A scent that implies purity: Frankincense in history

The significance of the first Christmas gifts has been obscured by time. Gold is symbolic of kingship, while myrrh had a place at Jesus’s birth and death. The third, frankincense, is woven into the fabric of Arab and Christian worlds, writes Nick Leech

A gift to the infant Jesus – as depicted in an 18th Italian painting of the adoration of the magi, above, frankincense enjoys a place in the Arab and Christian worlds. Ammar Awad / Reuters
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As any new parent will know, the days after the birth of a baby are frequently filled with moments of wonder and visits from sometimes unexpected guests.

According to the Gospels, the birth of Jesus was no different.

In the Gospel of Luke, the visitors who attended Christ’s family included local shepherds and wise men, who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, had been led to the infant by a star observed in the East.

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

“And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.”

The only other detail in Matthew is that the wise men arrived bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, three of the most treasured commodities in antiquity.

What was so important about the first Christmas gifts and why does the Gospel bother to list them when it omits details such as the number of wise men, their nationalities or even their names?

A clue can be found in the nature of Jesus and the knowledge, for Christians at least, of the events to come.

The virgin Mary’s baby is a paradox. He may be human, but he is also to Christians God incarnate, the Messiah, the King of the Jews and the Word made flesh come to redeem the world through his own self-sacrifice and forgiveness.

He may be divine to members of the church, but he is also a baby born to die in atonement for the sins of a Christian world.

When viewed in this light, the gifts brought by the wise men assume an added symbolism.

If gold was a temporal gift fit for an earthly king it was also redolent of spiritual purity, while myrrh, one of the most prized aromatics of antiquity, was also used in the anointment of the dead.

As such, myrrh was not only one of the first gifts offered to Jesus, it was also one of the last.

According to Mark (15.23), Jesus was offered “wine mingled with myrrh” just before his crucifixion “but he received it not” while, after the crucifixion, John’s Gospel says that Nicodemus brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight” to anoint the body of Christ before winding it in linen and placing it in the tomb.

For early Christians however, it the wise men’s third gift that was the most unmistakable allusion to Jesus’s divinity.

Frankincense had been burnt in temples and religious ceremonies for millennia and as the Nabateans, Arabs, Greeks, Persians, Jews and Romans all agreed, it was the one offering truly fit for a god.

The finest frankincense is harvested from trees, Boswellia sacra, which grow in the Dhofar mountains of southern Oman and to a lesser extent in the Al-Mahrah and Hadramaut regions of Yemen.

According to the writer Tim Mackintosh Smith, the scent of frankincense is “the olfactory equivalent of a good sorbet”, “rich but not cloying, honeyed yet slightly astringent, with hints of lime, vetiver and verbena”.

Frankincense is still harvested in stages between spring and early autumn. First, the outer layer of bark is removed using a long, flat knife called a mingaf. This exposes the wood and then subsequent cuts are made in the same place, at intervals of 10 days or more, which encourages the gum to escape.

It is a rather more straightforward process than the one recorded by Herodotus in his Histories in the fifth century BC.

“When they gather frankincense they burn storax [the gum which is brought into Greece by the Phoenicians] in order to raise smoke to drive off the flying snakes,” the Greek historian writes, “[which] are small in size and of various colours and great numbers of them keep guard over all the trees which bear frankincense”.

Once the gum has hardened it is scraped off and stored in the shade before being sorted according to its colour and in particular its whiteness and pearlescence.

As the Arabist, historian, spy-catcher and perfume connoisseur Nigel St John Groom explained in Frankincense and Myrrh: A Study of the Arabian Incense Trade, the gum’s Arabic name, luban, stems from a Semitic root “signifying whiteness which also conveys an inference of purity”.

From as early as 2800BC, the pharaohs of ancient Egypt believed that frankincense allowed them to assume the power to rule.

Rather than the stuff of priests, it was presented to the gods by the pharaohs themselves as well as being burnt in every temple and from the earliest periods incense formed a part of daily offerings. Inside the great pyramids it was also used in the most elaborate death rituals to help propel the pharaohs into the afterlife.

As the Persian historian Abu Ja‘far Mohammad Ibn Jarir Al Tabari said, when describing the wise men’s explanation of their gifts in his monumental History of the Prophets and Kings “... the smoke of incense reaches heaven as does no other smoke”.

That apparent gift, to connect worshippers of all ranks, creeds and races with their gods, made frankincense as precious as gold and was the force behind the development of one of the epic trade routes of ancient times, the Incense Route, a commercial and cultural highway which lasted for almost a thousand years.

Long before the advent of Islam and long before pearls or oil, it was the incense trade, not religion, that linked the desert tribes of Arabia and brought a level of prosperity that earned the region the name Arabia Felix – Happy or Blessed Arabia.

From its source in southern Arabia, frankincense merchants crossed the Arabian Peninsula using an estimated 10,000 loaded camels each year to Mediterranean ports such as Gaza and Alexandria from where it was shipped across the ancient world.

Cities such as Petra, Medain Salih, Najran, Marib, Shabwah and Qana rose along the 2,000-mile-long trail, prospering on the profits of the trade.

According to the Roman historian Pliny, Qana was one of the most important ports of the Arabian Peninsula whose wealth and status relied directly on the incense trade.

Now little more than an empty bay, at the height of its prosperity Qana received shipments of up to 10,000 tonnes of frankincense annually from Oman and for almost 1,000 years, from 500BC to almost 500AD, Qana’s valuable cargo was stored in fortified warehouses like bank vaults.

The city was rumoured to be so rich that the merchants who lived there were said to have gold and silver around their doorways.

While ports such as Qana continued to prosper, the overland Incense Route came to an end around 100AD when it ceased to be profitable.

The development of sea trade meant that merchant ships could finally travel along the Red Sea in around 60 days, more than twice as fast as the camel trains taking the overland route.

A reliable sea trade was finally made possible when Julius Caesar dispatched a fleet of Roman warships into the Red Sea to protect the empire’s merchantmen from pirates.

Soon even the smallest of privately-owned boats could make safe passage and everything from cinnamon, pepper, frankincense and myrrh started to sail northwards to feed the Roman Empire’s seemingly insatiable demand for incense, spices and aromatics.

According to Groom, Rome’s demand for frankincense was driven, in part, by its use at cremations where its heady fragrance was used “to mask the smell of burning flesh”.

“[Arabia’s] good fortune has been caused by the luxury of mankind even in the hours of death,” writes Groom, quoting Pliny, “when they burn over the departed the products which they had originally understood to have been created for the gods.”

To this day, smoke from Omani incense still rises in churches and temples all over the world, while mothers in the Yemeni regions of Shabwah and the Hadrhamaut, the ancient heart of south Arabia’s frankincense trade, still welcome the gift of frankincense as a blessing for their newborns.

In a ceremony that predates Islam, the women of a family will gather in a female-only ceremony to bathe their newborns in frankincense smoke as both a blessing and a way of protecting them from evil spirits.

It is tempting to think that the frankincense of Matthew’s Gospel was used in the same way to bless the infant Jesus.