Incense trade route

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Desert cities in the Negev, such as Shivta, were linked to the Mediterranean end of the ancient incense and spice trading routes.

The incense trade route included a network of major ancient land and sea trading routes linking the Mediterranean world with eastern and southern sources of incense, spices and other luxury goods, stretching from Mediterranean ports across the Levant and Egypt through Northeastern Africa and Arabia to India and beyond. The incense land trade from South Arabia to the Mediterranean flourished between roughly the 7th century BC and the 2nd century AD.[1] The incense trade route served as a channel for the trading of goods such as Arabian frankincense and myrrh;[1] from Southeast Asia Indian spices, precious stones, pearls, ebony, silk and fine textiles;[2] and from the Horn of Africa, rare woods, feathers, animal skins, Somali frankincense, and gold.[2][3]

Early history[edit]

The incense trade, connecting Egypt to the incense-producing lands, depended heavily on navigation along the Red Sea.

The Egyptians had traded in the Red Sea, importing spices, gold and exotic wood from the "Land of Punt" and from Arabia.[4] Indian goods were brought in Arabian and Indian vessels to Aden.[4] Rawlinson identifies the long-debated "ships of Tarshish," as a Tyrian fleet equipped at Ezion-Geber that made several trading voyages to the east bringing back gold, silver, ivory and precious stones.[4] These goods were transshipped at the port of Ophir.[4]

According to one historian:[5]

Land routes[edit]

Among the most important trading points of the incense trade route from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea was Gerrha in the Persian Gulf, reported by the historian Strabo to have been founded by Babylonian exiles as a Chaldean colony.[7] Gerrha exercised influence over the incense trade routes across Arabia to the Mediterranean and controlled the aromatics trade to Babylon in the 1st century BC.[7] Gerrha was one of the important entry ports for goods shipped from India.[7]

Due to its prominent position in the incense trade, Yemen attracted settlers from the Fertile Crescent.[8] The frankincense and myrrh trees were crucial to the economy of Yemen and were recognized as a source of wealth by its rulers.[8] Recent exploration discovered an ancient trade route through eastern Yemen in the Mahra region.[9]

Tiglath-Pileser III attacked Gaza in order to control trade along the Incense Route.[10]

Assyrian documents indicate that Tiglath-Pileser III advanced through Phoenicia to Gaza.[10] Gaza was eventually sacked and the ruler of Gaza escaped to Egypt but later continued to act as a vassal administrator.[10] The motive behind the attack was to gain control of the South Arabian incense trade which had prospered along the region.[10]

I.E.S. Edwards connects the Syro-Ephraimite War to the desire of the Israelites and the Aramaeans to control the northern end of the Incense Route, which ran up from Southern Arabia and could be tapped by commanding Transjordan.[11] Archaeological inscriptions also speak of booty retrieved from the land of the mu-u-na-a-a, possibly Meunites mentioned in the Old Testament.[10] Some scholars identify this group as the Minaeans of South Arabia, who were involved with the incense trade and occupied the northern trading outposts of the Incense Route.[10]

Aromatics from Dhofar and luxury goods from India brought wealth to the kingdoms of Arabia.[12] The aromatics of Dhofar were shipped out from the natural harbour of Khor Rori towards the western inhospitable South Arabian coast.[13] The caravans carried these products north to Shabwa and from there on to the kingdoms of Qataban, Saba, Ma'in, and Palestine up to Gaza.[14] The tolls levied by the owners of wells and other facilities added to the overall cost of these luxury goods.[14]

Greco-Roman bypassing of land routes[edit]

Roman maritime trade routes with India according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei, 1st century AD. The Romans bypassed the land route in favour of the faster and safer searoute.

The Nabateans built Petra,[15] which stood halfway between the opening to the Gulf of Akaba and the Dead Sea at a point where the Incense Route from Arabia to Damascus was crossed by the overland route from Petra to Gaza.[16] This position gave the Nabateans a hold over the trade along the Incense Route.[16] In order to control the Incense Route from the Nabatean a Greek military expedition lead by Swan was undertaken, without success, by Antigonus Cyclops, one of Alexander of Macedonia's generals.[16] The Nabatean control over trade increased and spread to the West and the North.[16] The replacement of Greece by the Roman empire as the administrator of the Mediterranean basin led to the resumption of direct trade with the east.[17] According to a historian "The South Arabs in protest took to pirate attacks over the Roman ships in the Gulf of Aden. In response, the Romans destroyed Aden and favoured the Western Abyssinian coast of the Red Sea."[18] The monopoly of the Indian and Arab middlemen weakened with the development of monsoon trade by the Greeks through the discovery of the direct route to India (Hippalus), forcing the Parthian and Arabian middlemen to adjust their prices so as to compete on the Roman market with the goods now being bought in by a direct sea route to India.[17] Indian ships sailed to Egypt as the maritime routes of Southern Asia were not under the control of a single power.[17]

Areas around the Arabian peninsula according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei.

