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A copper bowl burning frankincense.

Why Did Ancient People Travel Thousands of Kilometers for Incense?


In ancient times, people would travel thousands of kilometers across land and sea, along a network of trading routes, to acquire the precious commodities of myrrh and frankincense.

The ancient incense route was a network of major trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world with the sources of incense to its east and south. As its name suggests, this route was used to transport incense, primarily from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Whilst this route is best known for its transportation of incense, other luxury goods, such as gold, pearls and animal skins also travelled on this trade route.

The ruins of Avdat, a city on the ancient incense route

The ruins of Avdat, a city on the ancient incense route. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ).

The value of incense

Incense was a very important commodity in the ancient world. Incense was used in a variety of ways, such as to embalm the dead, to flavour wine, and as a form of medication. Nevertheless, it was most commonly burnt to produce a pleasing aroma that would mask the less pleasing odours of the time. Incense, both frankincense and myrrh, are produced by drying the resin harvested from certain types of trees. These trees grow exclusively in the southern region of Arabia, Ethiopia and Somalia, hence making this commodity extremely valuable indeed.

 Egyptian Incense Burner, 7th Century BC

Egyptian Incense Burner, 7 th Century BC ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Trade Route

The ancient incense route consisted of several major trade routes for the transportation of this precious product. One route, for example, travelled northwards from southern Arabia along the coast of the Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula. From there, the merchants would cross the Sinai desert into Egypt. For these sections of the journey, merchants relied on camel caravans to transport the incense and the other luxury items.

Camels have been used to haul goods for millennia. Camel Caravan, Beersheba, 1915

Camels have been used to haul goods for millennia. Camel Caravan, Beersheba, 1915 ( Public Domain )

In Egypt, the goods would be loaded into ships and thence to the different parts of the Mediterranean. Alternatively, the caravans could continue through the Negev Desert, and arrive at the port of Gaza. There was also a sea route, which began to flourish towards the end of the 1 st century BC, and used ships to transport the precious cargo across the Red Sea to Egypt. Apart from that, this maritime trade network extended into the Indian Ocean, and connected the Mediterranean with the Indian subcontinent.

The Impact of the Incense Route

One of the effects of the ancient incense route was the rise and fall of cities and kingdoms along the trail, in particular along its land route. It has been mentioned that this trade route was not exactly fixed throughout the centuries, and changed from time to time. It is natural that cities and kingdoms would levy taxes on merchants entering their territories. It is also natural that the merchants would seek areas where the taxes were lowest, so as to maximise their profit. Hence, merchants would certainly prefer to travel across areas where the taxes imposed on them are the lowest. Nevertheless, there are also other factors to consider, such as the political stability of those areas, and if the route is safe from bandits and natural disasters.

Avdat National Park, Ancient City on the Incense Route, Israel

Avdat National Park, Ancient City on the Incense Route, Israel ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The arrival of the trade caravans made cities and kingdoms flourish. For example, the Negev Desert in present day southern Israel was the part of the ancient incense route. As a result of the lucrative incense trade, the Nabataean Kingdom, which controlled that area at that time, prospered. The remnants of cities that were established along the trade route to cater for the incoming caravans are proof of this prosperity that can still be seen today. The cities of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, which are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are some examples of such cities.

Ruins of a Church in Shivta, Ancient City on the Incense Route in the Negev Desert, Israel.

Ruins of a Church in Shivta, Ancient City on the Incense Route in the Negev Desert, Israel. ( Wikimedia)

Apart from the transport of cargo and wealth, the ancient incense route also facilitated the flow of culture and ideas. At several ancient settlements in Yemen, for example, archaeologists have found pottery sherds in a style that resemble those from a frankincense site in Oman. In addition, it was discovered that the local pottery was mixed with red-painted ones from Persia. This suggests that the ancient people who inhabited the southern region of Arabia, where incense was produced, came into contact with other civilisations along the ancient incense route, and were perhaps even culturally influenced by them. Similarly, the incense trade with the Greeks, and later the Romans, in the West would have also brought their cultural and artistic traditions to Arabia.

Top image: A copper bowl burning frankincense.

By Wu Mingren

References:

Billock, J., 2017. Explore the Ruins of an Ancient Incense Route. [Online]
Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/visit-remnants-ancient-incense-route-180961873/

Institute, M. E., 2017. The Story of Frankincense. [Online]
Available at: http://www.mei.edu/sqcc/frankincense

nabataea.net, 2017. The Incense Road. [Online]
Available at: http://nabataea.net/Incense1.html

Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia, 2017. Trade History of the Silk Road, Spice & Incense Routes. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ipekyollari.net/SilkSpiceIncenseRoutes.htm

Smithsonian Institution, 2017. The Ancient Incense Trade. [Online]
Available at: http://www.asia.si.edu/unearthingarabia/incense-trade.asp

UNESCO, 2017. Incense Route - Desert Cities in the Negev. [Online]
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1107

Wilford, J. N., 1997. Ruins in Yemeni Desert Mark Route of Frankincense Trade. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/28/science/ruins-in-yemeni-desert-mark-route-of-frankincense-trade.html

Comments

My opinion? Plenty of things that are local can be burnt to make pleasant smells - anything from pine to herbs. Conspicuous consumption guys - the more money you have to flash around, the better your standing in society. If you can deal out a dozen sheckels on local cedarwood just fine, but shelling out those talents of silver for frankincense and myrrh is where it is at. Just like if all you can pop for is a few sheckels for a dove as an offering it fits the bill for an offering, but if you can splash more and offer a sheep or goat you have *standing*

Look I understand exactly how it is - my grandfather donated enough money for 4 stained glass windows to his church, he got a dedication placque bolted to the wall under each of them, and a dedication on one of the big fancy front pews [complete with red velvet covered cushions!] yet his brother who was a basic farmer just put in time as a deacon, donated in kind [food to feed the pastor and his family] and his labor repairing the roof and other things barely got a mention. Flash, baby, flash.

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