The Frankincense Trail
The origin or the word frankincense is uncertain. Some scholars say that 'frank' can be translated as "true" or "honest," therefore the interpretation being "true incense." Another explanation sees the word as a combination of the Old French word franc meaning "pure" or "abundant," added to the Latin word incensum, meaning "to kindle."
Although there are affordable grades of frankincense, the highest quality resin is very, very costly. But during ancient times it was even more expensive. An average person could likely not afford it.
Frankincense, an oleo-gum resin, comes from a deciduous, shrub-like tree of the Burseraceae (balsam) family. The genus is Boswellia, and various species within this genus are used to obtain the resin. The tree has particular habitat requirements. There was an attempt in Egypt around 1480 BC, detailed in the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor, to import frankincense and myrrh trees and establish them for local use. The rains destroyed the trees. Moisture must be provided principally by mist, not rain (with the possible exception of B. frereana). The trees tend to grow in very dry climates rich in limestone, often in crags where they cling to the rocks with a sucker-like appendage and little or no soil.
In Dhofar, the area most famous for high quality frankincense, the tree is thought to be a gift from God, thus they are not planted or watered deliberately. The tree is scored using a tool called a manqaf (mengaff or minquaf), making incisions one and a half to three inches long. The bark is removed revealing the red inner core of the branch. The resin oozes out from ducts in this core, dries in the sun for ten days to three weeks, and is collected. After having dried, the resin is semi-water soluble.
This family of trees has many sub-species and the one in question is the genus Boswellia. Although there are over twenty-five species of Boswellia, there are but a dozen used in the production of frankincense. The species Young Living uses for its essential oil is Boswellia carterii.
Frankincense is graded by various factors such as the time of the year that the resin is harvested, the color of the resin and the size of the "tears," and, of course, the fragrance. Generally, lighter color and large chunks are thought of as more valuable. The price is determined by these aspects and its distillation process.
Frankincense has been associated with spirituality since earliest antiquity, and the Frankincense tree is the oldest story tree in the world, with legends dating back (in recorded history) to 3,000 B.C. Some stories say frankincense date back to 10,000 B.C. but there aren't any writings dating back that far.
In 3,000 B.C. Frankincense had more value than gold. There was only one other thing that had more value than Frankincense and that, however, wasn’t gold – and that oil was Balsam. Interestingly, research from Israel suggests Balsam oil was called “gold.”
The researchers who found these latest scrolls and translations are saying now it might have been Balsam oil, Frankincense and Myrrh that was brought to the Christ Child - and not frankincense, myrrh and the metal gold. Frankincense, Myrrh and Balsam were very commonly used throughout the regions, and Balsam grew on the inland north slopes of southern Arabia, north of where the Frankincense trees grew then and still grow today.
Unfortunately, the Balsam trees are extinct. Southwest of Anguidae there is a wadi that comes down out of the canyon where the Balsam trees once grew abundantly. Balsam was distilled in the Judean desert around the time of or prior to the birth of Christ.
The Ruins of the Treasury
A huge wooden lid set on top of the distiller, the steam came through a port in the back, as the steam would come over the top of the water, the hot steam caused the water to agitate and the hotter the water would get, the more it would agitate. There would have been actual channels inside of the bottom of the lid that would have directed the steam across the top of the water. As it would agitate, it would be stirred, then the resin would float to the top, the agitation and the oil would start to come out of the resin through a separator and into the collection chamber. This is traditionally how the ancient people distilled essential oils.
When the researchers from Hypha University took the mortar samples out of the distilling chamber they found resins and residue of Frankincense, Myrrh, and of Balsam. It is believed to be very possible that the oils taken to the Christ Child at Bethlehem were from this distillery.
A large stone sits outside the doorway, much like the stone in the bible seen in images of Christ's tomb (Gary Young, founder of Young Living tried but was unable to budge the stone). This was the “treasury house” or a bank building where they processed and distilled the oils. The oils were more highly treasured than gold or silver.
Truth in Legends
"I love the stories and I have always had a feeling that legends have truth, and truths create legends, because as everybody tells the story they kind of embellish it just a little bit. You’ve all told a story and put your own spin on it. I’ve never heard a joke passed more than two generations. Generally, by the second generation or the third generation the joke is not funny anymore and that’s the end of it, so it’s never passed on.
