MUSCAT, Oman — One of the gifts brought by the Magi who followed the Star of Bethlehem on the first Christmas was frankincense. Nobody would do that now.
Frankincense is the sap of the Boswellia sacra tree. It gives off a pungent scent when burned, and in ancient times was considered worth its weight in gold, a gift fit for kings.
It is said to be the gift the Queen of Sheba offered to King Solomon. Centuries before the discovery of oil, the people of the southern Arabian peninsula in what is now Oman made their fortunes with it.
Routes to Riches
To get the resin to its markets in Egypt, Babylon and Rome, trade routes were established throughout the Middle East and the wealth it generated built cities such as Sumhuram, which was a key port for the ancient commodity.
Frankincense was primarily burned in religious rituals and at special occasions. Ancient records say priests burned 2 1/2 tons of frankincense each year at the Babylonian Temple of Baal.
Frankincense pellets also were found in King Tutankhamen's tomb, and the Roman writer Pliny recorded that Emperor Nero burned a year's production at the funeral of his wife Poppaea.
Adopted by Christians
The burning of frankincense was incorporated in Christian rituals and the scent is still used today, although churches now rely on an artificial substitute developed in the late 1940s.
The artificial product virtually killed off the trade, although some hardy individuals kept collecting the resin for domestic consumption and it is being exported again for use in perfumes.
But frankincense is no longer a gift fit for kings and it is not nearly as valuable as it once was.
During a recent visit to the souk in Muscat, 1.1 pounds of the resin could be bought for about $3. If it was still worth its weight in gold, it would have cost more than $5,700.
The Best Sources
The best frankincense comes from short, gnarled trees on the desert plateau near Salalah in Oman's southern Dhofar region, where members of the Bait Kathir and al-Mahra tribes still collect it in the traditional fashion.
The collection season begins in winter and runs through the spring.
To collect the resin, workers use a small sharp knife called a mingaf to cut the bark. The resin, known as luban, oozes out and hardens into crystals, which are scraped off the tree into palm baskets.
A higher quality of frankincense, which is lighter in color, is obtained by waiting for the resin to dry naturally on the tree before falling to the ground.
The best way to burn frankincense is to place it on hot charcoal.