A passage to the land of incense [Archives:2006/957/Last Page]

June 22 2006

Ismail Al-Ghabiri
Historians can trace the discovery of incense in Yemen back to the days of ancient civilizations like the kingdom of Sheba, when Yemenis used incense in their religious and worship rituals. Remains of incense were discovered in Awam Temple, located in historical Marib, testifying to Yemen's ancient use os incense as a requirement to worship their gods.

The head of a Canadian archeological team which conducted excavations in Marib, notably in Queen Bilqis's Temple of the Sun, confirmed the discovery of quite a special quantity of incense belonging to the queen herself, in addition to a number of pottery, bronze and silver wares used as censers.

Up until 500 B.C., incense's fame was spread during the ruling days of Sheba's kingdom. At that time, the state relied on incense and spice trading as a major source of financial support. They were considered very important trade commodities, which were essential and highly demanded in other ancient countries' trade markets in the east and north of Arabia.

When Sheba's kingdom began to weaken, new and smaller independent states emerged in Yemen like Ma'een, Qataban and Hadramout.

Ma'een state was established successfully, with its capital, Qernau, located 150 km. north of Sana'a in Al-Jawf, following its control over the region's main commercial and trade routes. With the help of Hadramout and Qataban states, Ma'een exercised sovereignty over caravan routes carrying incense, spices, frankincense and other merchandise. Ma'een tradesmen established settlements and transitional stations along the route leading north to Palestine and northeast to Bahrain, as well as heading north to Egypt and Greece.

Ma'een was well-known in the ancient world and its name was associated with the incense trade. Greek writers often named the commodity after Ma'een tradesmen and other Yemeni states.

Qataban state split from the Sheban kingdom in the fifth century B.C., establishing its capital in Tamna'a. However, it wasn't until the third and second century B.C. that Qataban reached its peak of power and prosperity.

Qatabanis were famed for their agricultural products, as well as establishing dams and tunnels across their lands to ensure water flow to their farms. They also relied on trading agricultural products and other types of merchandise.

Qataban is known for enacting laws regulating economic and commercial affairs. The famous obelisk still standing in Hajar in Kahlan area in Tamna'a, containing inscriptions of laws and regulations regarding the city's main market, Shammar, indicates laws specifying commissions and categorizing tradesmen.

Hadramout state gained independence from the Kingdom of Sheba and was established in the fifth century B.C. It gradually became a powerful state, establishing its capital in Shabwa, which was the center of the incense trade, whereas Dhafar city was famed for being the land of incense growing and production.

At that time, transportation actually was limited to animals like donkeys, mules, horses and camels. However, since this method of carrying goods didn't meet increased market demands in many remote nations and offshore states, Yemeni traders resorted to the sea, beginning at Yemen's southern ports and heading north toward Syria and northwest to Egypt.

One important incense trade route extends along the Qana and Najran eastern valleys. However, the way later was disrupted as a result of tribal disagreements and fighting and replaced by another famous route extending all the way from Aden to Sa'ada at the ruling time of Himyar state leader Asa'ad Al-Akamel, who was in power in the late fourth century A.D.

Historical sources divide the ancient incense trade into two main routes: the first (Yemeni – Mecca), known as the Frankincense Road, ran along the mountainous Yemeni plateau and the second (Shami – Mecca) connected Mecca and Medina with Al-Petra city in northern Arabia. Such cities were said to have flourished at the time due to their strategic commercial and economic importance.

Resources further state that incense was transported annually to the Roman Empire in large quantities; and similarly, quite a huge volume was exported to both Iraq and India.

Thus, one can perceive how the incense trade long ago left Yemen's imprint on major ancient world civilizations. Yemen shall remain famous for being the land of incense and mystique.