Legends are passed on forever, just as I am here today passing on a legend to you that you will go home and share and pass on to your grand-children. It will go on and on because legends are born from truths, and truth carries forever. When I hear a legend, I pursue it and follow it to the root. This has taken me all over the world, and phenomenal experiences." ~ Gary Young
The Frankincense Trail and the City of 'Ad
Salalah was the Frankincense area, further up is the port of the Queen of Sheba, where the ships would dock with their linens, spices, silks and other goods. They brought cedar to trade for the Frankincense, Myrrh and Balsam (resins and oils). Just inland about 150 kilometers was the richest and oldest city in the world of the time, the City of 'Ad.
The City of Ad reigned for 35 years as the richest trading city in the entire world. Camel caravans would come over the Silk Road (also known as the the 'Frankincense Trail') into Southern Arabia, where they would cross the empty quarter. Some of the camel caravans would be two and three caravans strong – 6,000 camels to a caravan–crossing the empty quarter headed for Petra. This is where they would offload the camels and into the storage chambers. The majority of the Frankincense came out of the City of Od until 5,000 B.C.
The Treasure House
The treasure house was carved in place out of solid rock – the entire structure!
As you go through the doors there are rooms where they would offload the camels. The resins in one room, the Frankincense in another, the Myrrh in another, Balsam in another, and essential oils in alabaster containers in another room.
The merchants would come from Greece and Alexandria, Athens and Damask to gather around a big wooden table in the center of the room where they would sit with the bank president and the accountant to negotiate. After negotiations, the camels would be reloaded and make their journeys on to their respective countries.
What we know today is that the resin went to the distillery in the Jordanian desert west of Anguidae. We don’t know if the oils that were taken to Christ were distilled there or if they were carried all the way from the City of Ad, which is now called the Lost City of Ubar.
King Tutankhamun's Tomb
A total of 350 liters of essential oils were found in alabaster containers in 1922 when King Tutankhamun's tomb was opened. The oils in these containers were still viable and very usable even after 3,000 years. Samples of these oils were taken into a university lab where they were assayed through gas chromatograms (GS) and mass spectrometry (MS). It was found that the constituents in those oils from 3,000 years ago still as active and viable as a freshly distilled oil today!
The Condition of the Ancient Essential Oils
About 1" inside the jar the gums and waxes from the oil (because their method of distilling was relatively crude in those days) had solidified against the wall of the jars. This is called a “wax ring," but inside that wax ring the oils were just a viable as today.
Today people ask, “Well, if I buy Young Living oils, how long will they keep?” The answer is, if properly stored many will outlast you. Proper care is storing them away from direct light, and avoiding temperature extremes. It should also be noted that the top of an opened bottle should not be touched with the fingers - simply allow the essential oil to drip out of the bottle.
Well Guarded Frankincense Trees, Herodotus and the flying serpents
It is believed that the lost city of Ubar is in Shisr in Thumrayt. Ubar was the mythical city mentioned in the 'Tales of the Arabian Nights'. Much of Dhofar's frankincense was grown in this area and the ancient people would warn outsiders of the dangers of the 'flying snakes' - in order to keep them away and thus protect their livelihood.
In the history of Diodorus of Sicily, is a description of flying, dark red serpents which protected the frankincense trees. Herodotus, "the father of history," also describes these creatures. But Herodotus has also been called "the father of lies" because some of his history is fantastic and scholars have found inconsistencies of dating, etc. His description of the flying serpents is an unforgettable narrative and indeed the details do not sound credible.
Amazingly, this story is based on fact. Carpet vipers (echis) infest the mountains of Dhofar into the present time. These snakes coil up and strike high, almost as though they were flying. They are also said to leap onto victims from samur trees. The bite is quite toxic and there is no known antidote. The people who gathered the Frankincense resin had dogs that were trained to sniff out what the “carpet viper” or the “red flying snake.”
Through the Ages
The Manjawi civilization dwelt in the district of Belid between the 12th and 16th centuries. At this time, the area was renowned for its thriving import and export activities, the main exports being Arabian horses and frankincense.
