Uses

Frankincense is obtained by making a series of cuts in the bark of the trunk and branches of the tree, from which the gum-resin exudes. The cuts are often very rough but if limited, the trees suffer no permanent damage.

There are 2 cutting seasons for frankincense: the autumn cutting yields highly aromatic white gum while the spring cutting yields an inferior red-brown gum.

Although frankincense is less important than it once was, the trees still form an important part of local economies and trade continues to supply perfumers.

Traditionally, frankincense had both sacred and more mundane uses, including:

  • as incense - used for all important religious rituals and occasions, and so complete was this link, frankincense gave rise to what was known as the ‘odour of sanctity’ associated with sainthood
  • as a medicine - used internally and externally to combat almost every disease and condition - both physical and mental - in humans and animals by physicians from Rome and ancient Greece to the Middle East, India and China
  • as a cosmetic and skin care product - powdered, low-grade frankincense was used for this purpose
  • in warfare - it was mixed with pitch, sulphur and other ingredients to produce an almost inextinguishable fire to burn enemy strongholds and was also fed to war elephants to enrage them before battle

In the ancient world, gums were a highly valued commodity and it was no accident that frankincense (along with gold and another gum-resin, myrrh) was one of the gifts brought by the wise men to Jesus. This was the period when the frankincense trade was at its peak and the gum was deemed as valuable as gold. There were, and still are, numerous grades of frankincense which depend on:

  • the species
  • the area of origin
  • the growing conditions
  • the harvesting season

The different grades are given a bewildering variety of local names.

Frankincense was known to the Sumerians (around 3500 BC) and over the centuries a thriving trade developed between producing areas and markets as far away as Europe, India and China. At its height, the trade supplied 3,000 tons to the Roman Empire alone. Twice a year, camel trains carried high value cargoes along the Incense Road from areas including Oman and Yemen via cities such as Damascus and ports such as Alexandria and Gazza to be sold in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean markets and beyond. The trade was extremely lucrative and attracted high taxes from towns along the routes.

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