THE EARTH HOLDS MANY TREASURES
Her gifts of gold and silver are more readily obtained, but she smiles upon the man clever enough to appreciate her hidden wonders. And so it was in Arabia where centuries ago men discovered a treasure some called the food of the gods, a substance so desirable it would be deemed as precious as gold; a commodity which would span not only the entire Arabian Peninsula but reach markets throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean, causing Arabia to earn the title Arabia Felix, "Happy Arabia." Happy indeed! for within her borders was a unique source for a substance desired by Babylonians, Nabataeans, Greeks, Jews, Romans, and Egyptians alike.
But earth's treasures are not had without a price. It would take the ingenuity and persistence of one of the world's most resourceful civilizations to move this precious commodity across one of the most inhospitable regions on earth and carry it throughout much of the ancient world. And thus was born—The Incense Trail.
THE INCENSE TRADE
There were times in the Roman period when pound for pound frankincense was as valuable as gold.
Frankincense is one of the primary commodities; it was burnt at altars and at sanctuaries to various gods and goddesses.
Incense was dearly bought. In fact, in the royal treasury of a number of nations we find that in the room which contained the most precious elements there was gold, there was silver, and there was incense.
The people used it as a way to make a profit and to buy what they needed. In the beginning there was not much paying work; if you did not have animals you would have frankincense trees to make a living.
|Musallam Abdullah Al-Massali Al-Kathiri|
THE FRANKINCENSE TREE
There are areas in Dhofar in the southern area of Oman, in the highland mountains, and often on the hinterland side of those mountains; that seems to be where some of the trees that are most highly prized are located.
The frankincense tree belongs to the genus Boswellia, which contains about 25 different species. Only a handful of those actually produce this oleo gum resin that we call frankincense. And perhaps the most important of all those, the one that produces the best frankincense, Boswellia Sacra, is the only one that actually grows in Arabia, and has very specific requirements about where it can grow. The best frankincense is collected from the trees that grow not on the seaward facing part of the escarpment, but grow on the back side—where they're still exposed to the cool winds, but not all the moisture that comes from the monsoon climate.
One of the curious things about frankincense trees is where they grow; they do not grow in the moisture-laden mountains. Instead, they are a desert plant, and they like the dry washes that are located just to the north of where all the moisture is. The frankincense tree is actually an evergreen; every part of the tree is used by local tribesman. The foliage is used as a fodder for camels and goats. They use the wood as a firewood. And, of course, the frankincense itself—the gum resin—is used medicinally as well for its fragrance. So it is a very important tree in terms of its overall use both locally and worldwide.
The trees are not very tall; five meters in height I think is the largest.
|Loreen Allphin Woolstenhume|
Harvesting the frankincense was not an easy task. According to legend, it was said that the frankincense trees were guarded by winged snakes of dappled color, and there were great numbers of them around each tree. Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman naturalist, suggests the story was invented by clever Arabian traders to protect the source of their wealth.
Frankincense harvesters cared for the trees as you would your livestock. They were very careful not to over-harvest—not to damage them too much. They would take a knife and ritualistically make small slashes in the bark of a tree. It was almost like you were bleeding the tree a little bit. There are sounds and songs that people speak to the tree to help it produce more frankincense; many people would sing to the trees.
When the resin hardens, which takes up to two weeks or so, harvesters would go back and, again in a ritualistic way, they would then remove the dried gum resin, the frankincense, from the tree.
And then they put it in sacks and they start to sort it and to send it to different areas through the frankincense trade, through the Incense Trail.
Most commonly frankincense would be put in a frankincense burner, usually with some charcoal. It does not actually produce a flame; rather it smolders and produces a very fragrant smoke. And it is that smoke that was so important.
The demand for frankincense was great because of its many uses. It was a substance highly prized because it had both practical and mystical value.
The first recorded mention of the use of frankincense is on the fifteenth century BC tomb of Queen Hatchepsut who had sent an expedition to fetch frankincense.
Frankincense was normally used straight as a product that was burned on incense altars. So archaeologically the evidence for frankincense use is the altars that they burned it on. Frankincense was burned on altars from the time of King Solomon on, and probably earlier than that in Mesopotamia. It was used by the Assyrians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, and even by early Christians.
Frankincense became important in Persia, throughout India, even into China for religious purposes, but also for medicinal purposes, to keep yourself healthy, to cleanse the personal atmosphere in which you lived. In the work of Celsus, De Medicina, a first century medical treatise, we find incense prescribed for various conditions including paralysis, hemorrhaging, and as an antidote to hemlock.
Frankincense is a cleaning material; the smoke cleans the air. In the temples people are crowded; they slaughter many animals, and these places are liable to be polluted.
Incense burners are always present at these temples, identified in a variety of shapes, forms, and decorations. In Arabia, it seems to have been used in all the major temples that we know of. We have evidence from adjacent countries where they are trading for frankincense, and there we find out that frankincense is used again in ritual context, as offerings to the gods and goddesses worshipped by those different cultures.
If you look at the temple of Jerusalem, for example, the chief activity was effectively slaughtering animals. And so just for the practical reason of wanting to cover up the smell and keeping the temple a little more pleasant, you'd want to burn lots of frankincense.
The Book of Revelation identifies the burning of incense as the ascending of the prayers of the saints unto God. It comes to hold a symbolic role in temple worship, not only in Jerusalem, but elsewhere in the Mediterranean world.
The incense altar was to provide the people the assurance that their prayers were ascending with the incense to their god and that hopefully they would be acceptable.
