History of Frankincense

Most Precious Cargo of Arabia's Incense Trade Route

Frankincense Tree (Boswellia carterii) near Salalah, Oman, Dhofar
Frankincense Tree (Boswellia carterii) near Salalah, Oman, Dhofar. Malcolm MacGregor / AWL Images / Getty Images

Frankincense is an ancient and fabled aromatic tree resin, its use as a fragrant perfume reported from a multitude of historical sources at least as early as 1500 BC. Frankincense consists of the dried resin from the frankincense tree, and it is one of the most common and sought-after of aromatic tree resins in the world even today.

Purposes

Frankincense resin was used in the past for a variety of medicinal, religious and social purposes, and many of those purposes are still used today.

Its perhaps best-known use is to create a permeating scent by burning crystalized pieces during rites of passages such as weddings, childbirth, and funerals. The incense is and was used to smooth and oil hair and sweeten the breath; soot from the incense burners is and was used for eye makeup and tattoos.

More pragmatically, melted incense resin is and was used to mend cracked pots and jars: filling the cracks with frankincense makes a vessel watertight again. The bark of the tree is and was used as a red-brown dye for cotton and leather clothing. Some species of resins have a delightful flavor, which is sampled by adding it to coffee or by simply chewing it. Frankincense also is and was also used as a household medicine for dental problems, swellings, bronchitis, and coughs.

Harvesting

Frankincense has never been domesticated or even truly cultivated: the trees grow where they will and survive in place for very long periods.

The trees have no central trunk but seem to grow up out of the bare rock to heights of about 2-2.5 meters or about 7 or 8 feet. The resin is harvested by scraping a 2 centimeter (3/4 of an inch) opening and allowing the resin to ooze out on its own, and harden on the tree trunk. After a few weeks, the resin has dried and can be taken to market.

Tapping the resin is done two to three times a year, spaced out so the tree can recover. Frankincense trees can be overexploited: take away too much resin and the seeds won't germinate. The process was not easy: the trees grow in oases surrounded by harsh deserts, and overland routes to market were difficult at best. Nonetheless, the market for incense was so great the traders used myths and fables to keep rivals away.

Historical Mentions

The Egyptian Ebers Papyrus dated to 1500 BC is the oldest known reference to frankincense, and it prescribes the resin as a use for throat infections and asthmatic attacks. In the first century AD, the Roman writer Pliny mentioned it as an antidote to hemlock; the Islamic philosopher Ibn Sina (or Avicenna, 980-1037 AD) recommended it for tumors, ulcers, and fevers.

Other historical references to frankincense appear in the 6th century AD in the  Chinese herbal manuscript Mingyi Bielu, and numerous mentions appear in both old and new testaments of the Judeo-Christian bible. The Periplus maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythryean Sea), a 1st century sailor's travel guide to shipping lanes in the Mediterranean, Arabian gulf and Indian Ocean, describes several natural products, including frankincense; Periplus states that South Arabian frankincense was of a finer quality and more highly prized than that from East Africa.

The Greek writer Herodotus reported in the 5th century BC that frankincense trees were guarded by winged serpents of small size and various colors: a myth promulgated to warn off rivals. 

Five Species

There are five species of frankincense tree which produce resins suitable for incense, although the two most commercial today are Boswellia carterii or B. freraeana. The resin harvested from the tree varies from species to species, but also within the same species, depending on local climatic conditions.

  • B. carterii (or B. sacra, and called olibanum or dragon's blood) is thought to be the tree mentioned in the bible. It grows in Somalia and the Dhofar valley of Oman. The Dhofar valley is a lush green oasis, watered by monsoonal rains in sharp contrast to its surrounding desert. That valley is still the leading source for frankincense in the world today, and the highest grade resins, called Silver and Hojari, are only found there.
  • B. frereana and B. thurifera grow in northern Somalia and are the source of Coptic or Maydi frankincense, treasured by the Coptic church and Saudi Arabian Muslims. These resins have a lemony scent and today are manufactured into a popular chewing gum.
  • B. papyrifera grows in Ethiopia and Sudan and produces a transparent, oily resin.
  • B. serrata is Indian frankincense, golden brown in color and mainly burned as incense and used in Ayurvedic medicine.

The International Spice Trade

Frankincense, like many other aromatics and spices, was carried from its isolated origins to market along two international trade and commercial routes: the Incense Trade Route (or Incense Road) that carried the trade of Arabia, East Africa and India; and the Silk Road that passed through Parthia and Asia.

Frankincense was extremely desired, and the demand for it, and the difficulty of getting it distributed to its Mediterranean customers was one of the reasons the Nabataean culture rose to prominence in the first century BC. The Nabataeans were able to monopolize the frankincense trade not at the source in modern Oman, but by controlling the Incense Trade Route that crossed Arabia, East Africa, and India.

That trade sprang up during the classical period and had a huge impact on Nabataean architecture, culture, economy and urban development at Petra.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "History of Frankincense." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/frankincense-history-ancient-aromatic-tree-resin-170908. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, October 9). History of Frankincense. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/frankincense-history-ancient-aromatic-tree-resin-170908 Hirst, K. Kris. "History of Frankincense." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/frankincense-history-ancient-aromatic-tree-resin-170908 (accessed November 23, 2017).