On The Frankincense Trail
During the heydays of the frankincense trade, there were essentially two ways of getting the product from southern Arabia to the spice markets in Rome, Alexandria, and Damascus, where it was sold. Buyers burned the aromatic, golden nuggets of sap in temples and coveted it as a fragrance.
One route was by camel, a two-and-a-half month, 1250-mile journey that began here at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, in the coastal mountains of modern-day Oman. It continued through what is now Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.
The other route was by ship, heading west along the coast of the peninsula and on up into the Red Sea to Egypt. At least, that's how simple it looks on a map, but during the days of the Roman empire, when the frankincense trade was at its height, information on the region was a little hard to come by. There were few maps. First century Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, wrote...
Pliny: "No Latin writer, so far as I know, has decsribed the appearance of the frankincense tree. The ambassadors who have come to Rome from Arabia in my time have made all these matters still more uncertain."
And with good reason. The frankincense industry netted Arab merchants some 85 tons of coined silver annually, and that was just through trade with Rome. Frankincense fetched similar prices in Egypt, Syria, Persia and as far east as China where it was exchanged for fine porcelain. The last thing Arab traders wanted was to let someone else get a piece of this action, so they remained tight-lipped when it came to the location of the trees and methods of harvest. They strategically leaked bits of false information, such as horror stories of winged serpents that guarded the frankincense groves.
Another piece of vital information was the behavior of the trade winds here along the Arabian Sea coast, where wooden dhows - classic, galleon-shaped commercial vessels - still ply the waters, albeit under diesel power now instead of sails.
No one's sure exactly who first figured out how to use the trade winds, those gusts and breezes that blow northeast towards India during the winter monsoons, and then switch back the opposite way in summer. But by the first century AD, the knowledge had fallen in the hands of the Greeks, so the story goes, through one of those momentous, historical mishaps.
Clement: "An Indian sailor was washed up on the Red Sea coast of Egypt."
Colin Clement is an historian at the Center for Alexandrian Studies in Alexandria, Egypt.
Clement: "And he was brought to Alexandria, taught how to speak Greek, so that he could then explain the secrets of using the monsoon winds."
Once the Romans got their hands on this information, they did what any good businessmen would do, cutting out the middle men. In this case, the Arab traders who, with their exclusion from the frankincense trade, went from being the wealthiest people on earth to nomads. They eked out livings selling goats and camels, which is pretty much how it went around here for nearly 2000 years, until the discovery of oil.
Flies buzzing in the midmorning heat are now about the only signs of life at some of the ancient frankincense ports - places like Khor Rori in southern Oman, a forgotten pile of stones on the edge of the desert, overlooking the tranquil, turquoise emptiness of its once-thriving harbor.
Others were absorbed by nearby ports, like al-Mukullah in southern Yemen, where you can still find frankincense, if you ask for it by its Arabic name, bakhoor. Al-Mukullah is one of several towns typically included on frankincense trail itineraries offered by a variety of U.S. tour operators. Since I knew Yemen was a notoriously risky place for tourists - long before the recent terrorist attack in Aden - and it was next on my agenda, I thought I'd hook up with one such outfit, Geographic Expeditions. It's one of the oldest tour operators in the region.
The distant lands of the Persian and Roman empires lay north across the desert sands, where camel caravans once stretched for miles, laden with goatskins full of frankincense, myrhh, and the spices of the east.
In al-Mukullah on the coast of Yemen, I'm Tom Verde for the Savvy Traveler.
|American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen