Aromas Emanating from the Driest of Places
I am tracking a scent across the desert. I meander up a slope between boulders of limestone almost too hot to touch, dodging dwarfed trees and bushy shrubs, all with spiny branches twisted and punctuated with greasy but fragrant leaflets. A few spindly milkweeds with toxic sap cling to the cliff face beside me.
As I stop for a moment to catch my breath, I let my eyes scan the arid terrain rolling high to the south of me, up the mountain plateau called Jabal Samhan. I am witness to a stark and largely unpopulated landscape. It is not totally barren, yet most of the world's farmers and city dwellers would declare it empty. By that, they might mean that it is marginally arable, barely habitable, or is incapable of offering much of value to humankind today.
But they are wrong if they presume that this landscape lacks any value to our common heritage. Over millennia, something of exceptional value came out of this arid landscape that, when combined with other forces, changed the course of human history. The question is whether we value what grows in and is harvested from this landscape in any profound way today.
I have come here on a pilgrimage to seek an answer to that question. I have climbed into the Dhofar highlands, a plateau that sits some two thousand feet above the Arabian Sea. It is home to a scatter of seminomadic herding and foraging Jabbali tribes known as the people of the Shahri, the ones who "make mountain talk."
I hear no kind of talk at this moment. All is quiet. There is no wind. I gulp down hot air. My nostrils flare and I pick up a distinctive fragrance, subtle but inviting.
The smell prompts me to remember that ancient Greek geographers called this odoriferous country Eudaimôn Arabia, or "Arabia, the Blessed." One of them, Herodotus, noted that "the whole country exhales an odor that is marvelously sweet."1 Later this land came to be known to the wider world as Arabia Felix, a vortex of happiness amid much hardship and struggle. At first, it offered nothing more than a few fragrant desert plants and animal substances that were known collectively to the Greeks as aromatikos. Such aromatic substances have long been perceived by many cultures as having the capacity to generate a sense of happiness, healing, well-being, and harmony within the world.
As I make my way up the switchbacks of a goat trail, I wonder how long the "happy" slopes of Jabal Samhan have baked in the torrid sun. My feet kick up dust in the wake of my walking. It has not rained here for weeks. This is a land of heat and drought.
Scientists who call themselves chemical ecologists suggest that the aridity that results from these two conditions has helped rather than hindered the evolution of aromatic plants, which they define as those having compounds containing benzene rings.<B>2 </B>Over millennia, the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula developed into prime habitat for the most powerfully aromatic plants in the world. What these desert plants lacked in productivity, they often made up in fragrance, flavor, and mythic potency.
Perhaps that is because the leaves of many of them exude aromatic oils that help them resist heat, drought, and damage from herbivores. Such aromatic but highly volatile, fleeting chemicals are more concentrated in the floras of arid climes than anywhere else.
Although much of the Dhofar region has limited agricultural potential and an uneven distribution of useful wild plants, Arabia Felix could aptly be called the birthplace of the global trade in aromatics. Like Aladdin's magic ring, when properly rubbed, this landscape opens up to reveal a psychotropic world of incenses, culinary spices, perfumes, and curative herbs to delight and refresh the weary.
Despite its scarcity of vegetation, Arabia Felix is full of highly pungent scents and flavors. It has wild crocuses akin to saffron, barks reminiscent of cinnamon, wild fennel, leeks, garlic and onions, aromatic gums, and resins galore. When mixed into a paste with dates and plastered onto pit-roasted mutton or goat, an Omani selection of these plants provides the taste portfolio called khall al-mazza.3 If you crave currylike flavors in savory stews, you will be satisfied with an even more complex mix of herbs and spices called bizar a'shuwa, which has long been used across the Arabian Peninsula.
The term used for this herb-rich rocky habitat in Dhofar is nejd, from the ancient Semitic languages of "mountain talkers," the tribes of al-Kathiri, al-Qara, and al-Mahra. The highland cultures of Jabal Samhan share a history and preference for landscapes markedly different from those of the better-known Bedouins of the Arabian sands. The striking contrast in plant composition between these adjacent landscapes is what ecologists call "beta diversity,"4 a pronounced dissimilarity in the herbs that a plant collector might find between localized floras as he or she moves from one patch of desert to the next. In general, deserts exhibit high rates of "species turnover" from one arid landscape to another, so that few of the favored food and medicinal plants of one desert mountain range can be found in another just a day's walk away. Thus, for as long as we know, plants have been traded from one place to another and savored beyond their place of origin.
Off to the southeast, the windward slopes of Jabal Samhan dive toward the cooler, breezier, more humid coast of Yemen. To the west, in the domain of the truly nomadic Bedouin, lies the infamous Empty Quarter, the austere sea of sand known to Arabic speakers as the Rub' al-Khali. For centuries, it has been the stretch of the Arabian Peninsula least frequented, even by the hardiest of nomads. Even the Bedu, the most competent nomads who frequented the sandier stretches of the Arabian Peninsula, are wary of its paucity of water and the perils of its drifting sands.
Here in the Dhofar highlands, at least enough terra rossa exists among the limestone to support a scatter of low shrubs, some far-flung patches of wiry grass, resinous bushes of rockrose, and withered but bristly stalks of thistles. This desert-scrub vegetation is seasonally browsed by a few goats and camels, the hardiest of livestock breeds. In fact, they sometimes seem to be the only creatures tenacious enough to inhabit the nejd, but by no means do they comprise the sum total of the fauna there.
The small caves I spot along the rocky crest on the western horizon occasionally shelter the stick-gathering hyrax and rock-climbing lizards. I have also noticed larger caves and ledges below the cliffs that protect the meager harvests of spices gathered by al-Qara foragers and herders, their baskets and bundles left there in the shade.
No one would call the Dhofar highlands a landscape of bounty. On the whole, most of its habitats lack much fertility, fecundity, productivity, or diversity. If the inhabitants do not take advantage of the brief spurts of plant growth that follow occasional rains, they could easily go hungry. And within Dhofar, the nejd is one of the most intensely arid habitats. But it also holds a singular treasure, a desert plant that emits an extraordinary fragrance.
Long ago, that particular treasure catapulted some Semitic-speaking nomads out of the desolation of the southern reaches of their peninsula, propelling their descendants toward all corners of the globe. They began to trade their aromatic herbs, incenses, and spices to others in better-watered climes. They exchanged their fragrances, flavors, and cures for staple foods and other goods that their arid homeland could not consistently provide. They understood that all habitats are not created equal in terms of the natural resources found within them.
So early on in their history, these Semitic tribes realized they should not remake one place to resemble another but rather trade the most unique goods of each to those who lacked them. They made an asset out of one of the inherent weaknesses of their homelands: its inequitable distribution of plant and animal productivity. In doing so, they built an economic model for trade between regions that initially redistributed both wealth and wonder among the inhabitants.
Later on, that model changed, for the spice trade triggered an economic and ecological revolution that rippled out to every reach of the human-inhabited world. It is the revolution that we now call globalization. And yet, it has been difficult for many of us to imagine its origins, for we live and breathe within it unconsciously, as if it has always existed and will always continue to exist as it does today.
As I ponder that thought, ahead of me I spot the destination-a precious part of the origin of that revolution-that initially motivated me to travel nine thousand miles from my home. I am now far enough up the slope finally to touch, for the first time in my life, the very spark that may have jump-started the engine of globalization.
I reach my hand out and gingerly lay it on the limber branches of a tree that is about as tall as I am. It has a voluptuous trunk covered in a jacket of ashy-hued bark. I reach farther into its canopy and grasp a thicker branch around its girth, as if I am feeling the bulging biceps of an iron-pumping friend. These sinuous branches are laden with small clusters of slightly crumpled but highly aromatic leaflets. I notice that the trunk is indelibly marked with scars, scorings in the bark made by intentional slashes with a knife, and on these scars are dried droplets of a pale white resin that forms perfect tears.
Just beneath the barkare microscopic tear-duct-like structures that can be stimulated to shed their resin by scoring, the very same means used by our primate ancestors to obtain acacia gum, gum tragacanth, mastic, or myrrh from other woody plants. Like them, this resin has long been valued as a medicine, vermifuge, flavorant, spice, and incense.
But that is where the comparisons among gummy incenses stop. For close to four millennia, this particular gum has been regarded as the highest-quality incense in the world. It was once the most economically valuable and most widely disseminated plant product on the globe: frankincense, food of the gods.
Even the stuffiest of scientists begrudgingly acknowledge the sacredness of this tree every time they recite its scientific name, Boswellia sacra. I have some familiarity with its distant relative, the elephant tree of the Americas, for I have often collected the copal incense from its trunk. And many winter days, when I suffer from inflammation and pain from an old horseback-riding injury, I rub my muscles with the salve of B. serrata, the so-called Indian frankincense, or salai.
I dip beneath the canopy of the gnarly tree and pull a small but recently crystallized lump of gummy sap from a scar on its central trunk. It looks as if in the spring prior to my arrival the trunk's bark had been scarified in two or three places, probably by a Somali migrant harvester. He likely slashed at the bark with a mingaf, a short-bladed tool that looks much like a putty knife, then came back a month later and cleaned the wound. At the end of spring, he did so a second time as well, and then the wound wept for several more weeks.
The milky sap flowing out of the tree's phloem has already begun to congeal into a semiliquid resinous latex. Frankincense tappers call the creamy sap "milk," or lubān in Arabic, shehaz in mountain talk. But this is the sweetest, whitest, and milkiest of all frankincense, the internationally acclaimed hojari fusoos. Its quality is found nowhere in the world except here, in the highlands of Dhofar.
During the height of its use in the Roman Empire, more money was spent on acquiring this superlative form of frankincense than was spent on any other aromatic-incense, spice, or herb-whether traded long distances by land or sea. In Babylon, those rich enough to afford it would bask in its smoke, purifying and imbuing their bodies with its fragrance prior to bouts of lovemaking.
When I find another bit of sap that has begun to harden, I pinch the viscous substance until it pulls away from the trunk like taffy. I hold it in my hand and let the sun shine on the dried globule, which has turned amber. It shines dully back at the sun, a cloudy droplet of oleoresin resembling a freshly made curd of goat cheese. A bluish hue is hidden deep in the sap's pearly clouds, as if shards of fallen sky are waiting to be sent up to join the rest of the heavens.
For millennia, people have been doing just that: they have made a burnt offering of the sacred milk so that its smoke can rise beyond this world. Believers say that smoke from the best frankincense forms a single white column that flows straight into the sky. If its vapor trail is strong enough to ascend into the heavens, this gift will inevitably reach, nourish, and delight the Creator, the Prophet, or particular saints-whoever is meant to receive these fragrant prayers.
Timidly, I place a tiny piece of the sap in my mouth and gnash it between my teeth as I might do with any chewing gum. Hints of honey, lime, verbena, and vanilla well up and spread through the juices of my mouth. I smile as I remember that pregnant Bedu women also chew on frankincense gum, hoping that it will encourage the child in the womb to live an intellectually and spiritually elevated life. Both Shahri and Somali harvesters chew on this gum while they "milk" more lubān from one tree after another, depositing their harvests into two-handled baskets woven from the fronds of date palms.
I quickly warm to this world of incense, camels, and date palms, for it seems vaguely but deeply familiar to me. I belong to a bloodline that traces its origins back to Yemeni and Omani spice traders of the Banu Nebhani tribe. It is plausible that my own ancestors wandered these same hills more than fourteen hundred years ago, before they spread north across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. This possibility alone suggests why I have felt motivated-even destined-to come to one of the driest and most remote parts of the world. But frankly, I am after something far larger than that.