Pythagoras, philosopher and priest of Apollo, exhorted the worshipers of Hellas to offer frankincense instead of sacrificing animals to the Gods, and, indeed, by 400 BC, blood sacrifice declined in favor of incense, particularly frankincense. According to incense historian Walter Muller, "It's resin was considered to be the blood of a tree, which was taken to be animate and divine."
In the writings of Herodotus (330 BC), the great traveler known as the "father of history," we find mention of a yearly tribute of a thousand talents (98,422 pounds) of frankincense to Babylon for worship at the great temple of Baal (Bel). By 1 AD, 3000 tons of frankincense were exported to Greece and Rome from Southern Arabia. The Romans considered frankincense to be the very finest incense to offer the Gods and this was reflected in the apex of its use in the 400 year period from the 2nd century BC through the 2nd century AD, the very peak of the ancient incense trade. The Egyptians made great use of frankincense and used many types of resins and gums in mummification, but frankincense was excluded because it was used solely for the worship of the Gods.
The Incense Trade
By 900 BC the incense trade had become a major mercantile component of the ancient world. Camel caravans and ships carried products such as balsam, myrrh and frankincense throughout the known world. With the advent of the Shebans to their immediate southwest, the People of 'Ad had to find a way around their competitors, so they redirected their trade routes directly across The Empty Quarter. There was a logistical problem associated with such a perilous journey, to that end they built the fabled city of Ubar.
Originally a small village, Ubar became a walled city known for it’s great wealth and the only source of available water before the perilous trek. It would have been surrounded at all times by thousands of tents throughout the vast oasis. If the stories are true, the vast wealth of 'Ad was used to create "an imitation of paradise" in the sand – and there still remains evidence of palm groves and orchards. The people and the city become well enough known throughout the ancient world to be mentioned in Claudius Ptolemy's Geographos (written in the 2nd century AD) as the land of the Iobaritae. To the Arab chroniclers it was called Irem of the Pillars.
The Lost City
It was the Arab chroniclers who tell the story of the destruction of Ubar. One popular story by the 13th century historian, Rashid al-Din, tells how the wicked and sinful Ubarites were punished in the following manner:
"And so God punished the people of Ubar with a great wind and a terrible noise from the clouds, which struck them dumb. Then, a voice rang out, "You shall perish!" When morning came, there was nothing to be seen except ruins. From that day on, Ubar belonged to evil creatures, each with a single arm, leg, and eye. And it was written that anyone who ventured near would be driven mad with fear."
Ubar turned into a fable and a cautionary tale about the lack of faith for the Muslims who followed. Intrigued by the stories, European explorers tried and failed to find Ubar; most notably T.E Lawrence who called it "The Atlantis of the Sands."
Believing that Ubar had been located somewhere deep in The Empty Quarter, in 1932 the British explorer, Harry St. John Philby (father of infamous Kim Philby) ventured into the forbidding wasteland. After a month of wandering, and probably close to being driven mad by the heat, he found something unexpected described here by a later explorer:
"Al-Hadida (the Wabar Impact Site). This strange place of black glass and white rocks represents a Hiroshima-Atom-Bomb-scale meteorite impact explosion. … There are at least three crater rims still visible, and the exposed wind-sorted ejecta field is about 500 by 1,000 meters in size, caused by an explosion-cloud that probably reached the stratosphere."
Philby looked in vain for the remains of the city at the blast site and found nothing. Could another extraterrestrial incident been responsible for the destruction of Ubar?
It was left to amateur archeologist Nicholas Clapp to solve the riddle of the missing city. Frustrated at the lack of detail in the ancient documents and maps he recruited the help of NASA. Imaging radar was used from the space shuttle in 1992 to discover the ancient caravan routes through the desert. More images from Landsat and SPOT showed the ancient routes converging at the eastern edge of the Empty Quarter, at the old oasis of Ash Shisr.
When Clapp and a team of archaeologists excavated the site at Ash Shisr, they found conclusive evidence that Ubar had indeed been located at the oasis. The surprise was that the legends were correct about the destruction of Ubar. The city unfortunately was located over an immense limestone cavern, a natural feature of the region (see photo.) For whatever reason, perhaps an earthquake, the city was swallowed up by the very earth it stood on.
Not only is frankincense a holy gift to the Gods, but it is a great help to mankind.
In Search of Frankincense: Gary Young's Adventure