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Frankincense, myrrh and gold are known throughout the world as the gifts that kings from the East made to the baby Jesus. Of these three “commodities”, frankincense, also called oblibanum, was by far the most precious and expensive. The incense consisted of translucent drops of crystallized resin from the frankincense tree, which later became known scientifically as Boswellia sacra. This shrubby tree grew in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula - in the Dhofar and Hadramauth regions. Other frankincense existed (and still exists) also: in India from another Boswellia species, Boswellia serrata; and from Somalia, which had Boswellia frereana as well as Boswellia sacra. But the best frankincense was and is produced by the trees that grow in the Dhofar region and even in one particular area of the Dhofar - Hasik, 10 km inland from the coast in the northeast and reached by crossing the pass of Bab-Harkek.

When you visit Salalah nowadays, the frankincense trees are not much in evidence - although one specimen flourishes in the garden of the Holiday Inn Hotel. The wild growing trees are hidden in the gullies and valleys of the arid parts of the Qara and Samhan mountains, just outside the reach of the wet monsoon rains.

Why was frankincense so famous and valuable?

The incense has a multitude of medicinal uses and has always been used in religious ceremonies as well as in royal households. It is produced by a small tree that looks insignificant. Its local name is mughur, (mogar, megerot) or sajerat alluban. It can have many stems, giving it a bush like appearance. The tree can reach a height of 5 meters but is often much more stunted. The stems are covered with a reddish-brown bark that loosens into papery peeling strips. The leaves are feathery, with small leaflets with crinkly edges. The flowers are crowded at the end of branches, on small spikes. They have five white petals and an orange center that turns black later on. The fruit is a reddish-brown capsule with one seed in each of its 3-5 compartments. All parts of the tree contain amounts of resin, an oleo-gum-resin that is composed of 60-70% alcohol soluble resin and 5-9% volatile oils, with the remainder being water-soluble resins. It exudes from cuts in the bark that are either man-made or occur naturally. The opaque milky substance, called luban or shahaz, dries into small tear-shaped lumps that crystallize into a clear silvery solid substance. The essential oil component contains more than 200 individual natural chemicals that give the incense its very complex bouquet. Wild-harvested frankincense is a unique material.

Historically, two different tribes have been involved in the frankincense harvest: the Jabali’s who live in the grass lands of the mountains surrounding the Salalah coastal plain, and the Bedouins from the desert regions north of the mountains. The Jabali’s are a cattle-raising community who guarded the vegetation-rich lower hills from over-grazing and prevented environmental degradation for thousands of years. The Bedouins are nomadic and still maintain their old traditions. They used frankincense when they performed their morning prayers at the entrances of their houses and animal-shelters to protect the inhabitants from the djinn.

The precious resin is harvested during two seasons: the spring harvest that lasts from March till May (winter gum or ‘shahaz estebi’) and the fall harvest that is from late September till October. The latter season, called the “kharif”, produces the best resin (shahaz kharfi), which is white in colour. Of this, the best resin is produced by the high dry mountains of the Nejd and is called ‘shahaz negdi’. Each tree belongs to specific families and the guardianship of these trees is passed on from generation to generation.

To harvest the resin, the trees are scored by a wooden-handled tool with a sharp metal blade, the mengaff. The resin that flows from the wounds in the tree bark is gathered in two-week intervals. Only the material that dries on the tree is collected in the first instance, although some of the resin flows to the base of the tree - this is harvested all at the same time at the end of the season.

The collected resin is allowed to mature for three months and is stored on the floor of dry caves.

The trade and uses of frankincense have been mentioned in ancient documents. Ptolemy mentioned the frankincense-producing region as “the mountains of Ophir”, now thought to be synonymous with the mountains of Saphar or Dhofar. The Syriac Book of Medicine mentions remedies, in which frankincense is used. Similar texts are found in the texts of medieval Muslim practitioners and in ancient Indian and Chinese medical documents.

During the height of the trade, the harvesting was often done by slaves and banished criminals. The gum collectors suffered many hardships, including the many endemic diseases that exist in the region. The trade was controlled by whatever king ruled the area at any given time. Manual de Almeida, a 17th century traveling Portuguese Jesuit was told that the king of Dhofar and Qidr owned all the frankincense in the world. De Almeida was also the first person to describe correctly the habitat of the frankincense tree: not the verdant lower seaside hills, but the arid wadis and hills north of the rainfall area.

The frankincense trade was the main source of income for the Dhofar region for almost 5000 years. It was transported by sea via ports such as Khor Rori with its protective fort of Samharan and Ganna (with Hisn al Gorab as its protection) in the Dhofar, and Mukha in what is now Yemen. From there, it went to India and other parts of Arabia. However, travel through the Red Sea was fraught with danger, both from coral reefs and pirates. Therefore, a land route was developed, first traveled with donkeys and mules. These, however, needed daily watering and therefore had to travel complicated zigzag routes via all the known wells in the desert. Around the 11th century BC camels started to be used as the animal of transport. These hardy animals could travel without water for several days, even weeks on end, which made it possible to travel in straight lines. From a point just north of the Nejd, the routes ran parallel to the coast westward and northward. Just before the decline in the frankincense trade 3000 tons of frankincense were shipped by camel caravans each year from south Arabia to Greece, Rome and the Mediterranean world.