In the fourth or fifth century AD an eminent Greek physician gave a series of lectures extolling the medicinal benefits of frankincense for the treatment of various maladies, including headaches and nausea. The medicinal use of frankincense continued into the middle ages where the great tenth century Persian physician, Avicenna, recommended it for dysentery and fever. Even today in Yemen, a beverage made from pounded frankincense is thought to help reduce inflammation.
At the height of its industry, in the second century AD, Southern Arabia was thought to have exported over 3,000 tons of incense annually to Greece and Rome to satisfy their insatiable desire. The Greeks and Romans found incense especially useful at their funerals not only to appease the gods but also to cover the smell of the cremation process. Pliny remarked that "Arabia's good fortune has been caused by the luxury of mankind even in the hours of death." Arabia does not produce so large a quantity of perfume in a year as was burned in one day by the Emperor Nero at the funeral of his consort, Popaea.
When we take a look at that quantity of frankincense, we know from various calculations that it should be in the order of one to two thousand tons of frankincense. This is a lot of frankincense. All at one event, one day, one use, one whole year's use of frankincense.
Alexander was once chided by his tutor Leonidas for his extravagant use of frankincense during sacrifices. Leonidas told him that until he conquered Arabia, he must use it sparingly. Alexander responded by sending Leonidas an abundance of frankincense so he would not be so stingy with the gods.
With the deification of the Roman emperors after Augustus, incense would be burned in front of a statue of the reigning emperor as if he were already a god. In 25 BC, a Roman army marched into Arabia determined to seize the wealthy incense lands for themselves, only to be thwarted by hunger, thirst, sickness, and the betrayal of a local guide. They returned defeated and dejected. The Roman army learned first hand that obtaining and transporting the frankincense was not a simple undertaking.
THE INCENSE TRAIL
If frankincense was said to have come from the bleeding of the tree, then the Incense Trail was the system by which this life blood was circulated. The trail pulsated with life as huge caravans traversed from one stop to the next for almost 2,000 miles, traveling in large numbers for safety and at night to diminish the threat of heat, drought, and starvation. They moved northward across the Arabian Peninsula where the frankincense would eventually reach markets in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.
Roman and Greek sources tell us about where frankincense was produced and how it was transported from Dhofar to the Mediterranean Sea. There were two routes: the sea route and the overland route. The sea route ran from the production area to Qana and from Qana to Shabwah. The overland route went from Dhofar to Shabwah, then from Shabwah down to Timnah, from Timnah to Marib, from Marib to Najran, and from Najran the journey continued up to Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea and also to Damascus.
|Abdu Othman Ghaleb|
That route probably was in existence, scholars believe from a variety of lines of evidence, from the second millennium BC onwards.
After paganism was declared illegal in the Roman Empire, the need for incense dropped, and the trade essentially died from this part of the world. Cities like Shabwah, which had survived on the incense trade, simply ceased to exist.
The Christian faith initially did not use incense in religious ceremonies; in fact, the use of incense was banned by a number of the emperors in the period between AD 350 and 450.
The decline in the practice of cremation further diminished the demand for frankincense in Rome. These changes, along with the decline in the Roman economy, made frankincense an unaffordable luxury. As a result, cities along the trail suffered. The culminating catastrophe was the bursting of the Marib Dam, which effectively destroyed southern Arabia's prosperity.
When the Marib dam collapsed it was devastating to the local economy, reducing the capacity of the area to sustain life. When you don't have that kind of reliable, fairly widely distributed agriculture then you have a population shrinkage—a lack of economic resources to sustain and outfit a caravan. So it really had a great deal to do with the decline of the frankincense trail. You still have reminisces of that dam even in Islamic lore, and the Koran. It was a tremendous project; it made areas of the desert blossom that had not blossomed before and did not blossom afterward.
You could compare it to the fall of Rome for classical European civilization, or the fall of Jerusalem with the Babylon conquest for Old Testament civilization. It had a number of far reaching effects and was a turning point in the history of the whole region. Many Yemenis, southern Arabs, could no longer engage in commerce, and literally thousands of these, within their tribal context, fled the area and generally went north into north Arabia or into the Fertile Crescent.
But the incense trail was never completely abandoned. Others would continue to travel upon it. Even today countless numbers of Muslims parallel the ancient incense route on their Hajj or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
With the rise of Islam the incense trail acquired an additional dimension. Pilgrims who would come from the Mediterranean would start at Damascus and go southward along the frankincense route to Mecca. This became the pilgrimage route from India, Pakistan, or Persia; others would sail to Aden and then travel along the frankincense route northward to Mecca.
In its days of glory, frankincense meant many things to different people. For some it was a status symbol, for others a sacred necessity or a substance of healing. It is no wonder that it was included as one of the precious gifts the Magi presented to the infant Jesus.
Though frankincense was the reason for the amazing Arabian trail, much more than incense was transported across it: The ideas, philosophies, and culture of the Arab peoples were exported to other regions of the world, including advancements in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and many other scientific fields, creating a major new synthesis of science and culture. Their inventions included algebra, a cure for smallpox, and the use of checks instead of cash to pay for goods. These and many other contributions laid the foundation for the European Renaissance.
The story of the ancient trail, this golden road, is one that speaks of the genius of the Arab people who found within their land a hidden treasure and went to great lengths to obtain and market it throughout the world. It is a story of overcoming one's environment, of cooperative effort, of sustained determination.
It is a drama whose players included scientists and mystics, kings and rulers, and some of the world's greatest entrepreneurs who together created the wonder known as the Incense Trail.