Ramadan ritualsIncense runs deep into Yemen’s history [Archives:2004/787/Culture]

November 4 2004

By Mahyoub Al-Kamali
Yemen Times Staff

Incense is available in Ramadan night sessions in mosques, some business establishments and companies in which work is done at night. Its fragrance affects the senses and souls. The profession of making incense earns encouraging financial interests.
There are many famous kinds that are used especially in Ramadan. “Al-Adani” (named after Aden) is the best known. Besides, al-luban, al-mur, al-sabir are historically reknown. Yemenis prefer al-luban product in the religious sessions for it is the best kind, planted in the higher forest-covered mountains.
This kind of incense is produced in several areas such as Wadi Hagar and Socotra. While in sessions and offices, al-mur, considered the second best incense product is used. This kind is presented in ancient yemeni inscriptions as Amrer yet its scientific name is “commiphore.” Al-mur with al-luban attained a significant position among the exported substances.
Al-mur trees are planted on farms harvested with a cut in the tree stem to let liquid go out. Mur was planted in various places in Yemen such as Bilad al-Asha'air in Tihama.
The Greek scripts by Herodotus that gum and mur, and aromatic trees trees were of the Yemeni incense products that is of the most famous Arabian product. The Roman Pliny elaborated his description of the Yemeni products, Yemeni incense and incense wood and its main products: gum and mur.
He described the way they were harvested, their shapes, quality levels, colors and different names.
Incense was associated with special religious rituals. Incense was exported to the Roman Empire on 7,000-10,000 camels annually. These figures do not account for the gross incense production of Southern Arabia-Yemen. On the contrary, a huge quantity was exported to Iraq through “Jarha” in the Arab Gulf besides other quantities to India.
Legends and tales
According to historical references, there are many incesne-related legends and stories passing from generation to generation. Of those stories is that the tree of incense and its derivatives is usually found in the middle of a forest.
That shows there is an adventure should take place to reach it. It is said that this tree is in the shadow of the tangled forests surrounded by big poisonous snakes that hug the natural incense because they are fond of its smell.
These stories have been still narrated by many people and a number of Indian merchants in Aden who deal with the incense industry, importing and exporting incense for over 100 years.
Some sources relate those stories with frightening people of the trade pirates and incense smugglers in order not to fight them or their money.
Incense in the Sun Temple
Yemeni people are interested in incense in Ramadan rituals. They were performed in the first years of Islam. But the historical sources relating these goods show obviously the high position attained by Yemen. This position was concerned with the religious rituals from the beginning of history, and founding of early civilizations.
People used to burn incense as a sacrifice to gods but for Sumarion and Babilions burnt it to free themselves from sins. Pharaohs used it to be in touch with gods. Sophism and groups of Al-Sunnah used it in the Islamic reign when making Ramdan mawalids in the session.
There are many evidences that prove the history of Yemeni incense, such as what is said by the Canadian archeologist who headed the Canadian mission that searched for archeological remains in Mareb, when he unearthed new discoveries in the Sun Temple, half of which are still buried. The mission found some of the gum that was special for the queen Bilqis in her temple. That incense kept its normal shape and smell for more than 3000 years while underground.
Adeni women making the best incense
Aden is famous for making, marketing and exporting incense, which Yemeni take care to have in Ramadan. They are eager to ask the traders whether the incense they sell is from Aden or imported. Aden was of the main routes of incense trade to Egypt Ghaza countries by the Red and Mediterranean Seas, and countries around the Arab Sea.
There were in Aden many offices of large companies that import and export incense and perfumes. The secret of their profession of making incense is ascribed to Aden's women, who are experts in improving incense derivatives by cooking it with other substances.
There are secrets in the quality of incense such as its natural cortex of the tree which has a very enjoyable smell, the traditional Indian wood, German Sultan misk and the Chinese one. Besides there are many kinds of perfumes like the Eastern perfumes, misk core, rooh al-rooh, sawt al-arab and some quantities of sugar.
Merchants today complain because of the extinction of incense trees that took the virtues of Yemen's fame. Incense is threatened with extinction because of the wars and the armed conflicts by the foreign armies throughout history as well as the natural disasters.
Hands of destruction, senselessness, negligence and scarcity of rain are of the reasons behind the current state of incense. Merchants think they should be pay some efforts for maintaining what remains of the incense trees.
They suggest planting more trees for there are still fewer members of trees of old and natural incense with its distinctive natural derivatives. It is worth mentioning that those trees are in Shabwa and some rural areas in Hadramout and what is produced pales into insignificance in comparison to production potential. We should ask: can Yemen plant incense and maintain what remains of gum specifically in Socotra?