The History Of Frankincense And A Once Mythical City

“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” —Matthew 2:11

In A Nutshell

We all hear about gold, frankincense, and myrrh around Christmastime, but we rarely hear the fascinating history that goes along with frankincense. At the time of Christ’s birth, the frankincense trade was one that was rich enough to support entire cities, including one called Ubar. Mentioned in the Quran and in stories like Arabian Nights, it was once thought to be mythical. It was only in 1992 that archaeologists finally found the lost, legendary city, and also found several other cities that had once been a part of the incredibly huge—and incredibly prosperous—frankincense trade.

The Whole Bushel

It’s something that’s always mentioned around Christmastime: frankincense. Regardless of our beliefs, we’ve all heard the story of the three wise men and the gifts they carry to the newborn Christ. They’re gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but what the heck is frankincense, and why was it so important?

It’s a resin harvested from the tree of the same name. At one time, it was one of the hottest exports of the Middle East. Around the time the wise men were said to have been taking their gifts to a certain manger, frankincense trees were grown as one of the primary exports of the Qara Mountains in the southern reaches of what’s now Oman.

Frankincense was shipped throughout the Middle East and even into India, and when historians started tracing the frankincense trade routes, they found it was linked to the long-lost (and nearly mythical) city of Ubar.

For a long time, Ubar was the stuff of legend. It was called the “Atlantis of the Sands,” and it was mentioned in both the Arabian Nights and the Quran. According to the latter story, Ubar was once a hugely prosperous and wealthy city—until it was destroyed by divine wrath, a fate similar to Sodom and Gomorrah.

For a long time, that’s all it was—a legend, thought to have been passed down as a cautionary tale. Explorers and archaeologists, including the famous Lawrence of Arabia, all searched in vain for a city thought to be fictional until the first historical reference to the city was found, in the writings of the 1930s English explorer Bertram Thomas. Thomas claimed to have seen what the Bedouins called the Road to Ubar, prompting another look at the mythical city.

Ubar would lie undiscovered for decades more until historians were able to use radar imaging and information gathered by the US space program to assemble an accurate picture of the area, pinpoint Thomas’s road, and start their search in the right area, finally discovering the city in 1992.

What’s this have to do with frankincense? The discovery of Ubar prompted more exploration in the area and the discovery of a series of ancient cities whose development had been dependent on the frankincense trade. Ubar was the jumping-off point for the trade network and caravans that then branched out all across the known world’s overland routes, Saffara metropolis was the city where the frankincense trees were grown, and Moscha was the main seaport where the resin would be loaded onto ships for overseas trade.

Excavations found that Ubar was first settled around 5,000 years ago, and it wasn’t long before it was a major trade hub. It reached its peak around the first century and would eventually follow the decline of the Roman Empire before being at least partially destroyed in a major earthquake, perhaps the basis for the stories in the Quran. During that peak, though, it relied on the frankincense trade.

In the earliest days, frankincense was such an important commodity that it may have contributed to the domestication and use of the camel. Most cultures used it in some way. It was an embalming material, it was burned to keep mosquitoes (and malaria) away, and it was used to treat a whole host of maladies like ulcers, indigestion, fever, coughs, and nausea. And, it was used as incense: Early European friars claimed that its deodorizing qualities helped cover the smell of the faithful that gathered for Mass.

But it’s likely that it’s the healing properties of frankincense that associate it with the wise men. While gold was a gift of kings and myrrh was more commonly associated with death (and embalming), frankincense was a symbol of healing and health, an incredibly precious commodity that built entire cities.

Show Me The Proof

Bible History Daily: Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?
Middle East Institute: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
Warnell: Frankincense & Myrrh
Rough Guides: Ubar: The Search for the Atlantis of the Sands
NY Times: The Frankincense Route Emerges From the Desert
NY Times: Stumbling Upon the Desert’s Secret