According to one historian:[19]

Frankincense from Dhofar was collected at Moscha Limen. It was shipped to Qana and taken overland to Shabwa and further North to Najran, Mecca, Medina, Petra and to Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. It was also shipped to Babylon and Palmyra via the Persian Gulf.[20]

The Roman trade with India kept increasing, and according to Strabo (II.5.12.):[21]


According to a historian:[22]

Sassanian Empire in 602 to 629

At the end of the sixth century Isidore of Seville enumerated the aromatics still being imported into Visigothic Spain.[23] Of aromatic trees (de arboris aromaticis) Isidore listed in his encyclopedia myrrh, pepper, cinnamon, amomum (cardamom?) and cassia; of aromatic herbs (de herbis aromaticis), nard, saffron, cardamom, will have arrived through the trade routes, others were available in Spain: thyme, aloes, rose, violet, lily, gentian, wormwood, fennel and others.[24]

The decline of the incense trade saw Yemen take to the export of coffee via the Red Sea port of al-Mocha.[25]

Egypt under the rule of the Rashidun.
  Prophet Mohammad, 622–632
  Patriarchal Caliphate, 632–661
  Umayyad Caliphate, 661–750

Following the Roman-Persian Wars the areas under the Roman Byzantine Empire were captured by Khosrow I of the Persian Sassanian Dynasty.[26] The Arabs, led by 'Amr ibn al-'As, crossed into Egypt in late 639 or early 640.[27]

This advance marked the beginning of the Islamic conquest of Egypt[27] and the fall of ports such as Alexandria,[28] used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.[29]

Finally, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the 15th century, marking the beginning of Turkish control over the most direct trade routes between Europe and Asia.[30]

Present status[edit]

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee meeting in November 27, 2000 in Cairns, Australia attached World Heritage Site status to The Frankincense Trail in Oman.[31] The official citation reads:[32]

Ruins of Avdat

The World Heritage Committee, headed by Themba Wakashe, recorded Incense Route - Desert Cities in the Negev on UNESCO’s World Heritage List on July 15, 2005.[33] The official citation reads:[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Incense Route – Desert Cities in the Negev". UNESCO.
  2. ^ a b "Traders of the Gold and Incense Road". Embassy of the Republic of Yemen, Berlin. Archived from the original on 2007-09-08.
  3. ^ Ulric Killion, A Modern Chinese Journey to the West: Economic Globalisation And Dualism, (Nova Science Publishers: 2006), p. 66
  4. ^ a b c d Rawlinson 2001: 11–12
  5. ^ Ray, Himanshu Prabha (2003). The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia. Cambridge University Press. p. 31. ISBN 0-521-01109-4.
  6. ^ This refers to Hatshepsut's expedition of 1515 BC.
  7. ^ a b c Larsen 1983: 56
  8. ^ a b Glasse 2001: 59
  9. ^ Wilford, Ruins in Yemeni Desert Mark Route of Frankincense Trade, The New York Times, JAN. 28, 1997
  10. ^ a b c d e f Edwards 1969: 330
  11. ^ Edwards 1969: 329
  12. ^ Archibald 2001: 168
  13. ^ Archibald 2001: 168–69
  14. ^ a b Archibald 2001: 169
  15. ^ City Of Stone Documentary
  16. ^ a b c d Eckenstein 2005: 86
  17. ^ a b c Lach 1994: 13
  18. ^ Kearney, Milo (2003). The Indian Ocean in World History. Routledge. p. 42. ISBN 0-415-31277-9.
  19. ^ Fage, John Donnelly; et al. (1975). The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge University Press. p. 164. ISBN 0-521-21592-7.
  20. ^ Middle East Institute, The Story of Frankincense, Washington
  21. ^ Source
  22. ^ Young, Gary Keith (2001). Rome's Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 BC–AD 305. Routledge. p. 128. ISBN 0-415-24219-3.
  23. ^ Isidore: "Aromatics are those perfumed odours sent to us by India, the Arabian regions and other places besides. And aromatics seem to derive their name either from their use on the altars of the gods, or because we see that they spread forth and mingle with the air" (Libri differentiarum sive de proprietate sermonum, quoted in Maguelonne Toussant-Samat, Anthea Bell, tr. The History of Food, revised ed. 2009, p. 434); since sacrifice to the gods had been proscribed for more than two centuries, Isidore may simply have been repeating an old list.
  24. ^ Toussaint-Samat 2009, p. 434
  25. ^ Colburn 2002: 14
  26. ^ Farrokh 2007: 252
  27. ^ a b Meri 2006: 224
  28. ^ Holl 2003: 9
  29. ^ Lindsay 2006: 101
  30. ^ The Encyclopedia Americana 1989: 176
  31. ^ "World Heritage Committee Inscribes 61 New Sites on World Heritage List". UNESCO.
  32. ^ "Land of Frankincense". UNESCO.
  33. ^ "Mostar, Macao and Biblical vestiges in Israel are among the 17 cultural sites inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List". UNESCO.


External links[edit]