The earliest known recorded historical reference to frankincense is found in the Bible (circa. 1491 B.C.). Shortly after the Exodus out of Egypt, God instructed Moses to make a most holy incense of finely milled stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense, which was to be burned in the golden altar before the Holy of Holies in the morning and evening, where God would meet with him. The smoke thereof is believed to carry the prayers and intercession of the people up to God as a sweet fragrance. (See Ex. 30, Ps. 141:2, Is. 66:3, Rev. 5:8b, Rev. 8:3-4). According to Talmudic legend, members of the Cohanim House of Avitnas, who lived on the Temple Mount, were the sole guardians of the method for making the formula, the smoke of which is said to have risen in a vertical column, and which Jewish mystics say could raise an ordinary person to the spiritual level of prophecy, capable of seeing from one side of the earth to the other. The method of preparing the incense is believed to have been lost with the destruction of the second Temple, and efforts are currently underway to reconstruct the method.
While frankincense is known to have grown in the Valley of Levonah (Valley of Frankincense) in Israel, it has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years.
The world’s finest frankincense comes from Oman, which is derived from the species Boswellia sacra, and is prized for its light color and clean lemony citrus aroma. The more green the color, the more this lemony citrus aroma yields to a lemony-lime citrus aroma. In Oman, the best quality frankincense is found in the Dhofar region where the climate, rich dense limestone soil, intense heat, and dry air make for superior quality and production.
For 1,700 years, Arab traders moved large camel trains along a 2,400 mile series of routes later called the Frankincense Trade Route, which generally went from Oman, down through Yemen, to Aden, up the western coast of Saudi Arabia, through Petra, a virtually impenetrable fortress, then onto the Holy Land where it was shipped to empires of the ancient world. Some of these camel trains were comprised of more than 1,000 camels, each carrying about 450 pounds. It was a dangerous trek through rocky mountains and barren desert. The path of the Frankincense Trade Route is so well-worn into the Earth, it is easily distinguishable from satellite.
Matthew 2 tells us magoi (magi), men from the east, delivered gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold to Messiah. Who were these magoi? They were powerful and wealthy kingmakers. Their nod of consent is what drove fear into King Herod’s heart, sufficient to make him want to kill young Messiah. Now, Biblical prophet Daniel was a eunuch, and undoubtedly died a very wealthy man being preferred above presidents and princes in the Babylonian empire, east of Jerusalem (Dan. 6:3). It is believed by many that Daniel imparted the astrological event announcing the birth of Messiah to his fellow Jewish Chaldean magoi, and left instructions to reserve his wealth until such time that it should be delivered to the Messiah upon His arrival. More than 500 years after Daniel's death, at the appearance of this astrological event, Daniel's treasure finally reappears being delivered by an unknown number of Jewish Chaldean magoi from the east to young Messiah at Joseph and Mary's home in Beit-l'chem (Bethlehem) providing at least needed funds for Joseph and Mary’s flight with young Messiah to Egypt under threat by King Herod, who sought to kill him.1
Frankincense was worth its weight in gold, literally. Vast fortunes were made. In the 1st Century, Pliny wrote that the people of this Arabian land were the richest in the world. Pliny also recorded that alabaster containers were the preferred means of storing raw incense resins and for good reason. Of the 350 liters of resins stored in alabaster containers found in King Tut's tomb in 1922, the resins were still as active and viable as recently harvested, even after 3,000 years.
Herodotus described large numbers of pterodactyl-like creatures guarding the frankincense trees in Arabia, which made gathering the frankincense very difficult. The workers had to wear protective ox hides and drive them out with fires of odorous smoke before being able to gather the resins.
Harvesting frankincense remains dangerous for the Omani people. Historical references also say that the frankincense trees were guarded by great numbers of small, lethal, winged snakes, which leapt off trees to bite people. Carpet vipers (Echis) infest the mountains of Dhofar. They coil up and strike high as though they are flying through the air. They are said to leap onto victims from trees, are extremely aggressive, and among the species responsible for most snake bite cases and related deaths in the world. Harvesters used smoke of storax to drive them away from the trees.
