When I was a boy I was wandering around in my grandfather’s storage shed when I found a ragged hand woven sack filled with mystery blobs. These powdery golden-orange nuggets were hard (albeit slightly gummy) and they had a translucent glow. When I inquired about the alien substance, my grandfather pulled a glowing ember from the fire and set one of the weird nuggets on top of the hot coal. Immediately an aromatic cloud of smoke welled up from the lump and filled the room. The glorious smell was simultaneously like lemon and pine but with deep strange medicinal undertones of cedar and some unidentifiable otherworldly spiciness. It was transfixing. The blobs were frankincense, obtained in Somalia during the fifties (my grandparents and mother and uncle were living there on diplomatic/government business). The unprepossessing amber lumps turned out to be the incense of kings and gods.
Frankincense has been harvested from the arid deserts of Southern Arabia and Northeast Africa since prehistoric times. The hardened resin which is also known as olibanum is the product of tiny scrub trees from the family Boswellia. The sacred frankincense tree Boswellia sacra, produces an especially fine grade (although the same tree can produce different grades of frankincense depending on the time of year).
Frankincense trees are tough trees capable of surviving on misty breezes from the ocean, rocky limestone soil, and little else. Certain species of Boswellia trees are able to produce a disk-like bulb which adheres to sheer rock. The trees can thereby cling to boulders and cliffs in severe windstorms. The incense is harvested by carefully scraping a wound in the tree’s bark and then returning later to harvest the hardened resin (although such mistreatment is said to gradually diminish the trees).
For countless centuries, bags of frankincense and other aromatic resins were the chief trade products of regions of the southern Arabian Peninsula (in what are today Yemen and Oman). These compounds were of tremendous importance to the ancient Egyptians for both cosmetic and funerary purposes. In Biblical times, incense was traded throughout the Middle East and in the classical Greco-Roman world. The fragrant resins even were exported to ancient India and dynastic China where they became part of traditional medicine and ritual.
This incense trade was allegedly centered in the quasi-mythical lost city Iram of the Pillars. In this oasis at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali dunes, the Ubar people dwelled in a beautiful columned city. According to the Quran, the city of Iram met an apocalyptic doom when its ruler, King Shaddad defied the warnings of the prophet Hud . Shaddad’s impiety caused Allah to smite the entire region into the sands. All of this was regarded as mythology until space-based imaging systems (including LandSat, SPOT, and shuttle data) revealed that ancient caravan trails did indeed center on a collapsed oasis. It is speculated that over millennia, the inhabitants had drained the ancient subterranean aquifer, which ultimately caused the ground to collapse—a salutary lesson for the aquifer based cities of Western America! Whatever the cause, the frankincense industry contracted greatly around 300 AD, although plenty of resin still went to medicinal and liturgical buyers.
Frankincense is purported to have many pharmacological uses, particularly as an anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-depressant, and an anti-cancer treatment. Although initial clinical studies of these claims seem encouraging, the safety and efficacy of frankincense is still being tested and reviewed. Sources on the web suggested that a recent study by Johns Hopkins biologists and doctors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that inhaling frankincense incense could alleviate anxiety and depression (but again my sources are unclear so don’t run out and start eating frankincense if you are suffering from holiday blues). Even if frankincense does not provide us with a new class of wonder drugs, it remains useful for deterring insects, including the deadly malarial mosquitoes. Additionally, as noted above, frankincese smells wonderful. Maybe you should run to your local caravan and pick some up.