Wednesday, 6 January 2010

How are the Incense Trail, Skyscrapers and the San Francisco fishing fleet connected?

It is surprising that the value of sap from a gnarled tree growing high in the mountains of Oman spawned a 2,000 mile trading route, now known as the Frankincense Trail. Presumably pre-historic man overcome with the pungent, aromatic, sweet odour of the burning branches, realised that the sticky sap once hardened, would be easier to carry as a valuable trading good – and was not that a wise choice – just as Caspar, one of the Wise Men, carried Frankincense to welcome Jesus into the world.

A panoramic view of the great hypostyle hall in the Precinct of Amun Re, Karnak

Oman’s climate is extremely hot and dry with a vast gravel desert plain covering most of the central region, surrounded by mountain ranges in the north and south . The city of Salalah is known as the perfume capital of Arabia due to its natural attractions of the nearby mountains and abundant stands of frankincense trees.

These trees have been able to grow in the fog strewn mountain valleys, as the moisture-laden winds of the summer’s southwest monsoon, blow across the Arabian Sea; as the wind rises over the mountains, the slight drop in temperature is sufficient to create great banks of cloud and mist.


From mid June to mid September the region assumes the appearance of a leaden grey autumn in England, the damp clinging to every standing object – be it plant, animal or man.

The Boswellia Sacra (Frankincense tree) grows in the dry wadis (valleys) on the desert side of the mountains where the cooling effects of the monsoon winds can still be felt but their moisture has been sucked dry by the desert climate –the Boswellia tree has adapted to this harsh environment.

Arabian Peninsula Map - courtesy of myMidEastThoughts Blog, with the map being provided by jepeterson Site Builder - Arabian Peninsula map.

Frankincense comes in a surprising range of shades between brown and an almost translucent milky white colour that is the sign of the finest quality of Frankincense, in fact the Arabic name for Frankincense, Luban, refers to this pale milky white colour. The sap exudes naturally, but for commercial collection the tree is cut and is harvested during the peak of the summer months.

Frankincense’s value has been because it was used in religious rites for thousands of years, as well as now being used for perfume, as an air freshener, an insect repellent, a fragrance in homes, and as an essential welcome to guests all of which continue to this day.

The camel trains following the trading routes criss-crossed Asia from the Mediterranean, Persia, Ancient India and into Ancient China and were important paths for cultural, commercial and technological exchange between traders, merchants, pilgrims, missionaries and nomads for almost 5,000 years.

Historically camels were the only real form of overland travel as they could survive for a month without needing water, while at the same time providing the nomads and travellers with all their needs – skins for clothes and covering for tents, meat to eat, milk to drink, providing shelter with their bodies against the dust storms, transport for both man and his goods, and they could take heavy loads. The camel trains as they are known were the lifeline for many peoples, and are still revered today.

A footbridge in Shaharah, Yemen


The original journey from the high Dofar range in Oman went through the mountains into Yemen, along a track that has been used for millennia, through a walled gate where taxes were collected for over 1,000 years. The city of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has houses made out of mud brick, about 500 of them are tower houses, which rise 5 to 11 stories high – it is often called “the oldest skyscraper city in the world” or “the Manhatten of the desert” – some are over 100 feet (30m+) high.

In recent times due to tribal insurgents the route now goes south to Aden, which has over the centuries become rich on the sea trade. Trading by sea only really became possible with the advancement of seafaring about 1800 years ago and it certainly speeded up the trading route, camels would take twice as long.

However camel trade continued across and into the Arabian Desert a huge Sand Sea larger than the area of France, with thousands of constantly moving sand dunes (they do move and quite quickly! – I saw the evidence in Namibia). This Desert has one of the harshest environments on earth.

Crossing the Red Sea to connect with the Nile became essential to satisfy the huge trade with the Pharaohs. A traditional Frankincense boat made from palm trees, known as the Felucca, is still used today as it skims across the fast flowing current of the Nile.

Feluccas at Luxor

An aside: Americans are largely unaware of the fleet of lateen-rigged feluccas that thronged San Francisco’s docks in the late 1800s, and were built by southern Italian immigrants. The light small manoeuvrable feluccas were the mainstay of the fishing fleet of San Francisco Bay!

The Pharaohs had an insatiable appetite for frankincense and burnt it on a huge scale, which increased its value (it was more valuable than gold); they burnt it day and night for feasts and burial rites. Karnak, perhaps could be described as God’s home on earth, as the site covering two square kilometres, holds nearly every Pharaoh’s legacy. Frankincense in huge quantities has been burnt here every day and night for over 4,000 years.

The route continued on through Arabia into Sinai, on to the Middle East and to the Orthodox Churches further north, into Egypt and along the Mediterranean coast satisfying the ritualistic demands of all religions, some of which continue to this day.


Map of the Arabian Desert. Ecoregions as delineated by the WWF. Satellite image from NASA. The yellow line encloses the ecoregion called "Arabian Desert and East Sahero-Arabian xeric shrublands", and two smaller, closely related ecoregions called "Persian Gulf desert and semi-desert” and "Red Sea Nubo-Sindian tropical desert and semi-desert". National boundaries are shown in black.

The connection of a spice trail, mud skyscrapers, and the palm felucca design being taken to San Francisco by the Italians ties this human race of ours in so many ways and over so many years.

Dear Mr Postman .. delivering post has been difficult today – down here we have mostly had slush, but tonight it will be different as it gets colder and the roads become icy; other parts of the country have had heavy falls .. personally I remember the 1962 – 1963 winter and so far there can be no comparisons: though I did see today an Eskimo hut being made from blocks, and we made one in 1963 of blocks of snow - obviously” the right sort of snow” for making igloos!!

