ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Scents of Time and Place

Echoes of gold, frankincense and myrrh

Ilm al-djamal is Arabic for “all that is beautiful to the senses.”

In the ancient world, particularly in the Middle East, beauty was as important as air. It was in the gardens the people designed, the houses they built, the words they wrote, the very bowls they used, the candlesticks they carried, the fabrics they wove and the gifts they gave.

So when Christians ponder the gifts of the Magi as commemorated in the West during the feast of the Epiphany, the precious gold and fragrant frankincense and myrrh do not seem unusual for that time and place.

What was unusual is that these gifts were presented to a child whose significance was yet to be understood.

St. Irenaeus in his “Adversus Haereses” claimed the gifts were symbolic. Jesus was presented with gold for a King’s wealth, frankincense as the fragrance offered to divinity and myrrh as the balm used to anoint the dead.

Although the identity of the Magi remains a mystery (they have been variously described as wise men, kings, priests or magicians), we know for certain that firmly established trade routes enabled the travelers to bring their offerings from remote areas to Palestine. The three gifts, including gold that in today’s market would cost about $325 per ounce, would have been a kingly offering.

Scents were believed to bring good will and good wishes. Frankincense and myrrh were used to perfume ceremonial oils. When burned, the smoke was thought to bring prayers to the heavens.

Even today, during liturgies of the Eastern and Western churches, incense is often burned.

In the Arab world, the scenting of guests is a gesture that has been in practice for more than 1,000 years. Scents stimulate the senses. The silk or cotton tassels of the dishdashas worn by men of the Gulf are sewn into the garment for this reason.

The perfume on the tassels lasts all day and serves as a gentle greeting as men welcome each other by offering their tassels to smell.

The Bible has no shortage of references to frankincense and myrrh resins cultivated from desert-growing trees. Oils scented with them are noted nearly 200 times.

When God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai he prescribed that a sacred ointment should contain quantities of pure myrrh and perfume or incense should contain quantities of frankincense. The use of frankincense by the Jews is noted in the Pentateuch as an ingredient to be used with the bread of the Sabbath and stored with other valued spices in the great chamber of the Temple at Jerusalem.

Following the crucifixion, Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes for the linen shroud of Jesus. Indeed, the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the cross may have been formed from the sharp claws of the myrrh bush.

Oman was the starting point for the frankincense trail that took the fragrant gums from what are now Oman, Yemen and Somalia and sent them up the Red Sea to Egypt and throughout the reaches of the Roman Empire. The gums that bubble from the trees into pearly white beads can still be found in southern Oman. Herodotus wrote that more than two tons were burned annually in the Temple of Baal in Babylon. Darius, King of Persia, received some 25 tons of incense every year. Nero was a great lover of the scent and burned a year’s worth of the crop at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea.

The Egyptians embalmed their kings with frankincense and considered the fruit of the Boswellia or frankincense tree the perfume of the gods that, when collected and preserved correctly, ensured immortality. Pliny noted in the first century A.D. how control of the frankincense trade had made the southern Arabians the richest people in the world. It was said the trees were so valuable that snakes guarded them.

Today, in Oman’s southernmost region of Dhofar, which borders Saudi Arabia’s vast and empty Rub al-Khali desert to the north and west and the upper curve of southern Yemen to the south, the stubby, thorny trees live where little else will. The trees can only grow when a complex set of conditions has been met: limestone soil and a climate with high humidity in a desert that receives little rain.

In Oman, frankincense accounted for three-quarters of the country’s gross national product until the bottom fell out of what was once a thriving trade. The finest grades of frankincense are still used for high-end perfume manufacturing. But gums of all grades can be found in the local souqs, especially “frankincense alley” in the country’s southern port of Salalah and the perfume market at Mutrah Souq in Oman’s capital, Muscat. The people who buy are local, burning it for its antiseptic purposes, perfuming hair with the smoke, chewing it for digestion.

The frankincense trees release their aromatic amber for only a few weeks in late summer. Gathering the resin has been a family-run business for centuries. Then, as now, the harvesting skill has been passed from father to son.

Musallem Rehaba, 61, moves through a grove of trees that his family has owned for more than 200 years – although the trees are much older – hacking at the bark with a mangis or chafing tool. Although it is March and nowhere near harvesting season, white tears bead up along the newly exposed bark but do not make enough of a globule to collect in the tin bucket he has placed by the roots.

The area is strewn with empty bottles and bleached bones, remnants of picnics from last summer when the family spent days collecting resin on the wind-swept hill. Rehaba’s sons help him, but they will not take over the trade when their father dies.

“Harvests are better than when I was little and watched my own father work with the trees,” said Rehaba.

“Even though we are Bedouins we have a house and many camels and this work is very hard. We did this because it was our tradition. But money? Nothing much. I do not know what will happen to the trees.

“Only the people who live around them can touch them. It is easy to ruin a tree. You have to know where to cut,” he said. As he goes about making cuts, he sings a song about the frankincense trees that his father used to sing when he was harvesting.

Omani frankincense is top grade – pure and very rare – and accounts for about 10 percent of the 600 tons that are harvested worldwide each year. And it is expensive – about double what other grades cost.

Much like in biblical times when the Magi offered the most valuable essences known to man, the practice continues. When presented in a gold coffer, the gift of hard-hewn, pearls of frankincense and myrrh remains precious.

Lark Ellen Gould writes about Middle Eastern culture and arts. Ilene Perlman’s pictures are regularly featured in CNEWA WORLD.

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