Frankincense and Myrrh: Objects from the Red Sea Trade Routes during the Roman Empire

by Susan J. Bandes, Kresge Art Museum

Yemen Update 24(1988):14

Frankincense and myrrh, the famed gifts that the Magi brought to the Christ Child, are now but little known to modern man. At the time of Christ's birth, however, these incense were as valuable as the gold which the Magi also gave as gifts.

Both frankincense and myrrh are fragrant gum resins from trees that grow only in southern Arabia and northern Somalia. Both are harvested by scraping the bark of a tree, allowing the resin ducts to ooze a thick liquid. These "tears" harden into translucent clumps in about a week and are ready for export 10-20 days after collection. Frankincense, an important incense of the ancient world for domestic and religious purposes. Myrrh is a reddish-brown color, bitter to the taste, less aromatic than frankincense, and was traditionally used in anointing oils, as a fumigant, in cooking and embalming. Myrrh was also far more expensive than frankincense, but the demand for frankincense was greater.

Frankincense and myrrh were considered "spices" (LatinĀ species), which in the ancient world connoted expensive, usually imported items of special distinction and value, not just flavorings for food. Traffic in these and other spices (pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, and cardamom) and luxury items peaked during the Roman Empire; all destined for Rome, evidence of the increasing wealth and sophisticated tastes of the capital's residents. Traded were: cotton and linen materials, perfumes, gold, glass, and faience from Egypt; ivory from Ethiopia and India; copper from Spain; silks from China; frankincense from Africa; and cosmetics, frankincense and myrrh from Saudi Arabia. Carried to the Mediterranean world along several distant routes, by sea and land, the journey was treacherous and merchants encountered pirates, inhospitable tribes and geographic obstacles including the lack of good harbors. Yet the business was highly lucrative and a great many people shared in the profits: the producers at the point of origin, the shippers, protectors of the shipping and land routes, tax-collectors, middlemen, thieves and highway robbers.

South Arabian trade began around the seventh century B.C. Incense traders used overland routes to bring aromatics from the center of production in South Arabia to the major consumers&emdash;cities of Syria and the Mediterranean world. In the early years, the caravans went by land along two routes: one followed the east coast of Arabia as far as the Parthian capital of Ctesphion near Baghdad; the other&emdash;controlled by the Kings of Hadramawt (in the Yemen) through the second century A.D.&emdash;traversed the interior desert on the west coast towards the oasis town of Najran and then north through Medina to the Nabatean trade centers of Mada'in Salih and Petra.

With the development of maritime trade in the second century B.C., the rival kingdom of Saba began to cultivate an alternate source of aromatics in Ethiopia and exploited the quicker and cheaper Red Sea routes to counter the Hadrami monopoly.

By the first century A.D., the Roman and Greek traders had begun to arrange their own shipments of goods at the now lost Yemeni port of Muza. With the annexation of Arabia under Trajan (98-117 A.D.), the Romans acquired the northern terminal of land routes from South Arabia and redirected the long-distance trade to new ports under their control. Seaborne traffic was now routed to the Western Coast of the Red Sea, to the Egyptian port of Clysma, which was connected to the Nile by the newly constructed via nova Traiana. This replaced the Nabatean port of Leuke Kome on the eastern coast as the principal destination of goods shipped by sea from southern Arabia.

Travel by sea, however, was not easy. Coral reefs divide the Red Sea into channels of which only the central one is navigable. On the Arabian Coast shallow water prevented the establishment of deepwater ports for large vessels, and reefs and shoals on the Egyptian side obstructed the approach to the shore. Here Myos Hormos, Leucos Limen and Berenice were the only safe harbors. The discovery of the monsoon winds in the first century A.D. enabled boats to sail from Egypt to India and back in one year.

Once objects were unloaded at their sea port destinations, they were transported by camel, the "ship of the desert," overland to markets and points of distribution. Overland routes were expensive, time-consuming, and unsafe for fragile items. Moreover, bulk goods were inconvenient to transport by camel and the roads were primarily tracks in the sand.

In this exhibition the objects of trade including frankincense, myrrh and other spices, cotton, glass, pottery, and jewelry are displayed as are the vessels in which they were shipped&emdash;large amphorae, smaller shipping vessels (unguentaria), glass jugs&emdash;and records of trade (a papyrus letter and bottle stoppers).

Artifacts from many of the trade route sites are part of the exhibit. The eastern trade route went through many different countries&emdash;The Five Incense Bearing Kingdoms (in the Yemen), Arabia, and the Nabatean Kingdom. Few archaeological excavations have been conducted in the Yemen and Arabia and only a small number of artifacts from the first through the third centuries have been found and studied. Scarcely any are in collections in America. Petra and Khibet Tannur in Nabatea have been extensively excavated, and the fabulous architectural remains from the Roman Imperial period as well as the distinctive native pottery are evidence of an affluent civilization. Petra, the Nabatean capital, is represented by Pottery, religious statues as well as coins of the kingdom. After 106 A.D. when Trajan conquered Petra, the trade routes were diverted north through Palmyra, which grew wealthy as a result.

Along the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, objects from Leucos Limen range from trade goods to everyday pottery. The other seaports, Berenice and Myos Hormos as well as the inland trade town of Coptos are only now being explored.

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