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Frankincense Trail

When the wise men journeyed to Bethlehem with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it's more than likely they did so by camel. Without these so-called ships of the desert, trade in frankincense... the aromatic sap of the frankincense tree... and other goods would never have been possible. In our series on the ancient frankincense trade route, we join the Savvy Traveler's Tom Verde as he picks up the trail by camel.

On The Frankincense Trail
Part Four
by Tom Verde

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Frankincense Trail

First, some clarifications. The Arabian camel or dromedary, stands about seven feet at the shoulder and has only one hump, whereas the bactrian camel, it's shorter, stockier Asian cousin is the one with two. Secondly, camels do not store water in their humps, which are primarily made of fat.. Yes, fat, which they can live off of for several days, if need be, on desert treks of 100 miles or more. Another secret to the camel's endurance is its unenviable diet of thorny, desert scrub, which not only provides sustenance but moisture. Throw in some broad, callused feet that can slog through scorching dunes and a pair of sandstorm-resistant, rather endearing, human-like eyelashes, and you've got one of nature's most skillfully adapted creatures in one of her most brutally inhospitable environments.

...places like southern Jordan's Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and nomadic Bedouin tribesmen still travel by camel from campsite to campsite, as did I, even though some may also have a pickup truck parked next to their tent.

Tom: "What does he ask?"

Translator: "He ask, come to drink tea."

Tom: "You sure? Do we have time?"

Beneath the shade of a black, goat-hair tent, my host, Ogla Joma, tells me his family keeps camels for their milk, which they sell, and their hair, which provided the raw material for the rug I was sitting on. This sort of commercial reliance on camels dates back some 4,000 years, when the animals were first domesticated... a true benchmark in the history of the frankincense trade which, up until that time, had been local, limited by its dependence on donkeys that were incapable of traveling great distances through the desert.

And as the great caravans... some numbering a 1,000 animals or more... stretched for miles across the desert, they left civilizations in their wakes... civilizations that might never have existed had it not been for the trade and the camels that supported it.

Frankincense Trail

McColl: "The trade and the merchants bring cultures together."

Robert McColl is a geography professor at the University of Kansas whom I met up with in Saudi Arabia and who specializes in how cultures in arid climates develop trade.

McColl: "One has to think it has the equivalent of Wild West rodeo days when all these people came in from all these cultures, bringing all these different products, saying 'Okay I'll give you three pearls and two bags of incense for a piece of lapis lazuli' or something."

Another legacy of these colorful marketplaces... the old section of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a for example... are the Caravanseri. These often rectangular, two-story buildings with shops and storehouses facing an inner courtyard still survive in many cities throughout the Middle East, and were specifically built, says World Bank restoration architect Bruce Polluck, as loading docks for camel caravans.

Polluck: "The animals in many cases would come right inside the building. They would unload the animal, then they'd take the animal out to a yard somewhere farther out where they would be watered and kept during the period of their stay."

Sami: "You remember in the presentation, we have a picture for a camel, and going in the main corridor, this is the point."

In the Saudi Arabian Red Sea port city of Jeddah, preservation official Sami Saleh Nawar gives tours of the Naseef House, built in the 19th century by merchants who mandated that its stairwells be wide enough to accommodate camels. So important were the animals to the local economy, said Sami, that they were even protected, by law, from their... competition.

Frankincense Trail

Sami: "You know the first amendment in driving in Saudi Arabia. It says don't make too much horn so the camel caravan, uh, the camel not run away.

Considering all they've done for civilization, it seems ungrateful, if not traitorous, to even mention one more popular use for camels here in southern Oman and throughout the Middle East.

Verde: "All right, now which one is this, is this the grilled one?"

Arab: "This is the grilled one. This one they roll it and cook it in oil."

Verde: "So it's fried?"

Arab: "Yes, it's fried."

Verde: "This is good, the fried one is good."

Just for the record, barbecued or fried, camel meat tastes like a cross between pastrami and, you guessed it, chicken.

On the frankincense trail in the Sultanate of Oman, I'm Tom Verde for The Savvy Traveler

Air transportation and accomodations in Oman provided by the Oman Ministry of Information. Air transportation and accommodations in Saudi Arabia provided by Saudi Arabian Airlines. Air transportation and accommodations in Jordan provided by Jordan Tourism Board.



{ On the Frankincense Trail: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five }


Savvy Resources:

Cultural Note: When visiting Muslim countries (especially Saudi Arabia), it's best to dress conservatively: long pants, not shorts, for men; long pants or knee-length skirts and shirts that cover the shoulders for women. Some mosques are off-limits to non-Muslims; ask the door attendant before entering, and remember to remove your shoes. Also, ask permission before taking pictures of people, especially women who generally object to having their picture taken. No photos of military zones or outposts. Alcohol is available in the hotels, but don't expect it in all restaurants.

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