I have come here to dig for the roots of globalization, if the roots of such an ancient and pervasive phenomenon can be traced at all. I wish to track them back to the very first bartering for tiny quantities of aromatic resins like mastic, bdellium, frankincense, and myrrh; for the stone-ground seeds of cumin and anise; for the fragrant musk extracted from the glands of deer; for the bitingly sharp leaves of mint or oregano; for the bark of cassia from China and true cinnamon from Sri Lanka; for the sun-dried skins of kaffir limes; for the shavings carved off the egg-shaped seed of the nutmeg tree; for the withered orange-red stigma of the saffron flower; for the willowy pods of the vanilla tree and the pungent ones of a myriad of chile plants.
Collectively, these various plant and animal products are ambiguously referred to as "spices" in English, just as they were rather coarsely lumped together as aromatikos by the ancient Greeks. Perhaps these references build on the ancient Arab concept of shadhan, a term used to describe a particularly pungent herb, but one that can also jointly refer to strongly fragrant and flavorful substances of both plant and animal origin. A related word, al-shadw, is used to comment on the intensity of pungency in a pepper, a piece of cinnamon bark, or a lump of the hojari fusoos grade of frankincense.
A third Arabic word, al-adhfar, relates to any pungent smell, from musk to human sweat.5 Indeed, some scholars have suggested that musk, pungent ointments, and rose waters have been routinely used in hot climes to mask the odor of human sweat, which would otherwise be the most pervasive smell in desert camps and cramped cities much of the year.
Historian Patricia Crone once offered this litany to circumscribe the many faces and fragrances of aromatics: "They include incense, or substances that gave off a nice smell on being burned; perfumes, ointments, and other sweet-smelling substances with which one dabbed, smeared or sprinkled oneself or one's clothes; things that one put into food or drink to improve their taste, prolong their life, or endow them with medicinal or magical properties; and they also included antidotes."6
By the early fourteenth century, the Italian merchant Francesco di Balduccio Peglolotti documented the arrival of at least 288 varieties of spices into Europe, mostly through Semitic merchants who sometimes referred to their origin in particular Arabian, African, or Asian landscapes. These spices ranged from asafetida to zedoary and included everything from gum Arabic to manna to the madder of Alexandria.7
Such spices are the sensuous signposts that can tell us where the trails and rustic roads of globalization first ran and remind us why we have been so engaged with these aromatic products in the first place. And so a quest to understand the semiotics of globalization must begin with reading spices as signs of deeper desires or diseases that have been embedded in certain segments of humankind for millennia.
For many years now, I have been preoccupied if not altogether consumed with finding out why some individuals, communities, or cultures have been content with staying home and savoring what immediately lies before them, while others have an insatiable desire to taste and see or even possess that which comes from afar. I have wondered why certain peoples culturally and genetically identified as Semitic-Minaeans and Nabataeans, Phoenicians and other Canaanites, Quraysh and Karimi Arabs, Radhanite and Sephardic Jews-have played such disproportionately large roles in globalized trade, not merely over the short course of decades or centuries but over the long haul of many millennia.
As I stand on the dry ridge, panting and sweating my bodily fluids into thin air, I remind myself why I have decided to begin this journey on this particular ridge in southern Oman, even though it is one that bears a name known only by a handful of tribesmen living in the region of Jabal Samhan.It is because some 250 acres here have been set aside as a frankincense reserve by the Omani government of Sultan Qaboos-250 acres that in my mind loom far larger.
This spot is the perfect launching pad for a spice odyssey, one that will take us to the ancient port of Zayton on the China Sea, to the Turpan Depresssion that edges the Gobi Desert below the Tian Shan range on the border between China and Kazakhstan, to the Panj River that separates the Hindu Kush of Pakistan from the Pamirs of Tajikistan, to the coastal ports of Oman, Egypt, Turkey, and Mexico, to the slot canyons of Petra in Jordan, and to the sprawling souks, çarşısı, bazaars, and mercados of Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and Mexico. We will wander down the Incense Trails of the Middle East, the Silk Roads of Asia, the Spice Trails of Africa, and the Camino Real of Central and North America. It will take us back in time, and possibly, it may launch us into considering our future.
