More Precious than Gold
I wonder what my adult kids would say if I gave them frankincense for their birthdays. “What are we supposed to do with THAT?” would their response be. Looking at the smelly rock-like substance in their hands they would definitely wonder if their dad had finally lost his mind. How things change over a period of just 2 millennia!! In the year 30 BC my kids would have been thrilled with my enormously generous gift. You see, in those days frankincense used to be as hot a commodity as the latest iPhone.
The first time many of us ever heard about frankincense was in Sunday School at Christmas time. According to the New Testament, the three magi followed the Star of Bethlehem all the way to Mary and Joseph to bring frankincense to Jesus, the newborn King of the Jews (Matthew 2, 11). I am not quite sure what the baby Jesus was supposed to do with an aromatic rock but, as they say, it’s the thought that counts. The message of the Bible passage is clear, however: you bring only the most valuable of gifts to a king.
Frankincense has a long and interesting past, a history which is closely linked with that of North Africa and the people of the Arabian Peninsula. This particular aromatic is harvested from the frankincense trees (mostly Boswellia sacra), which grows best in the arid climates of Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and Oman. Derived from the sap of Boswellia, the incense was already popular among the pharaohs, long before its days of greatest popularity. In 1493 BC the Egyptian female king Hapshepsut, for example, sent an expedition to the Land of Punt (“God’s Land”), today’s Uganda, where the Egyptians uprooted frankincense trees, loaded them onto ships, brought them back to Egypt and planted them on the grounds of the Karnak Temple in Luxor.
The uses of frankincense were numerous: during worship in ancient Egypt, for the embalming of corpses, to mask the smell of cremation, for the preservation of food, to keep insects at bay and to heal or treat different ailments such as chest pains, bruises, ulcers, cancer, depression, hemorrhoids and arthritis - the perfect gift for a baby. In most cases frankincense is burned on hot surfaces to emit an aromatic odor but it can also be chewed like gum or applied as oil.
The frankincense hype and craze began around 400 BC when not only the Greeks but also the Romans began to smell opportunities in the lucrative incense business. But who would transport the precious aromatics from the production areas in the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula (today’s Oman) across the merciless desert to the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea and to Europe?
Let me introduce to some very special, tough people.
We find the first historical reference about the Nabataean nomads from the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily. He writes:
“(They) range over a country which is partly desert and partly waterless, though a small section of it is fruitful… They live in the open air, claiming as native land a wilderness that has neither rivers nor abundant springs… It is custom neither to plant grain, set out any fruit-bearing tree, use wine, nor construct any house; and if anyone is found acting contrary to this, death is the penalty.”
So how is it that these barbaric, unsophisticated, camel riding nomads manage to evolve into ingenious hydraulic engineers, scrupulous traders, masterful craftsmen and fearless warriors? There is of course a long answer to this question, but the short version is this: During their nomadic wonderings through the Arabian Peninsula they learned from other tribes the art of managing the scarcest of all resources: water. By installing hidden water cisterns along their travel routes, they gained greater freedom of movement and a superior expertise on how to survive in the desert. Eventually, the Nabataeans learned how to traverse areas that are no-go zones for other nomadic tribes, even those that were more sophisticated.
Knowledge of desert survival soon became a crucial competitive advantage for the Nabataeans as they moved from subsistence to making money with their nomadic lifestyle. Why not transport and trade frankincense while wondering the across the desert? So, they picked up the precious aromatics in Southern Arabia, loaded them onto camels and spent months driving caravans all the way up to the Mediterranean Coast. A caravan consisted of approximately 1,000 camels, each carrying 180 kg (397 lbs) of cargo. In Gaza, the incense was sold for good money. It is estimated that the Sabataeans realized a profit of close to US $ 1 million after expenses (in 2016 funds) for each caravan. Soon, the simple nomads had become experts in the transport and trade of frankincense, reaping enormous profits and looking for a place to store their new-found wealth.
With this, my story shifts to Petra, the famous Jordanian city chiseled out of sandstone. Eventually, the Nabataeans settled, Petra became the capital of their kings and the seat of power for an empire that grew in size, influence and might and became a major player in the middle-east four centuries before Christ. At the height of the Nabataean kingdom, the sphere of influence of a people who started out as barbaric, unsophisticated nomads living a subsistence lifestyle, spread across the northern part of Arabia and the entire Sinai Peninsula.
Ultimately and after approximately 500 years of existence, the Nabataean civilization was lost under Roman masters (around 106 AD) and forgotten for 2,000 years. Petra, however, with its artful facades and ingenious water management systems, continues to stand as a witness to the genius of the Nabataeans. It also reminds us of the remarkable capacity of a people to adapt and diversify their skills during times of hardship and opportunity.
It is November and time to think about Christmas gifts for family and friends. As I am walking across the bazaar in Muscat, Oman, many options for gifts come to mind: fine exotic fabrics for my lovely wife, a hijab for my beautiful daughter, ceremonial daggers for my macho sons and a golden oil lamp for our neighbor across the street. Oh wait – how am I going to fit all of this into my luggage? Ahh - just when I thought I was out of options I come across a vendor with plenty of frankincense. After negotiating the price I walk away with 5 small bags of precious aromatics – one for my lovely wife to preserve our food and four for everyone else to caulk ships and keep the flies away.
This will be the best Christmas ever!!