Unearthing Arabia: The Archaeological Adventures of Wendell Phillips

Ancient Incense Trade

I looked back over my shoulder three thousand years and saw long trains of camels burdened with frankincense and myrrh and sometimes with gold, pearls, ivory, cinnamon, silks, tortoise shell, and lapis lazuli.

The term incense, including both frankincense and myrrh, broadly refers to a substance that emits a fragrant aroma when burned. The resins are collected from certain tree barks found only in the arid regions of southern Arabia and from a lesser variety in eastern Africa. As early as the eighth century BCE, incense was popular across the ancient world for sanctifying religious ceremonies to masking the stench of sewage. As Phillips pointed out, “Today we can scarcely appreciate the role of incense in the ancient world because, for one thing, it is difficult to imagine the odors of that world, requiring clouds of sweet-smelling smoke to cover them.”

Caravans transported incense and other luxury commodities from the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula up the coast of the Red Sea and across the Sinai desert to Egypt. There, the precious goods were loaded on ships and sailed to destinations across the Mediterranean Sea. Arabia not only cultivated incense but also controlled its trade, making the region immensely prosperous. Timna and other cities along the principal trade roads provided necessary shelter to travelers and in return levied taxes on the incense caravans. Long-distance trade with the Greeks, Romans, and Persians also introduced new artistic and cultural traditions to ancient Arabia.

Explore this map to see the ancient incense routes. The lucrative trade in incense, in particular the highly prized commodities of frankincense and myrrh, encouraged the creation of this complex network of routes. The area in the rectangle is the focus of Unearthing Arabia.