But first we must pay homage to the spindly frankincense tree here in its primordial nejd habitat, for it was once the most expensive and widely traveled cargo in the world, its antiseptic, culinary, medicinal, and magico-religious uses well regarded by dozens of cultures.
How odd it is that the unforgettable fragrance of frankincense comes not from its flowers or fruits but from its wounds, as if it were one more saint like Francis of Assisi or Jesus of Nazareth with stigmata that drip with blood, sweat, and tears. Whether wounded by the whipping of branches during seasonal windstorms, bruised by the browsing of camels, or cut open by the crude mingaf knives of Omani, Yemeni, and Somali harvesters, this injured bush offers up a few grams of gum as its only useful product. If it is too badly injured or too frequently milked by greedy tappers, the bush will succumb to a premature death. These stunted perennials already struggle to survive on sun-scorched scree where rainfall is scant; it does not take very much additional stress to hasten their demise.
For that reason, and because there are few other lucrative products that can be derived from the nejd barrens in the Dhofar highlands, frankincense stands have been traditionally owned, carefully protected, and diligently managed for millennia. In his great Naturalis Historiae, Pliny the Elder wrote descriptively of the frankincense groves that he called "the forests of Arabia Felix": "The forest is divided up into definite portions, and owing to the mutual honesty of the owners, is free from trespassing, and though nobody keeps guard over the trees after an incision has been made, nobody steals from his neighbor."8
Outside of Dhofar, I listen to an Omani forest steward explain to me that his job is much like that of a game warden. His task, he says, is to "keep watch over what is precious."
His name is Ali Salem Bait Said. He comes from a family and Jabbali tribe that functioned as traditional owners of a particular frankincense gathering ground until the late 1960s. All such historically controlled lands were divided into parcels called menzelas. When the paternal bloodline inheritance of the right to manage and harvest a grove, or menzela, of frankincense finally broke down, it terminated a centuries-old land tenure tradition. But Ali Salem Bait Said still remembers his family's stories of how to care for a productive stand of frankincense properly:
[Figure 1 about here. Omani forester]
"In the past, [my] people thought of themselves as friends of the tree. They don't scratch down to the bone. They go and cut closer to the bark-not deep-so that they will not hurt the tree. Now [with the suspension of traditional ownership] there is no one to care of the trees. And so there are people who come here that think of them as wild [not managed] and milk them for all they can give, until the trees dry up. [Those migrant harvesters] may not even know the traditional songs for lubān, the ones which we sang in celebration of God."
Ali points out trees that have had branches broken by feral camels and others that he believes have been milked too frequently. He suggests that at least in his tribe such occurrences would have been uncommon when the centuries-old practices of menzela management were still intact.
Later, I have the opportunity to learn about more ancient frankincense gathering and management traditions from a remarkable field scientist and observer of frankincense culture, Mohamud Haji Farah, who received his doctorate in desert studies from the same University of Arizona program where I obtained mine. Although Somali by birth, Dr. Farah has spent several years near Dhofar documenting how indigenous Omani tribal herders and migrant Somali harvesters work with frankincense. Ironically, he focused on Jabal Samhan, the same area that I was fortunate enough to visit. Of slight build and quiet voice, Farah speaks and writes with discerning authority on the indigenous traditions that have evolved around this much-revered spiritual and economic resource. Among his observations is that "frankincense trees are presumed to possess or house supernatural powers associated with both good and evil spirits. . . . [And so, it was] a sacred commodity, and its harvesters worked under ritualistic constraints."9
I had heard that harvesters were not allowed to sleep with their wives or eat certain foods during the harvest season. Farah neither confirms nor denies this for me. Instead, he notes how the chanting of prayers and the burning of incense are still enacted at the beginning of the tapping season. Some harvesters believe that frankincense trees could not survive, thrive, and yield incense in such harsh and desolate arid environments if they did not have sacred powers.10
The rituals, Farah surmises, are means of showing respect to the trees and perhaps even pacifying them. He has found that such beliefs were widespread among Arab harvesters, not only in Oman but in Yemen and Saudi Arabia as well. Farah and other scientists who have surveyed the persistence of these traditions guess that such beliefs and rituals promote self-constraint among harvesters. It seems that they discourage would-be trespassers from entering someone else's menzela patch in order to milk their trees clandestinely.