Frankincense was charred and ground into a powder to make the heavy kohl eyeliner Egyptians are known for. It is said the Queen of Sheba built a palace in the ancient port of Zafar, now Salalah, Oman, and traveled there to buy frankincense, the ancient and modern heart of frankincense trade. The Biblical prophet Job, who lived almost 3,500 years ago, is believed to be buried in Salalah.
What remains of the trade today is mainly in the hands of the Bait Kathir tribe, about 6,000 individuals, who inhabit the central, northern and western parts of Dhofar, and, to a lesser degree, al-Mahra tribes, also about 6,000 individuals, inhabiting the southwest and southeast part of Nejd in Dhofar, in whose territories, the desert plateau above Salalah, is where the best frankincense trees grow in soils high in calcium carbonates of powdery lime or concretions. Frankincense and less common Acacia etbaica are the dominant trees in Nejd. Nejd is a gently sloping plain, falling from the Dhofar Jabels toward the sand dunes of the Arub Al Khali. As recently confirmed from locals and the Omani Ministry of Commerce, contrary to claims made by at least one American company, the Omani government has not transferred any of these tribal lands to them to tend. Those lands, as well as the frankincense trees which grown on them, remain exclusively in the hands of the Bait Kathir and al-Mahra tribes.
Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church is said either burn Somali frankincense or a cheap chemical substitute, which is melded into a shiny, rock-like conglomerate and distributed in brown chunks that are broken apart by a hammer, which lacks the mystical feel of the east. Although it smells like frankincense, its smoke is by no means white. 2 One article reports that up to 90% of the products labeled as frankincense are actually synthetic counterfeits. 3 These counterfeits sell at attractive prices and do not have the therapeutic benefits of real frankincense.
People have consumed and used frankincense topically for thousands of years. The locals in Oman burn the frankincense in their homes and businesses; soak the resin in water overnight, then drink the water the following day; and chew on it like gum. Frankincense has over 200 molecular compounds, and recent research is showing great promises of its medical properties. For example, see Frankincense in Recent Traditional Medicine. Some use the gum and oil topically and internally by chewing and/or eating the royal and superior hojari resins, because they typically contain less impurities (e.g., tree bark, etc.). Frankincense is said to have antibacterial, anti-cancer (being able to differentiate between cancer and healthy bladder cells; activates genes that suppress cell growth and cell death; separates the nucleus of the cancer cell from the cytoplasm and closes down the nucleus to stop it reproducing corrupted DNA codes), anti-convulsant, anti-fungal, ant-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-tumor, immunomodualtory (regulation of immune system), and immunostimulant (stimulating immune system), and repairing DNA properties being able to tell the cell what the right DNA code should be, and it’s used by some to treat anxiety, arthritis, asthma, colitis, cramps, depression, digestion (stimulating bile flow and enzyme secretion), emotional disorders, fumigant (both disinfect public spaces and elevates spirit), gout, high blood pressure, insomnia, kidney failure, mouth (chewing resin to strengthen teeth and gums), muscle aches, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), pain relief, panic attacks, rheumatism, skin health encouraging healthy growth and regeneration of skin cells, stress, ulcers, and urinary tract infections. Some use frankincense powder is creams, soaps, candles, oil burners, as an additive in toothpaste, with coffee, to make tea, and even in ice cream.
I purchased a young frankincense tree about 8" high, and eventually realized it is, well, singularly in want of solitude, as though it is sacred, above humanity in some indescribable divine way. If I hovered over it too much, it started dropping leaves, so I avoided examining it closely as much as possible. One day, I accidentally snapped a branch off, and called the grower it was purchased from as to a course of action. He similarly described his stock explaining, except for minimal care, he leaves his alone, and avoids stopping to look at it when he's walking by, and that his also drops leaves if he interacts with it. Perhaps this explains why the finest frankincense comes from Boswellia sacra, which enjoys idyllic solitude of craggy hillsides on the edge inhospitable deserts.
1. Hosea 11:1; Matt. 2:13-23.
2. John Lawton, Oman, Frankincense.
3. One Man Pioneering Fair-Trade Organic Frankincense Industry.