Chris Alexander

On Engineering

The Frankincense Trail

26th September, 2009

Following my recent trip to Egypt, I have been watching an excellent series of documentaries on BBC HD called The Frankincense Trail.

The programme covers the story of the ancient trade route that started at the source of Frankincense in Oman, before Bedouin traders took their camel trains the entire length of the Arabian Peninsula through modern-day Oman, Yemen, the whole length of Saudi Arabia, Israel to the Mediterranean port of Gaza, where the Frankincense was distributed all over Europe and Africa.

So why would the ancient traders make such an epic journey solely to transport the dried sap of a Boswellia Sacra? Well clearly it was of great value to many people for literally thousands of years. From the ancient Egyptians, to Muslims, Jews and Christians, burning Frankincense is one of the most important aspects of some of their religious ceremonies. Frankincense burns with a very white smoke, and worshipers saw it as a way of connecting with their Gods.

Interestingly, both the Romans and the ancient Egyptians got through copious quantities of Frankincense. In episode 3 of the series, an Egyptologist shows how the first female Pharaoh of Egypt, Hatchepsut (fifth pharaoh, eighth dynasty), burnt massive piles of incense at ceremonies to celebrate their Gods. She even came up with the concept of instead of moving the Frankincense from where it was harvested up the River Nile (to the South - the River Nile flows from South to North, so the Southern end is “up” the Nile), they moved the Frankincense-producing trees themselves, and harvested them when they arrived.

I originally started watching the programme out of interest - having been to Egypt recently, I wanted to have a look at what the rest of the Middle East is like. The final programme (Jordan and Israel) featured the ancient city of Petra (more famously known for its cameo in Indiana Jones), somewhere that has always fascinated me and I have always wanted to go. An extended period of the series is spent in Saudi Arabia, providing a fascinating insight into the country about which little information is known to the outside world. While some of the rumors about Saudi law are proved true (for example, women are not permitted to drive cars, or leave the house without either a male or a female friend), a lot of rumors are shown to be inaccurate. There is also some time spent with the richest man in Saudi Arabia, who is the grandson of the founder of the modern-day country. He has made a fortune trading stocks and shares, and owns parts of many companies whose logos are displayed in his office, and only a few of which I recognised (including eBay and PayPal to name a few).

I really enjoyed the programmes, and I highly recommend anyone with an interest in ancient history or the Middle East check out the HD streams on the BBC iPlayer before its too late!