In listening to both Ali Salem Bait Said and Mohamud Farah, I am struck by just how vulnerable frankincense is on its home ground, and yet how long the harvesting of its incense has persisted-perhaps four thousand years-without widespread decimation of its populations. I wonder whether the ritual constraints and the prayerful gathering of its precious resins have somehow kept frankincense populations from being overexploited, even though the incense has been in transcontinental trade for thousands of years.
Or perhaps the harvesters in Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia recognize that if they eliminate their most valuable resource, they would have few other desert plants, animals, or minerals to trade for food. Especially during times of drought or political disruption, the trading of frankincense has been one of the few hands they could play. Yet another reason for the longevity of frankincense was suggested to me by a second Omani forester, who explained, "It would not be right to fail to protect this plant, for it is the source of our history."
I begin to think about other desert dwellers I have known, especially herders and hunter-gatherers who have not had the food crops produced in irrigated oases to fall back on during the worst of times. Having a mythical medicine, spice, or incense to trade was perhaps all that kept them from starvation during the harshest periods.
The nomadic Seri Indians with whom I have lived and worked in Mexico's deserts offer such an example.11 As soon as European missionaries arrived on the edge of their traditional territory, the Indians opportunistically engaged these Jesuit priests in unwittingly supporting two of their economic strategies. First, the Seri obtained food by trading incense such as copal, medicines such as jojoba, and spices such as oregano to the priests to send back to Europe. Then, once they knew what the outsiders had in store, they would clandestinely raid their trading partner's pantries for additional food and drink.
As I leave the highlands of Jabal Samhan for the port town of Salalah, I take a handful of frankincense beads along with me to burn ritually that night. They are modest in size and sit lightly in my palm. And yet I have heard that they command respectable prices in the souks and tourist shops along the Omani coast of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, perhaps as high as fifty dollars per kilogram, or twenty to twenty-five times what a harvester might be paid in the desert for the same quantity. I decide to go into a souk to see if this is true.
When I enter the souk, I realize that there is one secret of frankincense commerce that I have already surmised: such a little thing, as diminutive and nearly as weightless as a single grain of wheat, is the perfect commodity to trade over long distances. Of course its economic and mythic value must be made to loom larger than the trade item itself, as well. This, I guess, has been thetrade secret shared by most spice traders over the last four millennia: if you can, carry to the far corners of the earth something as light as a feather that can linger in one's memory forever, but eschew anything as dull and as heavy as lead. In other words, whenever feasible, trade in potent fragrances and flavors, for they are the tangible corollaries of visions and dreams. They are intermediaries between the physical and spiritual domains, reminding us that there is more to the world that what we can absorb through our eyes.
These elusive things lodge deeply in our imaginations, far more so than most material goods. For at least thirty-five hundred years, and perhaps for as long as fifty-five hundred years, incense, spices, and herbs have captured the human attention and imagination.12 They have not only been worth trading for, for some they have been worth dying for.
As the most protected harbor close to the Dhofar highlands, Salalah was one of those historic places where individuals lived for and occasionally died for frankincense. Its ruins sit on the edge of the coastal plain overlooking the Arabian Sea, sprawling over the site of the ancient trade center of Zhafar. Because it is just a short camel drive of eighteen miles from the highlands to this naturally protected harbor, the ports here have long attracted professions in addition to those of sailor and shipper. They have welcomed incense graders, incense makers, incense mixers, and carvers of incense smokers or censers called midkhān,13 as well as camel drovers and mule skinners of the kind that have brought aromatic goods in from the desert to the sea for upward of thirty-five hundred years.
