Historical and Cultural Importance of Incense and Resins

Resins have played important roles in cultures around the world for a diversity of reasons: utilitarian, aesthetic, and economic. Resin-producing plants occur in many of the diverse environments in which humans have lived, and they have been put to a wide variety of uses. In fact, anthropologists have claimed that no other material was so versatile in the preindustrial world as resin. Moreover, resins preserve and travel well; hence, they have been traded between societies around the world. Figure 6-1 is a time line of the significant events in the history of amber and resin from the Stone Age to the present. For example, an extensive and lucrative incense trade by Arabians was in progress by at least 1000 B.C., and incense was probably being used by the New World Maya by 600 B.C. and by the Scythians at about the same time. European amber trade has been documented back to the Stone Age whereas there is evidence of the Chinese obtaining amber from Myanmar (Burma) by 200 B.C., and of Mayan use probably by the first century A.D. Use of Cannabis resin (hashish) can be traced back to the Bronze Age, and its trade influenced cultures on almost every continent. Naval stores resins were significant to the commercial and military success of seafaring nations back to at least the Bronze Age. Britain needed naval stores for wooden ships to connect a vast empire, and she looked to the forests of the American colonies, beginning in the 1600s, to supply these resins. Later, the naval stores industry had a noteworthy effect on both the economy and culture of the southern United States. Copals also influenced the development of various countries, such as New Zealand, where the “gum” (copal) industry led to a major immigration of people in the mid-1800s. These are a few examples of how resin and amber have played a variety of significant roles in shaping the history of different countries.

Incense Trade Routes

For more than a millennium, trading caravans supplied incense resins and other luxury goods from the southern coast of Arabia to insatiable markets in the Mediterranean region and Mesopotamia. During the height of imperial Rome, trade in incense assumed importance along with trade in amber. Roman trade outside the empire was founded on supply of five commodities that were a part of the Imperial way of life: amber and incense along with ivory, pepper, and silk (Spekke 1956). Some historians, such as Hoots (1993), suggested that the material wealth of the Arabian Peninsula in the 20th century would “never rival the relative prosperity” there at the height of the incense trade 2000 years before. Arabia was known at that time as Arabia Felix, happy Arabia or Arabia the blessed. As Pliny the Elder claimed, “They are the richest races in the world.”

The incense was produced by two genera of Burseraceae-frankincense from Boswellia and myrrh from Commiphora-that occur primarily in southern Arabia and neighboring areas. Dates for the earliest incense trade, however, remain an enigma. Hoots (1993) thought that the original spark to the trade apparently came from pharaonic Egypt in 3000 B.C. because oil from myrrh was used to embalm the dead. Since myrrh-producing plants do not occur in Egypt, he assumed that the product arrived by trade. An Egyptian inscription about 2500 B.C. records the purchase of “80,000 measures” of myrrh (Majno 1975). “Whatever the measure,” Majno contended, “this is a lot of myrrh,” implying the necessity for trade. The Egyptians were not the only early users of incense. The Phoenicians so esteemed incense that the name of the principal deity, Baah Hamman, denoted “Lord of the perfumed altar.” The Babylonians, Sumerians, and Assyrians also valued incense highly, but Groom (1981) questioned whether these people were using frankincense and myrrh for incense or, rather, other resins from local plants and aromatic woods. He conceded, however, that small amounts of frankincense and myrrh could have been brought to these areas, having been traded hand to hand northward from southern Arabia but not by any organized form of transport.

Groom (1981) further argued that the earliest references to the transport of frankincense and myrrh were much later, inal500B.c. inscription in Queen Hatshepsut’s temple near Thebes. This inscription records an expedition sent down the Red Sea to collect incense from the land of Punt, an ill-defined region considered by some to have been what is now the Somali coast and a portion of the Arabian coast opposite. In what has been described as the world’s first plant collecting expedition, 31 incense trees were brought back and planted at the temple of Karnak on the banks of the upper Nile in Egypt. The carving on one of the walls of the temple shows how the plants were loaded onto a ship and transported in wicker baskets. Although it is not clear whether these were frankincense or myrrh trees, Groom suggested that they were probably myrrh, of the species common in Somalia today.

