Although an aromatic incense can be gathered from the trunks of several species in the genus Boswellia, it is the milky resin, or lubān, of B. sacra from Yemen and southern Oman that has long commanded the highest prices for any incense in the world. Carrying the aromas of pine resin, vanilla, and Heaven itself, the smoke of the best frankincense soars straight up into the air. Frankincense is derived from a syrupy latex that does not become accessible unless the small tree is wounded by weather or livestock, or intentionally scored by harvesters. The slow-flowing latex begins to dry into a gummy resin below the wound on the bark, and then hardens into amber droplets the size of tears. In essence, the plant weeps when wounded.

The fragrance and flavors of frankincense are so evocative spiritually and emotionally that this aromatic is mentioned at least 140 times in the Bible, yet its value is conspicuously absent from the Qur’an. Once it had been introduced to the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, it become of a symbol of purity, immortality, and access to wealth. It was used to fumigate the bodies of the dead and of suitors on the verge of lovemaking, and was omnipresent in Greek and Roman temples, synagogues, mosques, and cathedrals.

By the time frankincense had traveled by camel caravan northward to reach Roman and Greek brokers, its price per volume had risen manifold. During the Roman Empire, a shipment of Yemeni frankincense cost five times what a farmer or artisan made in a year in the eastern Mediterranean. Of course, it was the Minaeans, Nabataeans, and Phoenicians who did the lion’s share of transporting, carrying as much as three thousand tons of frankincense annually along three major transport routes to Babylon and the Mediterranean. Just as there was no single Silk Road, there was no single Frankincense Trail.

Today, frankincense has four primary uses. First, the people of the Hadhramaur and Dhofar highlands continue to use it as fumigant, air freshener, and traditional medicine to stop bleeding. It remains important as a church incense, particularly in Eastern Orthodox and certain Buddhist rites. It is distilled into an essence used in perfumes, facial cosmetics, and aromatherapy products. Finally, it has become a historical curiosity, sold to tourists and employed in novel ways by culinary artists in high-end restaurants around the world to flavor candies and baked goods. After several millennia of prominence, frankincense may no longer be the most valuable commodity in the world, but it still evokes a certain level of mystery and sanctity for many whenever its name is spoken. 

Farah, Mohamud Haji. “Non-Timber Forest Product (NTFP) Extraction in Arid Environments: Land-Use Change, Frankincense Production and the Sustainability of Boswellia sacra in Dhofar (Oman).” PhD diss., University of Arizona, 2008.
Musselman, Lytton John. Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2005.
Shackley, Myra. “Frankincense and Myrrh Today.” In Food for the Gods: New Light on the Ancient Incense Trade, edited by David Peacock and David Williams, 141-47. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books, 2007.
Image Credit: By Peter Presslein - photo taken by Peter Presslein, CC BY-SA 3.0,
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press