Once in the city, it does not take me long to find Salalah's largest souk, where all matter of things sacred and profane can be bought and sold, but where frankincense has long been the featured attraction. How could it not be? Once I approach the dozen or so shops that are constantly sending smoke up toward the heavens and out toward their prospective customers, I could hardly resist lingering there for a while.
The shops are small and rather gaudy and glitzy, but they are far more elegant than most spice shops in other Middle Eastern souks. Incense burns while some scratchy recordings of Arabic music play on loudspeakers. I had assumed that one could only purchase frankincense here, but myrrh, sandalwood, and musk are also on sale. In fact, I count dozens of kinds of incense, native perfumes, and aromatic herbs being offered, not merely to tourists but to Omanis as well.
It may be a leap for a Westerner to make, but in the southern reaches of the Arabian Peninsula, incense is regarded as a form of nourishment. There are recipes for over two dozen incense mixtures and herbal scents included in Al-Azaf, the most popular Omani cookbook in shops and marketplaces.14 Those recipes bring together oud (aloe wood) oil with black musk, ambergris with sandalwood, saffron with snails, cloves with rose water, blending them into various divinely fragrant concoctions. But among all of the aromatics sold in the souk, frankincense is the one that they let stand alone. A soloist, its olfactory melody is too heavenly for Omanis to ever want it to be overdubbed.
Synesthesia. As I walk in and out of incense shops that share the same open corridor, I begin to feel as if I am stoned, for my senses are being bombarded with a mix of images unlike anything they had ever experienced before. This is literally a land of smoke and mirrors. The mirrors are placed to make the shops appear larger, to multiply the colored lights, and to catch the whirls of smoke rising from clay incense burners. Nearly every incense shop is stocked with fashionably shaped aspirators and decanters of perfumes, censers and smokers, rustic bags of dried incense, and bowls with glistening samples of both. But added to that is the harmonic intensity of oud music, voices speaking a dozen languages, and the memorable profiles of women in brilliantly colored silk gowns, dazzling jewelry, and gorgeous scarves. As half a dozen kinds of smoke from incense gradually fill my lungs, the world glimmering before me begins to seem like an illusion.
An elderly Somali Omani shopkeeper, her hands and lower arms aflame with intricate patterns inscribed with henna, notices my befuddlement. She smiles and with a fine British accent invites me into her little shop. She beckons me to come and sit so that I might learn to distinguish the five grades of lubān from one another. She says that she will show me how to vaporize them properly over glowing coals in a traditional clay incense burner rather than "burning away" much of their potency.
She explains that the differences among grades may at first seem too subtle to the uninitiated tourist, but that they are worth recognizing. The top grade, hojari fusoos, commands prices three to four times higher than that of the next level of quality, the nejdi. The trick of the shopkeeper is to discern quickly how much-or really, how little-a visitor actually knows about frankincense.
Feigning alarm, her almond-shaped eyes magnified by the delicate lines of kohl drawn around them, she notes how some of her competitors display low-grade "ore" that is roughly the same color and texture as hojari. In a whisper, she confides in me that there might even be some unscrupulous merchants who will try to market their nuggets of nejdi, or even lower-quality shazri, as hojari fusoos.
"They are out to take the shirt off of your back for a few pebbles of frankincense," she frowns. She then swears to me that she has never perpetrated such an impropriety, and that I can place my trust in her henna-colored hands.
I begin to daydream then, not fully hearing the rest of her sales pitch, but instead remembering little fragments of what historians had compiled about frankincense and spices inthe ancient economies.
