TOAST Magazine

The Story of Frankincense

TRAVEL & PLACE

Sophie Vent traces the story of Frankincense, from the Holy Land to the Mediterranean. 

Spiny grey trees grow from the cracked soil of South Oman. The papery barks are marked with scars that have healed since the last ‘tapping’. Beneath, ground fingering roots weave between stones, searching for water that has fallen months previously. Few other species can survive here, except the occasional passing snake that takes shade in the branches.

Boswellia Sacra trees are capable of thriving in unforgiving conditions, resigned to their fate as inhabitants of ‘arid woodland’. They have been farmed on the desert planes boarding the Dhofar mountains for over five thousand years, tapped 2 or 3 times a year for their sap; an aromatic resin known as frankincense.  The name derived from the French term franc esens meaning ‘pure incense’ or more literally (and intriguingly) ‘free lightning’.

The resinous sap is famous throughout the world for the sweet smelling smoke released on combustion. Plumes of this fragrant smoke filled the tomb of Tutankhamen, and the tents of nomadic tribes on the Arabian Peninsula, fumigating their living spaces and seeping into cushions and embroidered panels. Clouds of frankincense followed trade caravans from the Holy Land to the Mediterranean, mingling with the local fragrances of cypress, olive and balsam.

This unique scent hypnotised ancient people and became associated with spiritual purification. In many cultures uncleanliness was associated with illness and sweet smelling smokes would be used to mask bodily odours and musky living quarters. 

Fumigating clothes, bodies and domestic spaces with frankincense would dissipate impure odours and was thought to kill disease, creating cleanliness, a step closer to godliness. The idea of perfume, par fumer literally translated as ‘through smoke’, originated from this practice of smoking fabrics as a cleansing act, rather than purely to scent them.

As the smoke continued to spread it entered sacred spaces, purifying damp stone buildings and passing through dusty beams of light. In Jewish temples the smoke was used to segregate the Holy of Holies, a pure space for God to inhabit. Frankincense was gifted at the birth of Jesus and has anointed newborns in early Islam.

The smoke rises carrying the prayers of humankind to heaven, an offering to a multitude of gods. We have assigned frankincense a web of mystical properties to help us in times of need, protecting our spirits after death, separating the scared from the profane and ensuring our prayers can be heard; such great responsibility for the sap of Boswellia Sacra

The process of extraction is also charged with human concerns. The trees undergo a process of ‘bleeding’ and ‘scarring’ before the milky resin can be collected. Sap emerges from the exposed orange wood, swelling and congealing to form droplets known as ‘desert tears’.

The resin is farmed across the southern Arabic Peninsula where it is known as oilbanum, or al-lubān, translated as ‘that which results from milking’. It seems we perceive these trees as so much more than firewood and splinters.

Differences in soil and climate produce variations of the resin, with the purest and most sought after is collected at the final tapping of the year. This late resin is almost opaque and potently aromatic.

Historically the highest grade of frankincense was produced in Oman, but more recently Somalia has taken over as the premium exporter, supplying in bulk to the Roman Catholic Church.

The true magic of frankincense can be found in the ephemeral nature of the smoke. Once ignited these milky rocks dissipate into smoke, curling upwards before disappearing, filling a space with an otherworldly aroma.

The smoke travels from the altar, beyond the pulpit enveloping the worshipers with a common sensory experience. Our vocabulary falls short when describing the heavenly scent. We may identify woody and earthy reminders, perhaps hints of lemon and a certain level of spice, but our experience of the aroma is far more complex.

Our olfactory senses are connected to our limbic system, the area of the brain that deals with emotions and memory, creating deep emotional connections and transporting our minds back into the past.

To me, Frankincense smells like last Christmas. It smells like the two priests who used to pop in my local pub after the service. It smells like festive scented candles and my mum’s perfume, now woven through her scarf. 

Words by Sophie Vent. Images by Emma Leafe, Creative Director of UME Collection.

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