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The coast of what is now Yemen and Somaliland has probably been the main global source of frankincense since the second millennium BC, author Philip Briggs writes.

Written by Philip Briggs


Frankincense by Scott Zona, WikipediaFlowers and branches from the Boswellia sacra tree, the species from which most frankincense is derived © Scott Zona, Wikipedia

Frankincense was burned not only in temples, but also to make kohl, the black powder which Egyptian women used as eyeliner.

An aromatic accompaniment to religious rites since the time of the ancient Egyptians, frankincense will be familiar to most Westerners, at least by name, as one of the three gifts off ered by the three wise men to the baby Jesus in his manger.  Characterised by a spicy, almost camphoric aroma, it is made from the resin of trees of the genus Boswellia, several hardy species of which are associated with rocky slopes on the shores of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The usual method of collection is to make a deep incision, roughly 12–15cm long, into the bark of the tree, which then exudes a milky resin that congeals to form a large yellow tear-shaped scab which is ready to harvest about three months later.

In Pharaonic times, frankincense was burned not only in temples, but also to make kohl, the black powder which Egyptian women used as eyeliner. One of the incenses favoured in early Hebrew temples, it is name-checked as far back as the Book of Exodus, and is also mentioned as being sourced from Arabia in the classical writings of Herodotus and Pliny the Elder, among others. The fragrant resin was subsequently introduced to Europe, and has since been burnt at funerals and other solemn masses by the Orthodox and Catholic churches – the latter reputedly still sources most of its supplies from Somaliland and Yemen. Frankincense has also been subject to numerous (mostly spurious) medicinal uses over the millennia: as an antidote to hemlock poisoning, to inhibit vomiting and fevers, and to cure everything from leprosy to gonorrhoea. More recently, medical scientists have observed frankincense to contain an agent that may slow the spread of cancer, and its potential as a cure for this disease is currently being researched.

The coast of what is now YemFrankincense by Scott Zona, Wikipediaen and Somaliland has probably been the main global source of frankincense since the second millennium BC, when a mural depicting sacks shipped from the so-called Land of Punt were painted on the outer walls of Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple near Luxor. The lower slope of Daallo forms the most important Somali source of frankincense, which is traditionally traded through Maydh (indeed the local variety, rated by some as the world’s finest, is known as maydi) and transported to Saudi Arabia, where it is sold as an expensive chewing gum. Boswellia frereana, the species that grows in Daallo, often taking root in the most improbable rocky clefts, is abundant in the vicinity of Mader Mage and Rugay, where frankincense production is the mainstay of the local economy. In ancient times, the value of the resin sometimes rivalled that of gold and the finest silk, but today it costs around US$2 per kilogram locally, a price that infl ates rapidly as it travels further from its Somali source.

(Photo: © Scott Zona, Wikipedia)

 Want to learn more? Check out our guide:

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