The best frankincense, hojari fusoos, or some comparable grade from the region of Yemen, cost the ancient Romans 6 denarii per pound. That was roughly the same as ginger, more than black pepper, and twice the price of cardamom. Myrrh was twice the price per volume at that time because it would dehydrate and thus shrink; however, it was never used in the quantities that the Romans transported and consumed frankincense. In late Roman times, the cost of transporting a camel-load of frankincense from the southern Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean was 680 to 1,000 denarii, more than five times the cost of living a year in Palestine during the same era. In exchange for frankincense, each year, goods worth close to 10 million denarii would flow back the seventeen hundred miles from the shores of the Mediterranean, or from Persia and India.15
For a desert region where less than one-thousandth of the land's surface could be used to grow crops, it was frankincense that stimulated the flow of goods from better-watered regions in to Dhofar and the Hadhramaut. The Semitic tribes of Arabia Felix would trade their lubān, which the Romans called olibanum, for a range of material items that were beyond their capability to produce: silk sashes, muslin sheets, medicinal ointments, dry white wines, emmer wheat, copper vessels, and silver plates. Of course, small irrigated oases were scattered across Arabia Felix that provided most of the tribes with their dates, cereals, and some other cultivated foods, but trade in frankincense was what leveraged access to them for the nomads.
Until Arab and Phoenician seafarers gained a certain competence in maritime navigation, transport of frankincense and other goods over such long distances could be done only by camel.Dromedary camels appear to have been domesticated in the coastal settlements of eastern Arabia not far from present-day Salalah. They may have been initially managed as a wild resource for the medicinal value of their milk, which fends off microbial infections of the eye-just as frankincense offered its antiseptic lubān to treat irritations, cancers, and tumors in the eyes of the Semitic tribes there long before the era of Abraham. Clay figurines of camels made in Yemen close to three thousand years ago suggest that these creatures soon assumed the status of a keystone species in the Arab economy and an icon in its spirituality, for camels provided not only milk but also wool, meat, flammable dung, medicinal urine, leather, and transportation.Because a single adult camel can shoulder as much as 130 pounds of loaded goods and still cover twenty-two miles of desert a day, no other beast of burden could possibly hold its own against it when crossing windswept sands. Their convex backs enable camels to carry far more than horses over short distances, wtih loads of 650 pounds not uncommon.16
It is not surprising that the first appearance of frankincense well beyond its native range-in Egypt between three thousand and thirty-five hundred years ago-was about the time that camels were tamed and reliably used for long-distance transport. Among the nine hundred or so terms relating to camels in the Arabic language, one can find some wonderful metaphors that treat them as companions, gifts from Allah, and sailing vessels.Throughout much of their historical range, they were likened to "ships of the desert," capable of navigating vast seas of sand like no other animal. Camels, spice caravans, and incense trade not only shared a common history but also launched the Semitic tribes onto a shared economic trajectory. No wonder prints of camel caravans and miniature replicas of dromedaries are scattered throughout the souks of Salalah.
The elderly Somali shopkeeper taps me on the shoulder. "Excuse me, kind sir. Are you . . . ? You looked as though you were falling asleep. Do you want to purchase something from me before you go off to rest?"
I try to shake myself awake. I decide to purchase a quarter pound of hojari fusoos and a crudely decoratedincense smoker from her, in part to avoid embarrassing myself any further.
"Please excuse me," I reply,"I am tired. I have come a long way to be here," I add, as I pay for the dreamy scent of frankincense.
I have been lucky enough to see where frankincense is found in the wild, how its resins are collected, and how it is still sold in souks in the very same port where it has been traded for millennia. It is clear that a little of the harvest could be bartered or sold for much more in the outer world, and this fact alone propelled themountain talkers to engage in extra-local spice trade just as others began to do the same during prehistoric eras in other landscapesaround the planet.
But frankincense trade immediately changed into something larger and more pervasive than what happened with the nearly three hundred other spices that were traded globally.It set up an insatiable desire for "the other," the exotic or extra-local to propel some people out of the humdrum ordinariness of their daily lives. It stimulated them to imagine something beyond the here and now, something with which they wanted to connect. And that initial stimulus that may have led inexorably toward globalization in all its dimensions began more than three thousand years ago in remote arid landscapes where Semitic peoples wandered.
It has made me even more tired to try and fathom it all. Weary, I return to my boarding room, where I begin to vaporize a few tears of hojari fusoos over small coals in the simple clay incense smoker. As I lay down on the bed, I realize that traveling nine thousand miles through space has not been enough. I must figure out a way to travel back in time. I close my eyes. The ethereal smoke of the frankincense carries me away.