shipbuilders were also able to observe and regularly appropriate innovations in naval construction and navigation

 

To this day, the effects of the frankincense trade are still highly visible in Oman

 

Thanks to all who provided pictures

  • Special thanks to HH Sayyid Shihab bin Tariq Al Said for his sponsorship of The
  • Craft Heritage of Oman, researched, compiled and written
    by Neil Richardson and Marcia Dorr.
  • The Omani Department of Tourism
  • http://www.fineincense.com