Remembrance of a fabled incense



Instructing Moses in the preparation of altar incense, the Lord said: “Take fragrant spices: gum resin, aromatic shell, galbanum; add pure frankincense to the spices in equal proportions.” [Exod. 30: 34.] The Queen of Sheba is said to have brought to Solomon’s court a camel train laden with frankincense and other exotic spices. Nehemiah speaks of frankincense as a substance so precious that it was stored in the inner recesses of thet temple in Jerusalem.

Isaiah talks of camel caravans from Sheba bearing gold and frankincense. And later when his chosen people practiced abominations, the Lord declares: “What need have I for frankincense that comes from Sheba?” [Jer. 6: 20.] Matthew describes the three wise men from the east, the magi, who traveled to the manger in Bethlehem bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Frankincense was known in antiquity as a priceless spice used for a variety of practical and ritual needs. The Egyptians employed it as an incense in state cremations and, possibly, for embalming purposes. The Hebrews burned it for altar purification (the word frankincense is from the Latin, francus, meaning free, in the sense of pure; and incendere, a substance to be burned.) The Romans used it sparingly in cosmetics, medicinals and rarely in royal cremations.

Ritual incense has been employed for many purposes: as an agent of purification; a medium to carry one’s prayer toward heaven, a way of embellishing the spoken plea with pleasantly smelling, ascending smoke; and a means of touching the divine spirit. Rising smoke, whether from a funeral pyre, burning joss-sticks, altar incense or a calumet peace pipe, represents a near universal metaphor for the merger of earthbound spirits with the clouds above.

Herodotus mentions frankincense, noting that it is derived from an Arabic tree; a tree that he has never seen but believes it is confined to secret groves somewhere in the Middle East. Pliny the Elder is a bit more specific and fanciful. He contends that there exists an extraordinarily wealthy tribe on the Arabian Peninsula called the Scenitae. They live in a city of fabulous riches where they are in sole possession of the trees producing frankincense. Ptolemy calls the place Omanum Emporium. Islamic tradition holds that this fabled city is named Ubar and is located in a secluded desert region in Yemen some eight days by camel from the city of Shawba (possibly the Biblical community of Sheba.) Later Arabian folk tales also tell of widespread sin and moral degradation in Ubar until one day the Lord destroyed it.

Emperor Constantine’s edict of 323 AD banned cremation as a funerary ritual for observant Christians. And with this decree, the European demand for frankincense diminished greatly. Frankincense was now viewed as a substance suited only for pagan observances, an opinion later shared by Islamic religious leaders. Still, a continuing demand for frankincense persisted, particularly in Asia. Since the days of the Roman Empire the price has dropped precipitously. Tourists in Yemen may now purchase a generous bag of frankincense for about two dollars.

Frankincense had a less than successful career as an effective medication. Pliny urged its use as an antidote to hemlock. Avicenna prescribed it for fevers, ulcers and dysentery. In China it had been employed in treating leprosy and was used, variously, as either a stimulant or a depressant. Frankincense is no longer listed in any of the Western pharmacopoeias, in the words of one text, “being destitute of any virtues.”

Frankincense is derived from the sap of a number of tree species found in the southern Arabian Peninsula (particularly in Yemen and Oman,) the Somali coast of Africa and in a few locations in India. The tree bearing the Biblical frankincense is Boswellia thurifera (Latin, carrying incense.) The bark of the tree is slashed in early spring and a fluid sap, bitter in taste, exudes from the wound. Exposed to air, the sap hardens to a brittle, yellowish resin which is harvested in the summer as small globules. The raw product is brought by caravan to Aden and then shipped to Bombay for grading, packaging and exporting to Asian and European markets.

And what about Ubar, the sinful city located somewhere in the trackless deserts of southern Arabia? Countless explorers have sought in vain for the fabled city. Recently, an American filmmaker Nicholas Clapp undertook the search. He was aided in his quest by access to photographs taken by the space shuttles to identify ancient desert trails and former stream beds hidden beneath the endless dunes of sand. In company with geologists and archeologists, he identified a likely location for the legendary city of frankincense, a small oasis called Shisur in western Oman.

Trial excavations at the chosen site were begun in 1992 and vestiges of a great fortress city were revealed. The central well of the community seemed to have collapsed into a gigantic sinkhole, possibly precipitated by an earthquake. This catastrophic event, which apparently destroyed the town’s precious source of water was judged to have occurred between 300 and 500 AD. Thus, the rapid decline of Ubar, if indeed this abandoned city is Ubar, was likely hastened both by the Christian community’s loss of interest in frankincense and a very secular earthquake, a far more banal finish to Ubar than the Sodom and Gomorrah scenario.

STANLEY M. ARONSON, M.D. ( is dean of medicine emeritus, Brown University.