Incense the perfume of life [Archives:2005/873/Reportage]

September 1 2005

By Mariam Saleh Saeed
For Yemen Times

Incense is more than a fragrance, a cure, smoke in temples or an aromatic ritual associated with worship. Incense was used by kings and beggars alike (though not in the same quantity) to mark celebrations or rituals. The smoke created an ambience of atmosphere which created feelings of love, brotherhood and cordiality.

The “loban” gum tree and incense

There are seemingly myriad forms of incense, but the stuff produced from the Loban gum tree is gummy and flows down the bark of a tree like blood from a wound. The incense gum is known for its fragrant smell when it is burnt during religious rituals.

Its main homeland is the central south coastal area of Arabia, especially Hadrmout, Socatra Island, Dhafar and the Somali coastal area. The “loban” and “Mor” grow on both sides of Aden bay. The Yemeni incense through times varied from loban to Mor and Sabr.)

Historical review

The patient, single humped camel, played a vital role in introducing this stuff to the rest of the world. Since it was first tamed, it strongly led the efforts of permeating the arid Arabian Desert; this is, of course, due to its unique adaptation to the desert's sweltering heat. This made the camel capable of conveying perfume and incense in trade from south Arabia to the rest of the world along what came to be called the incense route. Hellenic and Roman historians were well aware of incense and the cost of its procurement. Alexander the Great was planning the conquest of South Arabia and the coast of the Red Sea before his death in Babylon.

The incense rout is about 3500 kilometers long. It used to connect the Indian Ocean's coast with The Mediterranean, in a trip that takes the caravans about seventy to ninety days. The caravans that took the incense to the Roman Empire used to be about two kilometers in length. They covered from thirty to forty kilometers a day. They carried an annual load of about seven to ten thousand camels of incense. This doesn't show the total product of South Arabia (Yemen). Other amounts were exported to ancient (Iraq) through the city of (Jarha) in the Arabian Gulf, while other shipments went to India.

Incense is considered to be a holly perfume. It was used in the sacrifice ceremonies in the temples of Babylon, Ninwa in Iraq, in addition to the ancient Egyptians, in the Nile valley who used it in mummification and death ceremonies.

Around the third century BC, The Greeks used the incense in their rituals, and the custom was adopted by the Romans. The writing of the explorers, especially those of the Greeks, mentions the importance of the prosperity of incense in South Arabia, in the centuries before birth of Christ. Some of the chapters of these writings speak of the daily life in the Yemeni Saba'a kingdom. Historians consider the trip of Queen Bilqis to meet King Solomon to be a commercially motivated mission to facilitate the movement of her perfume and incense caravans through Asia Minor and the Palestinian lands. An old Assyrian document mentioned that the incense caravans used to pay customs to other parties that the incense caravans cross their territorial lands. One of the documents mentioned that the ruler of Maru in western Iraq seized a caravan of 200 camels and confiscated its load of iron, cloth, wool and alabaster. That was because of their reluctance in paying the taxes of coming through these lands.

Other documents mentioned the taxes that the Yemenis used to pay in7BC to the Asyrians kings (Sergon ii) and ( Senharib) in the form of perfumes and gold and jewels. The latest discoveries of the Russian archeological mission, confirmed that incense used to be grown in Southern Arabia. They discovered buried incense in sacks of palm leaves, near the coast of (Gani) port, in Aden Gulf.

The importance of incense is indicated in the historical sources. Of these is the writing of Herodotus in which it is said that the incense tree is guarded by speckled winged snakes, where a number of them are found around each tree.

Roman historian, Polonius Senior, said that Nero ordered all the annual import of incense from Arabia to be burnt during the funeral of his wife Boba.

Polonius also wrote (All the incense that is collected by the priests is carried on camels to Sabota ” Shabwa” where one of the city's gates is opened to let the incense caravan in. Diverting the incense caravan away from the city is considered to be a crime. In Sabota one tenth of the load is taken as a tax for their god).

In classical Greece Arabia was known as Arabia Eudemon, or 'happy Arabia'. The Romans called Arabia, Arabia Felix.

Incense was also an important item at the Islamic era. It used to bestow a sense of refreshments and happiness on meetings.