My mother was sleeping and as I’m now driving an automatic – it made life interesting! I’ve made sure my neighbour, who fell the other day, has all she needs and I’ve stayed put this afternoon ... though have offered my services to the Home should they need an extra pair of hands .. as I’m in the town and only just over a mile away.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

16 comments:

Wilma Ham said...

Hi Hilary. You in icy parts of the world, your story about warm parts and read by me in full summer.
How is that for global difference.
I hated that smell as it was used in mass in church when I was young. Now I love it of course and hardly ever get to smell it although John still has some from his travels. I wonder why they consider it so special?
Icy roads are nasty so if they need you in the home, drive with care in your automatic.
As always love to you both, Wilma xox

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma .. yes .. I do think about it - close friends are in SA enjoying the sun .. and the desert is scorching - but I haven't experienced being in the Middle East - 42 degC was enough!

Yes - actually I too went to the odd service in 'high church'and found the incense rather overpowering.

Why it's so special is that the ancient Egyptians believed that if they worshipped the Gods properly, then the Gods would look after the people - and part of that process was the burning of frankincense. Frankincense exuded a strong spicy aroma that would keep other odours at bay and was in their culture so valuable. Myrrh was used in the embalming process.

The Egyptians were rich in natural resources, and they made full use of those; the trade they built up across the region (south into Africa, via Sinai into Asia Minor, into Afghanistan, and round the Mediterranean) allowed the Egyptians to come across other resources and thus trade progressed. The finding of the frankincense tree - with its higher quality - in the mountains in Oman would have encouraged that higher trade.

It is icy today - but here were quite lucky .. and we're sheltered by Beachy Head usually! Yes - I've suddenly realised the limitations of an automatic - it was my Uncle's and theoretically (even though old) will serve me well in the years ahead as it's a Merc.

Thanks Wilma - love across the airways .. to you and Ann- Marie & Molly! .. Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Ji said...

informative,
rich, and
insightful!

Inspring Post.

Blue Bunny said...

hi! I thot caspar was a goste?

see yoo next tiem

Jannie Funster said...

That Yemeni foot bridge would be a vacation in itself for me. And Kelly would love it too, she's such an adventurer.

Amazing , yes, how our technology has sped up in modern times.

I wonder if I have ever smelled frankincense? I am not much of a perfume gal. I don't recall having seen it in anything.

I did not know about sand dunes being so transient , I guess I know am more familiar with the meaning of "the shifting sands of time."

Bravo! Another wonderful education here. I am amazed by the UNESCO walled city too!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Ji - thanks for coming over .. and for your lovely comments.

Good to see you and glad you're "inspired"!
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Blue Bunny .. well the Caspar we know is a lovely black standard poodle - duz ur gostee have 4 legs?

Sadly he lykz chasing bunnies on the Downs! Sori! - but Hardwick iz vry fond of hm!

C U @ yrs. Lk frwrd to next item .. wlking to Moscow?!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jannie .. Blue Bunny seems well .. is he sleeping ok - if he's seeing ghosts?!

Yes - the bridge looks amazing and I think would qualify for a morning walk! Good for Kelly too that she enjoys exploring.

Frankincense is used in high church services, and there are joss sticks - but it's mainly essence of. So a scent of pure frankincense .. I don't know, and other than church - I haven't. I haven't been to Egypt or the Middle East.

"Shifting Sands of time" - good phrase and absolutely accurate!

Thanks - so pleased you enjoyed the post .. me too - the mud city, as you say, is amazing.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Jillian said...

Hi Hilary! This blog is something else!! SO interesting, and informative about topics I wouldn't necessarily take the initiative to seek out on my own otherwise - such an adventure to read!! :) Thanks for your words of wisdom regarding my teenager! Very calming advice! :) Cheers from Vancouver!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jillian - great to see you here and I am SO pleased that you consider it an adventure - a bit of light relief.

Glad to hear my thoughts helped and hope all goes well .. Vancouver, one day I'll get back there! .. looks a beautiful city - came over from Calgary and across to the Island, so just overnight in Vancouver.

All the best for 2010 -
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Filemot said...

Once many years ago a Middle Eastern client brought some Frankincense into the office. The reality of it makes it entirely comprehensible that such journeys would be made to share it.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Barbara .. How interesting .. and how wonderful to have smelt it .. and that you can relate to journeys along narrow paths, through harsh environments and deserts were made to share what became a hugely valuable commodity and thus the trade developed. Presumably barter was the first type of trade.

One day we must find some and try again ..
Love Hilary

Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord said...

This is fascinating - I never knew any of this about
frankincense, and think it's so cool that in Karnak, it's been burned day and night for 4,000 years! (That should help me reframe some trouble I have with keeping up good habits. I can tell myself that at least I don't have to do them every day for 4,000 years!)

Happy 2010, Hilary!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Megan - that's a good point re habits!

Just so glad you enjoyed the post and learning about frankincense and the area of trade.

You too - good luck in 2010 & a happy one!
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Liara Covert said...

Hilary, readers marvel at your historic perspective. You remind me of a reincarnated female explorer who is familiar with places you describe. Wonder if that thought ever crossed your mind? As part of the research for my third book, Transform Your Life: 730 Inspirations, I have read about many female explorers and some of whom certainly seem reminiscent of your own adventurous spirit. Blessings to you!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. I’m just delighted that friends and relatives have enjoyed my blog and in particular my uncle before he died – he said it kept him alive .. gave him an interest, and my mother too – she has just taken the blog to her heart and it is always a talking point.

I’m honoured that you’re reminded of female explorers .. adventurous yes – more probably uncovering frontiers of my own mind! Your third book sounds really interesting and I’m looking forward to being able to read it.

I have always been interested in the polymath, Lord Bute, and similar persons of varied learning ... their constant ability to find out new things .. and those explorers, and unsung heroes – amaze me.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories