Small and gnarled, often showing its age, the frankincense tree grows in an Arabian Desert wadi where water occasionally flows in the winter. Its bark is papery and peeling in places, on it a tiny beetle is trapped in resin, and the trunk glistens where it is coated with the sticky stuff. Farther below there are small drops like liquid tears that turned solid as they traced a path down the trunk. If you were to put a hand on the tree, you might come away with a bit of scented resin softened by the hot sun into a sticky patch: the scent is resinous but also lemony and soft and subtly appealing. Resins are produced and secreted in specialized structures on the surface of a plant or within its tissues; sap, by contrast, circulates throughout a plant carrying water and nutrients. Resins are also characterized by the presence of volatile chemicals—the most abundant are called terpenes—and may be important to a plant’s interactions with the world around it.
Frankincense trees in the genus Boswellia grow in the coastal areas of the Arabian Peninsula and are the most famous members of the Burseraceae, or torchwood, family. Sparse forests of these trees grow among rocks and sand at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula where monsoon-watered mountains meet dry desert habitats, and they make do with very little. The gift of scent these ancient trees return from their stark habitat is highly sought after and held sacred by many. Highly valued throughout history, frankincense as a trade good was tied to domestication of the camel and development of the Incense Road through the Arabian Peninsula, which brought currency, goods, and progress to the region as early as 1500 bc. The name frankincense reminds us that it is the very definition of incense; it derives from the old French franc encens, which means pure incense or pure lighting. Aromatic compounds in the resin are produced within the plant’s tissues—protective in nature, they help resist infection by fungus, repel attacks by insects, prevent desiccation, and seal injured tissues. The resin of frankincense is generally light colored and leaks as tears that flow for a bit and then harden and solidify around wounds in the bark of the tree.
Once harvested, the aroma of frankincense resin is best released with heat and fire and may have reached the noses of early humans via a simple fire for heat or cooking. It is easy to imagine a small group gathered around a fire constructed of frankincense wood for companionship and safety. The fragrant smoke would only have enhanced those emotions. Anyone who has enjoyed a campfire knows that smoke lingers on the body, hair, and clothing of those sitting around the fire. Which, if the smoke is pleasantly aromatic, may have been a good thing in the days before regular bathing.
Egyptians were famous users of fragrant materials, whether to scent and preserve dead bodies as mummies, to use as a perfume in the form of an unguent (ointment or salve often made with oils or fats), or to burn as incense. Frankincense and myrrh were common ingredients in the Egyptians’ aromatic tool chest, and both were used to preserve mummies. Ancient Egyptians mainly used oils or fats as the base for their perfumes: oils for liquid and solid fats to make unguents. The most listed ingredients in unguents and perfumes include frankincense and myrrh, cinnamon and cardamom, iris and lily, mint and juniper, and other ingredients both locally available and imported. In a process referred to as maceration, chosen ingredients were added to fats in a particular order and for specific lengths of time to control the strength of the fragrances. The Ptolemaic temple of Edfu has extensive records on the walls of what may have been a perfume laboratory (or perhaps a storage room) that seem to be recipes for the commercial preparation of scented materials. Perfumed oils were used to anoint deities, given as gifts, and left in the tombs of royalty. The wealthy and royal also used solid perfumes stored in elaborate containers and were sometimes illustrated as having cones of fragrant unguents on their heads that would melt with body heat, releasing the fragrance.
Made from the pure resin or sometimes blended with other fragrant ingredients, incense in Egypt was burned ritually according to prescribed schedules—frankincense in the morning, myrrh at noon, and the sacred blend called kyphi at night. There are many recipes for making kyphi, but they all seem to share raisins and wine, fine resins such as frankincense and myrrh, spices, grasses, conifers, and mastic bound together by ritual. The perfume of the incense connected kings with the realm of gods. In a crossover between religion, meditation, and medicine, kyphi was used as a cure for snakebites (possibly in a potion) and as an antiseptic, an aid to vivid dreaming, and a sacred component of holy ritual.
Trade in the Old World had its cradle in the land of Mesopotamia as long ago as 3000 bc. From their home between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamians could exchange goods with their neighbors by land and sea. We can be fairly sure that by 1500 bc a series of caravan routes through the hostile Arabian Peninsula brought incense from the south, where frankincense grew, to intersect with routes of traders that passed through the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean. As time went on, boats plied the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea to exchange goods from China, the Near and Far East, and southern Arabia to Mesopotamia and Egypt. Silk from China and horses from the nomads of Mongolia were early trade items as Far Eastern traders forged paths between mountain and desert to establish the routes that came to be called the Silk Road. At the other end, land routes from the Mediterranean began as a network of roads from Anatolia extending as much as sixteen hundred miles to connect with the Silk Road.
By around 200 bc, Arabians were bringing incense up from the south and Chinese were traveling the Silk Road. Greeks were sailing through the Red Sea and across the Arabian Ocean toward India by hugging the coast. In about 100 bc a Greek sailor discovered (or rediscovered something African and Indian sailors already knew) a faster way to India and its spices: the pattern of the monsoon winds that pushed sailing ships eastward toward the Malabar Coast in the summer and back to the southwest in the winter. With Greek sailors stitching together the sea routes, ports were developed, routes were refined, and countries from Sri Lanka to Yemen and Persia to Africa moved spices, incense, and silk by sea and land on the Incense and Silk Roads.