Everywhere along the land routes people profited from this lucrative trade: cities levied taxes at the gates and at the temples; guards, porters, and servants had to be bribed; tradesmen sold accommodation, food, animal fodder and water at the caravanserais; robbers set up check-points and demanded high bribes for safe passage. The wealth produced by the frankincense trade supported many settlements and made them into rich city-states that could construct sophisticated dams and irrigation systems, such as at Marib in Yemen. Not only frankincense was transported via the Incense Route, but also silks and spices that Omani seafarers had imported from India and China. This led the Romans to believe that the kingdoms of southern Arabia produced these goods. Logically the Romans desired to conquer these regions that produced such valuable commodities and sent Aelius Gallus to do so. He never made it because lack of water kept him in Yemen. It was again the lack of water, as well as the shifting sands, that defeated the British explorer Bertrand Thomas in the 1930’s when he tried to explore the ancient frankincense trail. In the 1980’s NASA’s satellites in space took pictures that showed faint shadows of a network of roads under the dunes that in these parts reached heights of 200 to 600 feet. Hundred-meter wide hoof-trodden paths lay hidden under tons of sand and converged on a point in the desert that could be the center of the lost civilization of Ad, the "Atlantis of the sands". In 1990 a scouting expedition that included NASA’s Charles Elachi and Ronald Blom as well as British explorer Ranulph Fiennes, Los Angeles attorney George Hedges and a crew of archaeologists, geologists and documentary filmmakers looked for geological evidence of a trail to the once-thriving city of Ubar, the main frankincense shipping center of Ad. The Ad civilization lasted from 3000 BC to the 2nd century AD and ended when the demand for frankincense dropped due to worldwide changes in politics, economics, climate and customs. The explorers found 900 pottery shards and flint pieces from the Ad era on this trade route. Excavations had been planned for 1991 but were postponed due to the first Gulf War.

Even though the frankincense trade had diminished in the 3rd century AD, there was still demand for the commodity and trade continued at a lower level well into the Middle Ages. Evidence of the use of frankincense was found in Egypt as charred remains of burnt Boswellia gum on a 1500 year old site (Qasr Ibrimin) as well as from inscriptions on the tomb of queen Hathsepsut who apparently used frankincense in the ‘kohl’ that was apllied as eyeliner.

Many other medicinal and traditional uses are ascribed to frankincense. It would be impossible to name all of the recorded uses, but some of the more interesting ones have to be mentioned.

The ancient world believed that incense carried prayers to heaven. Thus it was used in many different religious ceremonies. Frankincense was used to embalm corpses. When the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamon was opened in 1922, one of the sealed flasks released a perceptible whiff of the incense, after 3000 years! During the funeral of Roman emperor Sulla an entire statue was made from frankincense and cinnamon. The annual consumption of incense at the temple of Baal at Babylon was 2.5 tons. Herodotus reported: “1000 talents of weight was offered every year during the feast of Bel on the great altar of his temple…”

Medicinally it was used by Pliny the elder as an antidote for hemlock poisoning, while the Iranian physician Avicenna though it was good for tumors and fevers as well as dysentery. (Pliny also mentioned that control of the frankincense trade had made the south Arabians the richest people on earth).

Discoroides describes that bark of the frankincense tree can be put into water to attract fish into nets and traps. Chinese texts of the 12th and 13th century AD mention 13 different kinds of frankincense used in medicinal recipes. As late as 1868 the official Pharmacopeia of India mentions that frankincense can be used in the treatment of chronic pulmonary conditions and as an ointment for carbuncles and ulcerations.

Till today the Dhofari people put frankincense to use both as medicine and as a beauty treatment:

The gum is chewed to strengthen teeth and gums as well as remove mucus from the head. Small pieces of gum are mixed with salt and inserted into painful hollow teeth. The smoke from burning gum is considered beneficial for both man and animals. It is inhaled by people suffering from headaches. Gum is an ingredient in eyewashes, dissolves in milk to treat cough, and mixed with wine to use as a sedative for children and a tranquillizer for both women in childbirth and those about to be executed. The bark, dried and powdered is made into a paste to treat sores and muscle pain, and taken as a stimulating and cleansing infusion. Fruits and leaves are used as animal fodder and as a digestive tonic.

The most well-known use of frankincense is as a fragrance. The traditional Arabic use is in special incense burner that are either wafted around the face, or passed underneath head dresses or clothes, or placed underneath wooden fumigating tripods to perfume and fumigate clothing. Distilled extracted essential oils are used in perfumes such as the famous Omani perfume “Amouage”. Together with spices and ammonium salts it is also a component of a special talcum powder to soften the skin.

A very special grade of frankincense is used for the Quran recitations of children. Some frankincense pearls are soaked overnight in water with iron. The child to be examined drinks the liquid first thing in the morning - this should improve memory and the chance of success.

An unusual application is to make long-burning tapers with a mixture of pitch, sulphur, tow, pinewood sawdust and powdered frankincense. With these long-burning torches the dwellings of enemies were set aflame during tribal wars. More peaceful uses consisted of rinsing old water skins with frankincense bark and of dyeing cloth and tanning leather with the bark to a popular mahogany-red colour, as well as patching broken vessels with the pliable gum.

From these few examples we can have a glimpse of a way of life that is still preserved to a certain extent but is in danger of passing away. The care and consideration for the different traditions that surrounded the use of frankincense are time consuming by modern standards and thus this traditional heritage is gradually lost.



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