Domestication of the camel provided the means for an organized overland incense trade from southern Arabia to the Mediterranean; that donkeys may have been used as pack animals before camels has been generally unacceptable to historians (Groom 1981). Although camels were domesticated in southern Arabia by 2000 B.C., it is improbable that the camel was put into significant use to transport incense northward before 1000 B.C. Camel transport allowed larger quantities of material to be carried more quickly across the Arabian deserts, thereby accelerating trade to meet the demands of the Greeks and Romans who used the incense to win the favor of the gods. It was the smoke from incense that carried aloft the fragrance of a person’s gift, a gift regarded as actual food for the gods who would starve without it (Majno 1975). Atchley and Cuthbert (1909) pointed out that incense was also used in other important ways, that is, as a sacrifice to deceased humans, to drive away evil spirits, as a symbol of honor to a living person, and as an accompaniment to festivities and processions. Among some peoples, such as Egyptians, Persians, and others, the right to offer incense was only the prerogative of the priesthood (kings were included). On the other hand, Greeks and Romans regarded use of incense as a duty incumbent on all people, but it could only be presented to a deity or deified man. To offer incense was to acknowledge the deity of that person. Incense resins were further sought for use in medicines and perfumes; the word perfume comes from per fumum, by smoke.

Arabian commerce with the Mediterranean region became more organized. Herodotus, the Greek father of history, is the first classical scholar to provide evidence for the use of incense from Arabia, demonstrating that a substantial trade to Greece existed by 500 B.C. At the time when Athens was at its peak, he mentioned Arabia’s aromatic resins: “The whole country is scented with them-and exhales an odor marvelously sweet.” Theophrastus, the Greek father of botany, around 300 B.C. wrote about the first eyewitness account of incense trees and the harvesting of incense from the reports of reconnaissance ships sent out by Alexander the Great. It was the Roman, Pliny the Elder, near the end of the first century A.D., however, who has provided most of the information regarding transport of incense from its source in southern Arabia and its processing in the north. Thus the literature reflects this Roman influence.

Bowen (1958) pointed out that references, including maps, to the incense route should not be taken literally because there were numerous alternate pathways for reaching various destinations. There was clearly a long main route to the Mediterranean, however, with a major side route to Gerrha and smaller side routes to the Red Sea and around Palestine. For this reason, some researchers (e.g., Groom 1981) prefer to distinguish the major route as the Incense Road. Caravans suffered losses from bandits en route, which also dictated local changes in the actual routes.

As security was established for the caravans, more of other kinds of goods were carried with the incense, including spices, ebony, silks from India, and rare woods, skins, and gold from the nearby African coasts. Caravans returned to southern Arabia with various goods from Greece and Etruria, then from the Roman Empire, leading to the emergence of highly centralized wealthy states. The first and best known in southern Arabia was Saba, or Sheba. Saba used its newfound wealth to increase an already rich agriculture with further development of an irrigation system. A great dam built in the eighth century B.C. by the rulers of Saba held water for the wonderful orchards and gardens around Mar’ib, thought by some to be the Garden of Eden mentioned in the Bible and Koran. As the capital of Saba, Mar’ib remained an important stopping point on the Incense Road (Figure 6-11), even after the fifth century B.C. when several small states began to exert their independence from Saba.

The Incense Road continued to grow in importance in the centuries before the Christian era (Groom 1981). Caravans of 2000-3000 camels were not uncommon. Resin from the Dhofar region (now southern Oman), Somalia, and the island of Socotra, was transported via sea to towns such as Qana in the Fjtaqlramawt region of eastern Yemen. By the time the resin reached the port town, it had been transported more than 800 km by sea. From the seaport it was 260 km across the mountains to the emporium at Shabwah, where the resin was taxed, then more kilometers to the frontier of the incense lands at Najran. From there, merchants went overland with frankincense to a transshipment site thought to be Gerrha. From here, the incense was transported either by land or sea to reach Persia and Mesopotamia, where it was used lavishly. The main route, estimated to take an average of 78 days (Groom 1981), went almost 2000 km to Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. In Palestine the resin was highly valued, as reflected by its mention in the Bible 22 times (Moldenke and Moldenke 1952). Some incense was probably shipped to Rome from Gaza but most of it was sorted and processed in Alexandria, which was the industrial center of the Roman Empire. In the Roman processing factories in Alexandria, according to Pliny, the incense was so precious that workers were stripped and searched to keep them from stealing it. At the time of Jesus, “frankincense was not only more costly than gold-it may have been the most precious substance on earth” (D. Roberts 1998). Rough calculations based on figures provided by Pliny indicate that in his time, 2.5-3 million kilograms of myrrh were produced (Groom 1981). Myrrh commanded three times the price of frankincense, but the demand for frankincense was five times as great (Abercrombie 1983). From Alexandria it was another 2100 km to Rome by sea; thus the incense had traveled about 6500 km to reach Rome from its source in southern Arabia.