In their ongoing quest for fragrant materials, early Egyptians traded in frankincense and myrrh. Queen Hatshepsut, who reigned during the fifteenth century bc as one of only three female pharaohs, organized an expedition to the fabled Land of Punt, possibly located in the area of Eritrea and Somalia, in search of resins. Afterward she ordered a temple built in Deir el-Bahari, on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor, as part of her legacy. Hatshepsut’s temple is considered one of the wonders of ancient Egypt, and the beautifully detailed bas-reliefs of the expedition are the finest in the temple. In them, you can see huts on stilts surrounded by date palms and fragrant trees that may be frankincense or myrrh. The hieroglyphics are so detailed that scientists have identified fish in the streams, and you can see goods such as precious resin, myrrh saplings, animals, and gold. It was not long before the Land of Punt became a mythical place, no longer visited and its location a deep secret.
Humans’ love affair with frankincense began long ago. Ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa certainly recognized the beauty and sacred nature of tears of the frankincense tree and incorporated them into medicine, life, and ritual. Frankincense and myrrh made their way to the outside world early in history and formed the foundation of the Incense Road. Once traders discovered frankincense and myrrh, they made every effort to bring them out from the harsh deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. The domestication of the camel in 1500–1200 bc allowed the incense trade to grow. Due to their adaptability to the extreme conditions of the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, camels were the perfect desert bearers of heavy loads of fragrant incense, progressing from oasis to oasis and assisting in the creation of inland kingdoms. By 1000 bc frankincense was known and valued in Babylon, Egypt, Rome, Greece, and China. The movement of frankincense along the Incense Road, especially at its height between 300 bc and 200, was one of the most important trading activities of the ancient world and was responsible for the construction of cities, forts, and irrigation systems in the harsh desert. Because of the high demand for frankincense, kingdoms of southern Arabia connected with India, the Mediterranean, and the Silk Road. By the second century southern Arabia was shipping more than three thousand tons of incense each year to the Mediterranean world. Even as they were trading by sea, Arabian traders sometimes stored their best aromatics inland in cities protected by hostile stretches of desert such as Petra, in modern-day Jordan, where they were less vulnerable to thieves.
Knowing the high value of their product, traders in frankincense guarded their secrets with legends about the mysterious trees. Said to be protected by large and fierce red snakes that would leap into the air to attack any intruders, the trees were believed to grow in an area of diseases and epidemics, making them dangerous to harvest. Or, in a different story, the mythical phoenix was said to nest in branches of the tree and feed on its tears. At an ancient oasis, one of the stops on the trade route, the Lost City of Ubar flourished during the incense trade. Referenced in the Quran and called by Lawrence of Arabia “the Atlantis of the sands,” this city cast a spell that lasted centuries. Trade through Arabian cities and oases prospered until the Greeks discovered a way to bypass the long and dangerous land route through the peninsula to sail the Indian Ocean laden with incense. The character Sinbad the Sailor may have been based on merchants who sailed around the Arabian Peninsula and traded in frankincense. Sinbad’s adventures appear in the collection of Middle Eastern folk tales One Thousand and One Nights, translated as The Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Burton in Victorian times.
Frankincense has also symbolized excess and luxury. The emperor Nero is said to have burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense on the death of his favorite concubine, or was it his wife? At the time of Christ’s birth, the Roman Empire was importing some three thousand tons of frankincense each year from controlled supplies in the Middle East. When Alexander the Great was young, he once scattered handfuls of frankincense on the altar to burn as a fragrant offering to the gods. His tutor, Leonidas, chided him for wasting the precious aromatic and told Alexander that when he conquered the lands from which frankincense originated, he could afford to be extravagant with it. When Alexander conquered Gaza twenty years later, he discovered a large stash of incense and sent the now-elderly Leonidas a generous gift of frankincense and myrrh. Alexander was, however, confounded in his search for a source of frankincense and never made it through the harsh deserts between Gaza and the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. The same could be said of Caesar Augustus, who sent ten thousand troops to southern Arabia in 25 bc to obtain the treasures of Arabia Felix, only to be defeated by the harsh environment. For perfume and incense, the best of Arabian frankincense stays within Oman for use by the royal house. The Arabian perfume house Amouage is located in Oman and uses frankincense and other traditional Middle Eastern perfume ingredients to create what it has called “the most expensive perfume in the world.” Founded by an Omani prince, Amouage celebrates the ingredients particularly found in Oman.
Frankincense is mentioned many times in the Bible and is closely tied with myrrh—also a lovely incense ingredient. The gift of the magi to the Christ Child of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is thought to symbolize: his kingship—gold; his spiritual nature—frankincense; and his death—myrrh. Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches of Europe and Latin America are some of the largest users of the Eritrean type of frankincense and use the formula of ten-fifteenths frankincense, four-fifteenths benzoin, and one-fifteenth storax for their incense. This blend is burned in a thurible, an elaborate censer that is swung ceremonially to release the smoke and bless a space or sacred object. A censer is a fireproof cup with a layer of sand or fine gravel for holding a specialized charcoal puck. Once the puck is red-hot, frankincense (or any resin or resin blend) is placed on top to offer up its sweet and smoky fragrance. Alternatively, the resin may simply be melted in a heater to achieve a less smoky, more pure frankincense experience.
Excerpted from Scent: A Natural History of Fragrance by Elise Vernon Pearlstine, just published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2022 Elise Vernon Pearlstine. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.