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Frankincense: It's the Mystery Fragrance of the Arab World

posted on: Nov 18, 2020

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By: Yidan Fan/Arab America Contributing Writer                 

Arabs love spices. Almost all Arab countries have spice markets. Spices are indispensable and important consumer products in the daily life of Arabs. In fact, there are many varieties and categories of them. – and perhaps one of the most popular Arab spices is frankincense.

Introduction of Frankincense

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Frankincense is a kind of scented resin containing volatile oil produced by the olive family, Boswellia Serrata. It was used in religious ceremonies during ancient times. It was also used as a fumigant, as a raw material for making incense and essential oil.

Frankincense is not only a spice but also a precious medicinal material. There are only four places in the world that produce frankincense, including the southern Arabian Peninsula represented by Oman, Somalia, Ethiopia, and the northeastern part of Africa.

Frankincense is scraped from a kind of shabby tree which is low to the ground and thorny, with small and wrinkled leaves hanging from its branches.

Among them, frankincense produced in Dhofar, Oman, has the best quality. Because of its small output, frankincense has high economic value. It was called “white gold” in ancient times and was also known as “the pearl in the desert” and “the tears of God.”

The world’s best frankincense is called “Silver Incense” and is produced in the Neged Plateau at the northern end of the Dhofar Mountains in southern Oman.

Frankincense is scraped from a kind of shabby tree that is low to the ground and thorny, with small and wrinkled leaves hanging from its branches. The harvest season of frankincense is from April to June each year. People use a special tool to carefully scrape off the ash bark of the outer layer of Boswellia Serrata. Drops of white resin will ooze from the cut. After a few weeks, the resin solidifies into translucent particles, which are then scraped off. Each tree can be scraped to produce 10 to 20 kilograms of frankincense every year.

The History of Frankincense

Because of the preciousness of frankincense, its trade has become the most profitable business in the world since 1000 BC. In fact, it once made the southern Arabian Peninsula the richest place in the world. In 450 BC, the famous Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote in his masterpiece “History” when mentioning the frankincense of Aman Dhofar, “The whole country is wafting everywhere, exuding a wonderful smell of frankincense.” He went on to write that these frankincense trees were “guarded by flying snakes.”

Historically, frankincense was a symbol of power and wealth for rulers. It was in great demand in ancient times, and according to ancient literature, the Babylonian Temple consumed 2.5 tons of frankincense every year.

An ancient Egyptian inscription dating from 2800 BC stated that the Egyptian expeditionary army went to the Arabian Peninsula and brought back a large amount of frankincense.

According to the Bible, when Jesus was born, three Eastern wise men came to congratulate him and offered him frankincense as a gift. There are also historical records that narrate how ancient Rome sent soldiers to the Arabian Peninsula in an attempt to plunder the spice because of the coveting of Oman’s frankincense. However, due to the unbearable heat of Oman, which is an island trapped in a closed environment with mountains and seas, and its geographically inconvenient transportation, the Romans ultimately failed to plunder Oman’s frankincense.

The Medicinal Use of Frankincense

For thousands of years, Arabs have used frankincense as medicine to help digestion, treat heart disease, and treat kidney disease. In the old days, Arab doctors had to smoke their clothes with strong frankincense when they visited the clinic, thinking that this would disinfect them.

According to the historical records, from 1603 to 1666, a great plague occurred in London, England. More than 80,000 people died of illness, equivalent to one-fifth of the population of London at that time. However, spice dealers in London were not affected by the plague because they were often exposed to frankincense. Arabs believe that pregnant women would give birth to wise babies if they chew frankincense.

Frankincense has the ability to slow down and deepen breathing, which is beneficial to the health of the entire respiratory system and helps treat many diseases, such as cough, asthma, and chronic bronchitis.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, frankincense is once again appreciated and sought after because people believe that frankincense is good for health and it can protect people from viruses.

Aromatherapy expert Abraham Sander described the medicinal value of frankincense in his book, Mysterious Aromatherapy. He states,  “Frankincense has the ability to slow down and deepen breathing, which is beneficial to the health of the entire respiratory system and helps treat many diseases, such as cough, asthma, and chronic bronchitis.”

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