Tales and legends

Generations in different eras used to tell fables and legends about the incense. There are many legends on the incense and its derivatives. They assume that the incense tree is always found in the middle of a dense jungle. The attainment of this tree requires a great venture, because of the tales that speak of the tall trees that shade it and the big poisonous snakes that often guard it. They say that because these snakes are fond of the fragrance of the incense, they often embrace and guard it. These tales are still being told by those Indians in Aden who deal in and export incense. Some sources say that these tales aim at terrifying smugglers, so that they would not undermine the trade of this important cash crop.

Some incense names were found written in old censers that were discovered in archeological sites. Of these names are Qist, Rand, Gold, Na'am, Labani, Sabkhan, Kamkam, Pen and Hadhak.

Relation between incense and the censer

For the fragrance of the incense to emanate there should be censers.

There are many types of censers. They are made up of two apartments, a four sided upper one and conical lower one with a flat base. The common model has several shapes, pillars or other geometrical shapes are usually drawn on it.

The bronze censers are usually small and round with three legs.

Other sorts of censers are those which have four faces, with incense's names written on them. They have got four legs. The live coal should necessarily be put in it so that the fragrance should rise and emanate. Censers differ according to shapes and the stuff they are made of. There are the Pottery, stone, ceramic, iron and crystal censers. The most common are naorah and woody ones.

Incense types

Some types of incense are used in their raw form and some sorts are for men and others for women. They also differ according to occasions. Men's incense in Yemen is only limited to burning the wood. It is imported from India and South East Asia. Men often use it in religious occasions and when they go to visit other people. As for the women, they use other sorts of incense, such as the Ara'esi, Adani, Rihab, Hahl and maka. The most popular of these are the Araesi and adani.

Incense usages

Yemen had known incense for centuries. They had become very skilful in incense making. Incense is used for a number of purposes. Some of these could be:

– In wedding ceremonies, where the censer carriers often move among invited guests reciting certain verses.

– It is a habit that incense is burnt in a patient's room. There is a belief that the fragrance of the incense drives away evil sprits and takes away enviousness. It also changes the smell of the patient's room. It is also believed to heel wounds and stop bleeding. Incense is also used as a poison antidote.

Incense is still hand- made, and thousands of families, the majority of them women, inherit this craft and keep the secrets of their formulas. The produce is either sold or given as a gift, however many families still make a living out of incense preparation.

Adeni women are the best among incense makers

Aden is unique in incense preparation. It has a historical reputation in producing and marketing this stuff, because of its position as a confluence for east and west going caravans. The historical and geographical position of Aden contributed to that. It is now the site for international incense export and import companies.

Yemeni incense recipe is a secret possessed by some Yemeni women. It is a mixture of perfumes that come from allover the world. It is made up, for instance, of Indian aloes (wood), German and Chinese musk and other perfumes that come from other parts of the world. There are other ingredients including sugar and other Arabian stuffs. The secrets of incense making are almost with most of Adeni women, but there are experts who know the exact constituents and amounts.

Yemen times met Haja Radia Salim-60, who is one of incense experts. She told us that she started this craft forty years ago. She learnt it from her mother and aunt who inherited it from earlier ancestors. She became famous and now she has foreign clients. Mrs. Radia gave a brief description on the costs and constituents of incense recipe.

Incense trade waning

Modern generation's shift to modern products, contributed to the recess in incense markets. A deputy manager in an incense manufacturing company said that there are no factories for incense, but there are some small traditional plants that treat incense. They were established by some companies, but in spite of their preponderance to home made incense, they can not compete internationally. There are now some creams and deodorants that have the incense fragrance.

Nasir Abdul nabi, a merchant whose family has worked in incense making for over a hundred years now, says that the ingredients of incense making are all being imported now. The local constituent that gave Yemen its historical reputation are deteriorating because of drought and economic decline.

There is still hope

In spite of all the difficulties, some companies are planning to revive incense trade and export. This is what is said by the company's deputy manager. He added that they are now exporting large amounts to many countries such as Canada, Britain and East African countries.

A nation's history needs to be preserved, because lessons drawn from history could be of use in the future that is why it is important to take care of a glorious industry that we inherited from our ancestors before it fades out.