Familiar by name, yet otherwise perf this much fabled Arabian tree has been as famous as it has been elusive since long before the birth of Christ, when the three wise men from the East brought it as a gift to that humble stable in Bethlehem. We do not know how far the use of Frankincense goes back in time, but we do know that it already scented the Egyptian Temples to honour Ra and Horus and it is said that Queen Sheba brought a great number of Frankincense trees as a special gift for King Solomon.
Unfortunately those trees were destined to die as Frankincense trees only grow in a very limited geographic range and very arid conditions. Nevertheless, it’s the thought that counts and bringing all these trees was indeed a very strong sign of honour and respect. In the ancient world incense trees fuelled the economy of the Arab world as oil does today. Trading cities positioned at important points of the spice or incense routes prospered considerably thanks to the thoroughfare business.
At one time Frankincense was more valuable than gold – needless to say, a situation much relished by the traders who only benefited from the obscurity and remoteness of the trees. Legend had it that the trees only grew in the most inhospitable mountainous places, guarded by dragon-like creatures that would readily strike out at any intruder. Obviously such stories were invented to scare off any attempts of enterprising and adventurous young men who otherwise perhaps might have ventured in search of the trees to do a little harvesting themselves. But, scare tactics aside, the long journey across the desert was no amble down the garden path – it was fraught with peril and as potentially dangerous as it was lucrative.
There are several regions where Frankincense grows, of which Oman, Somalia and Ethiopia are the most important suppliers today. Now as in the days of Solomon the most important use of Frankincense was as a sacred offering for the Gods. And although the worldwide demand for it has broadened, the actual worldwide consumption used to be far greater than it is now. Much Frankincense is still gathered in the traditional way from wild growing trees. The trees, although provided by nature, ‘belong’ as deliberated by unspoken agreement, to particular families who live nearby and who claim the right to harvest them.
In the ancient world all Frankincense trees were decreed to belong to the King and only he negotiated the harvesting rights with the various merchants for a goodly fee. Studies have shown that where families take a ‘guardian’ position towards the trees they are far better cared for and protected as naturally any desert dweller will be quite careful to protect the source of their livelihood compared to roving harvesters who do not have any vested interest in the welfare of a particular tree.