Why Did Ancient People Travel Thousands of Kilometers for Incense?

In ancient times, people would travel thousands of kilometers across land and sea, along a network of trading routes, to acquire the precious commodities of myrrh and frankincense.

The ruins of Avdat, a city on the ancient incense route
The ruins of Avdat, a city on the ancient incense route. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ).

The ancient incense route was a network of major trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world with the sources of incense to its east and south. As its name suggests, this route was used to transport incense, primarily from the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean. Whilst this route is best known for its transportation of incense, other luxury goods, such as gold, pearls and animal skins also travelled on this trade route.

The value of incense

Incense was a very important commodity in the ancient world. Incense was used in a variety of ways, such as to embalm the dead, to flavour wine, and as a form of medication. Nevertheless, it was most commonly burnt to produce a pleasing aroma that would mask the less pleasing odours of the time. Incense, both frankincense and myrrh, are produced by drying the resin harvested from certain types of trees. These trees grow exclusively in the southern region of Arabia, Ethiopia and Somalia, hence making this commodity extremely valuable indeed.

Egyptian Incense Burner, 7th Century BC
Egyptian Incense Burner, 7 th Century BC ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Trade Route

The ancient incense route consisted of several major trade routes for the transportation of this precious product. One route, for example, travelled northwards from southern Arabia along the coast of the Red Sea to the Sinai Peninsula. From there, the merchants would cross the Sinai desert into Egypt. For these sections of the journey, merchants relied on camel caravans to transport the incense and the other luxury items.

Camels have been used to haul goods for millennia. Camel Caravan, Beersheba, 1915
Camels have been used to haul goods for millennia. Camel Caravan, Beersheba, 1915 ( Public Domain )

In Egypt, the goods would be loaded into ships and thence to the different parts of the Mediterranean. Alternatively, the caravans could continue through the Negev Desert, and arrive at the port of Gaza. There was also a sea route, which began to flourish towards the end of the 1 st century BC, and used ships to transport the precious cargo across the Red Sea to Egypt. Apart from that, this maritime trade network extended into the Indian Ocean, and connected the Mediterranean with the Indian subcontinent.

The Impact of the Incense Route

One of the effects of the ancient incense route was the rise and fall of cities and kingdoms along the trail, in particular along its land route. It has been mentioned that this trade route was not exactly fixed throughout the centuries, and changed from time to time. It is natural that cities and kingdoms would levy taxes on merchants entering their territories. It is also natural that the merchants would seek areas where the taxes were lowest, so as to maximise their profit. Hence, merchants would certainly prefer to travel across areas where the taxes imposed on them are the lowest. Nevertheless, there are also other factors to consider, such as the political stability of those areas, and if the route is safe from bandits and natural disasters.

Avdat National Park, Ancient City on the Incense Route, Israel
Avdat National Park, Ancient City on the Incense Route, Israel ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The arrival of the trade caravans made cities and kingdoms flourish. For example, the Negev Desert in present day southern Israel was the part of the ancient incense route. As a result of the lucrative incense trade, the Nabataean Kingdom, which controlled that area at that time, prospered. The remnants of cities that were established along the trade route to cater for the incoming caravans are proof of this prosperity that can still be seen today. The cities of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, which are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are some examples of such cities.

Ruins of a Church in Shivta, Ancient City on the Incense Route in the Negev Desert, Israel.
Ruins of a Church in Shivta, Ancient City on the Incense Route in the Negev Desert, Israel. ( Wikimedia)

Apart from the transport of cargo and wealth, the ancient incense route also facilitated the flow of culture and ideas. At several ancient settlements in Yemen, for example, archaeologists have found pottery sherds in a style that resemble those from a frankincense site in Oman. In addition, it was discovered that the local pottery was mixed with red-painted ones from Persia. This suggests that the ancient people who inhabited the southern region of Arabia, where incense was produced, came into contact with other civilisations along the ancient incense route, and were perhaps even culturally influenced by them. Similarly, the incense trade with the Greeks, and later the Romans, in the West would have also brought their cultural and artistic traditions to Arabia.

via Ancient Origins

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