The Arabs also were exporting frankincense and myrrh along with other resins such as storax and Socotran dragon’s blood to India and China. Since most of the civilized world demanded incense, there were two harvests tied to the two monsoonal seasons, which also determined some of the shipping schedules in the Indian Ocean.

Geographic knowledge was so poor that most purchasers of incense in the cities of the Mediterranean were not sure where it came from. It was only a matter of time, however, before they attempted to find the source and seize control of the lucrative trade. In 24 B.C., Aelius Gallus, the Roman governor of Egypt, led a force of 10,000 men through the Arabian deserts in search of the location of incense trees. The Romans were forced to retreat because of lack of water, malaria, and the fierce tribes, who also spread rumors that the incense-producing areas were guarded by winged serpents who spared no intruders. Although this Roman expedition was unsuccessful, it was a sign of the increasing knowledge of geography, which would soon contribute to the decline of the Incense Road and the Arabian kingdoms that depended on it.

Many explanations have been offered for the decline and collapse of the incense trade (Groom 1981, D. Roberts 1998). A significant event was the discovery of the Indian Ocean monsoons by Roman sailors, allowing ships from the Mediterranean to sail down the Red Sea to ports in India, Africa, and tjadramawt on the Arabian coast. By the first or second century A.D., Roman traders had at least partially succeeded in bypassing the expensive middlemen and taxes along the overland road, thereby breaking Arabian monopoly of the incense trade.

Another factor in the decline was neglect of agriculture in the source areas because of the enormous wealth coming from the incense trade. The agricultural decline was abetted by the growing number of livestock (incense trees made excellent fodder for camels and goats), demand for wood (resulting in cutting of the trees), and a decrease in rainfall around the turn of the Christian era. These factors led to the disappearance of frankincense trees (e.g., Boswellia sacra) over much of southern Arabia. D. Roberts (1998) stated, “Despite their importance to human history, frankincense groves are so elusive that even today no one knows their full range.”

As wealth diminished, the southern Arabian kingdoms became a less desirable place to live, leading to a steady migration to the highlands of Yemen and the formation of another centralized state. Himyar commanded the developing ports of the Red Sea and was able to defeat the kingdoms formerly dependent on the overland incense trade.

The decisive blow to the incense trade, however, was the spread of Christianity in the Mediterranean region, climaxed by its becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. At the end of the fourth century, the Roman emperor Theodosius I forbade the pagan practice of making offerings, including incense, to household gods. Incense was still used in funerals because those were civil ceremonies, but internal crises and severe inflation were paralyzing a Roman economy that previously allowed the purchase of such luxuries. Groom (1981) indicated that it is doubtful that the Incense Road survived the fourth century, and sea trade continued on a very much smaller scale. Once paganism had been vanquished, the Christian church slowly reintroduced the use of incense. During the eighth century, it began to be used in the Roman Catholic rite during lauds and vespers, and as a mark of respect for the altar, the priests, and the faithful (New Catholic Encyclopedia 1967). With the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, the incense trade from southern Arabia had been completely transformed. Despite a slight revival in the fifth and sixth centuries, when wars between the Byzantine Empire and the Sussanians in Persia made sea routes too risky, the incense trade was a mere shadow of what it had previously been. During this time, Constantinople became the main center of perfumery. A sixth century description of the cathedral of Saint Sophia refers to hundreds of perfumed lamps. Continued export of frankincense and myrrh into the early Middle Ages is revealed in the commercial laws established by Emperor Leo VI in 895, which included them as perfume ingredients.

Excerpted from “Plant Resins” by Jean H. Langenheim. Book Available HERE..