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As Good as Gold : Magi Bore 3 Types of Incense, Not Precious Metal, Scholars Think

December 13, 1992|DONALD J. FREDERICK | NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Despite centuries of belief, gold probably wasn't among those first Christmas gifts of the three wise men.

Some scholars think that biblical translations of "gold and frankincense and myrrh" were somehow garbled over time. The gold mentioned as one of the three gifts of the Magi was actually a type of frankincense. Valued at least as much as the precious metal, it had a strong sandalwood-like aroma.

"Biblical scholars have suggested that the word gold doesn't refer to the metal. It means 'golden frankincense,' the highest-quality aromatic at the time," said anthropologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University. "I think that's exactly the right answer. I don't believe the Magi brought the baby Jesus gold. They brought him three types of incense."

To the three kings, frankincense symbolized divinity, an offering that ranked with myrrh, another prized Arabian incense.

Both frankincense and myrrh come from small, scraggly trees. Several scrapings of the bark produce the desired gum-resin droplets. Even today, the best frankincense trees grow in southern Arabia in Oman's Dhofar region and in eastern Yemen.

At the time of Christ, more than 3,000 tons of frankincense may have been exported annually from southern Arabia to consecrate temples, mask the odor of cremations, make cosmetics and treat an array of ills, from gout to a "broken head."

In Rome, frankincense was extremely popular among the wealthy. Emperor Nero supposedly lavished the equivalent of a year's Arabian production on funeral ceremonies for his consort Poppaea.

Zarins' preliminary excavations a year ago of two "lost cities" in the Dhofar area--Ubar and Saffara Metropolis--have shown the impact of frankincense trade at the time of the Nativity, and long before.

"Investigations in an area like this are bound to turn up other new settlements and towns," predicts Raymond D. Tindel, an archeologist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

"This is like getting the door open to Ali Baba's cave. What Zarins has got is the first chest of jewels, but I think there's a lot more to come."

Most likely serving as both fortresses and storage centers, Ubar and Saffara Metropolis were surrounded by massive stone walls 2 feet thick, ringed with 30-foot-high towers. "A large building in the middle of each settlement probably served as a sanctuary," said Zarins.

Neither city could accommodate the large number of people who wandered in and out. "About 1 or 2 miles away from Ubar, there's evidence of a whole series of encampments," Zarins said. "They were probably filled with hundreds of people waiting to load or offload goods connected with the frankincense trade."

Ancient maps and space-age imagery enabled a team of explorers led by Nicholas Clapp, George Hedges and Ranulph Fiennes to find Ubar. Satellite images showing traces of ancient camel-caravan routes helped lead them to the city on the edge of the Arabian Peninsula's Empty Quarter, near the Qara Mountains.

Ubar likely served as a staging area for camel caravans that ventured across the forbidding landscape bound for Mesopotamian markets.

Local tribesmen steered the scientists to the legendary location of Saffara Metropolis, about 45 miles away, on the other side of the mountains, near the Arabian Sea. Frankincense processed there went by boat down the coast to Yemen or to India. From Yemen it went by sea, or overland by camel, to Egypt and northern Arabia. From there it could be sent on to Greek and Roman markets.

At the time of the Nativity, the civilized world sought incense for religious purposes. South Arabia controlled the source. The cartel that developed in the region has been called "an OPEC of its time."

"People have known that the material flowed from southern Arabia to the eastern Mediterranean. But until recently, the questions of when this trade began, the mechanisms of how it was done and the routes used have eluded most people," said Zarins. "I'm pushing for the idea that the frankincense trade began as early as 5000 BC."

The disintegration of the Roman Empire--the largest market for aromatics--and the rise of Christianity dulled the sweet smell of success. Trade started to fall apart in the fifth century. The 7th Century rise of Islam, whose rituals seldom required incense, virtually put an end to it.

As for Ubar, part of the city collapsed into a limestone sinkhole, probably in the 5th Century. About the same time, Saffara Metropolis was abandoned.

The sands of time buried both cities, but Ubar was never forgotten. The famed T. E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, called it "the Atlantis of the sands."

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