The Great Trade Routes: The Scent Route

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The journey to the east

The Great Trade Routes: The Scent Route

There is nothing more symbolic of the mystery and adventure of faraway lands (remember The Journey to the West?) as the lines once laid out along the world’s great trade routes. Besides exotic goods such as silk, scents, and spices, such ways also brought new ideas, new technologies, and new faiths over vast distances.

Why a trade route for incense?

The oldest of these trade routes was the Incense Route. It connected the aromatic-growing Arabian regions with the ancient incense-hungry kingdoms of Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. The Queen of Sheba used this desert route to meet King Solomon, and, as the legend goes, the «wise men» brought gifts of frankincense and myrrh to Jesus child.

Asia Silk Road
Map of the Different Incense trails

Though frankincense and myrrh were presents in the Christmas story to Jesus, not many people realize that incense was as precious as gold. The Arab historian al-Tabri reported the smoke of incense reached heaven like no other smoke did (the smoke of pollution that we now send directly to «heaven» every day would be scandalized al-Tabri ).

Resin from the frankincense tree, Boswellia sacra, belongs to the many aromatic substances like myrrh and aloe wood, releasing a pleasant, penetrating smell when burnt. Its prize was so high in ancient cultures that almost all Mediterranean and Middle Eastern peoples considered it vital to their religious rituals. It calmed the angry gods, and in those days, they feared it would vent their wrath in the form of drought, plague, or some other disaster.

Asia Europe Silk Road
The Frankincense tree

Besides religious rituals

incense was also used in funeral rites. Plinius wrote that Nero (apart from burning Rome…) burnt a year’ production of frankincense from Arabia at the burial of his wife Poppea Sabina (This is a token of love and not a bunch of roses…). Frankincense was used to embalm corpses — as found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb — and Celsus, the 1st-century Roman medical author, claimed that the ancient Greeks used it to treat hemorrhoids (a real cure-all…).

The road and its itineraires

First produced in southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa

and then exported through northern Arabia to Petra, frankincense was as vital to the Middle East’s economies as oil is today (hopefully not tomorrow). The route from Petra via Sinai, Egypt, and Gaza led to Rome, and an eastern road via Palmyra led to Mesopotamia. As Roman power was established in the Levant, the last sections of the route were run by Syrian traders trading under Rome’s control.


Palmyra retained its autonomy from Rome and played a crucial role in international trade: A dessert port for caravans entering and leaving Mesopotamia and a major junction on the Silk Road and the Incense Road. This prosperous Syrian city was on the verge of becoming the capital of a great eastern state under its cultured and courageous Queen Zenobia, but Emperor Aurelian conquered it and brought it back into subjection to Rome. The ‘pearl of the desert’, as it was known, was a nerve centre and an obligatory stop on the caravan route through the desert wastelands.

Ruins of Palmira 

The Frankincense Route was full of complications for the early people, who struggled through relentless terrains in long camel caravans of thousands of people. There was a lack of maps and navigation systems (No GPS by then… although they were excellent at guiding by the stars and, indeed, more autonomous than we are now.), a constant presence of highway robbers and various kingdoms along the trail that tried to collect tolls at the slightest opportunity. All these aspects meant that the route was not a fixed one, and often new roads opened up, which made some cities richer and others poorer, as the camel caravan traveled along the route. The journey could take six months, had fifty stops, and was a challenge to survive it at all times. 


Crossing the Syrian Desert, they surrounded Palmyra (less spectacular after Islamic State militias occupied it in May 2015, dynamiting for the sake of intolerance the Temple of Bel and the Temple of Baal Shamin and destroying the unique funerary towers and the famous Arc de Triomphe). Then they passed through Jordan, Amman (named Philadelphia 2000 years ago), and Aqaba on the Red Sea. Aqaba was complementary to Petra’s trading activities — the nearby capital of the Nabataeans — and the trade routes of Wadi Rum. 

The road from the origin to the markets was not an easy one

From Aqaba, caravans arrived at Tabuk.

Two years before his death, it was there that the Prophet Muhammad signed treaties with the tribes of northwestern Arabia, a momentous event that consolidated Islam throughout the peninsula. Moreover, it also cleared the way for Islam’s expansion into Byzantine-controlled Palestine and well beyond. Tabuk’s road to Madinah also took pilgrims to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city as the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and where the sacred book for Muslims (Qur’an) was composed.

Mada’in Saleh, considered the second most crucial site of Nabataean culture after Petra, was the next stop. The Nabataeans held the northern part of the rich trade routes, and Mada’in Saleh was considered to be on the border they had with the southern Arabs. Southern tribes held the ways to south Yemen, where Madinah, once a bustling crossroads for the camel caravans that were Arabia’s lifeline, and today the second holiest city in Islam, was located. It used to be a crucial stage on the Incense Route.


Mada'in Saleh, considered the second most crucial site of Nabataean culture

Transported from Dhofar, now Oman, and the Horn of Africa by sea, and then carried overland in camel caravans, incense brought wealth to southern Arabia. All this wealthy trade paid its dues to the Arab kingdoms whose territory it passed through in the form of taxes, duties, and transit tolls (This business of paying taxes everywhere and for any reason has not changed… perhaps even got worse…). There were also commissions to the Arab traders who carried it (At the very least, these traders earned their commission for the effort and risks they faced).

The beginning of the end

As the Roman Empire waned, the use of incense dropped somewhat;

   though Christians also used incense at religious services and other religious ceremonies, the quantities were relatively small. Surprisingly, the use of incense did not feature in early Christian practices. It was often used in pagan sacrifices and was part of the Emperor’s honouring as a deity. Thus, Christians avoided burning incense in their religious celebrations. Not until the 4th or 5th century did scent begin to be used in ordinary Christian worship. 

A further reason was the difficulty of finding enough people willing to take on the difficult work of collecting the incense resin. Nowadays, in Spain, orange trees are left on the trees as the cost of collecting them is higher than the selling price. Its harvesting started with the peeling of bark strips from the Boswellia Sacra trunk. The collectors had to use a kind of small knife. The resin exuded from those wounds and then hardened into crystals, which were then scraped off the tree and collected in double-handled baskets made of palm leaves woven together.

Manual recollection of resin from Frankincense

In the 20th century, in the 1940s, Aden merchants were still handling thousands of rubber and aromatic resins, including frankincense, but Rome developed an artificial substitute in that year. This event was the death blow to the Oman incense trade. The new alternative lacked the Eastern mystical sensation and its smoke was not white at all but it smelled like frankincense and was… guess it… much cheaper. 


And here we come to the end of the first great trade route in history…

… If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse, and I will be happy to hear from you.

The journey to the East
Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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