The Frankincense Trees of Wadi Dawkah

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For more than 5,000 years, the Arabs have traded two highly prized fragrances —frankincense and myrrh— obtained from trees that grow exclusively in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. The dried, aromatic sap was transported by caravan across the Sinai desert to Egypt, via the so called “incense route”, from where they were loaded onto ships and sailed to far away destinations across the Mediterranean Sea.

Frankincense and myrrh were in high demand from Europe to Asia. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Israelites and numerous other cultures used these perfumes as part of their religious ceremonies, and in burial rituals as an embalming material, and as an offering to the departed. Frankincense was one of the three gifts brought to the baby Jesus by the three wise men, according to The Gospel of Matthew.

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Photo credit: Chris Price/Flickr

Besides its aromatic properties, frankincense has many practical uses. The smoke from burning frankincense drives away mosquitoes and other flying insects. Traditionally, Frankincense has been used to cure a wide variety of afflictions, including ulcers, hypertension, nausea, fever, indigestion, chest coughs and post-childbirth recovery.

The incense trade flourished between the 13th century BCE and the 4th century CE, making the Arabs merchants some of the richest in the world. But once Christianity became the dominant religion, cremation was replaced by burials which led to a significant decrease in the demand for incense. The use of cosmetics for body care also diminished drastically in the Christian world, which frowned on luxuriousness and indulgence in bodily pleasures. The perfume trade slowly died out and many cities along the trade routes were gradually deserted.

Population of the frankincense tree itself has been slowly declining, partly due to over-exploitation. In addition, burning, grazing, and attacks by the longhorn beetle have reduced the tree population.

One of the original sites where this tree grew, and still grows, is Wadi Dawkah in Oman. This dry valley has an estimated 5,000 frankincense trees growing, the oldest of which are estimated to be more than 200 years old. The sap from the trees is still harvested here by the local tribes.

The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah, along with the remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr and the abandoned settlements of Khor Rori and Al-Baleed have been collectively inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as “The Land of Frankincense Sites.”

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Photo credit: viktor.manuela/Flickr

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Photo credit: keith jarvis/Panoramio

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Photo credit: Geo S/Panoramio

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Photo credit: Chris Price/Flickr

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Photo credit: Dave Harris/Flickr

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Frankincense resins. Photo credit: snotch/Wikimedia

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Photo credit: Adriaan Bloem/Flickr

Sources: UNESCO / Go UNESCO / Wikipedia / Live Science / www.wysinfo.com

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