Incense road

The Incense trade route or the Incense Road of Antiquity (see also the spice trade) comprised 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 eastern Africa and Arabia to India and beyond. The incense land trade from South Arabia to the Mediterranean flourished between roughly the 7th century BCE to the 2nd century CE.[1] The Incense Route served as a channel for trading of goods such as Arabian frankincense and myrrh;[1] Indian spices, precious stones, pearls, ebony, silk and fine textiles;[2] and East African rare woods, feathers, animal skins and gold.[2]

Early history

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 transhipped at the port of Ophir.[4]

According to one historian:[5]



Land routes

Among the important trading points of the Incense 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.[6] 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.[6] Gerrha was one of the important entry ports for goods shipped from India.[6]

Due to its prominent position in the incense trade, Yemen attracted settlers from the fertile crescent.[7] The frankincense and myrrh trees were crucial to the economy of Yemen and were recognized as a source of wealth by its rulers.[7]

Assyrian documents indicate that Tiglath-Pileser III advanced through Phoenicia to Gaza.[8] Gaza was eventually sacked and the ruler of Gaza escaped to Egypt but later continued to act as a vassal administrator.[8] The motive behind the attack was to gain control of the South Arabian incense trade which had prospered along the region.[8] 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.[9] Archaeological inscriptions also speak of booty retrieved from the land of the mu-u-na-a-a, possibly Meunites mentioned in the Old Testament.[8] 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.[8]

Aromatics from Dhofar and luxury goods from India bought wealth to the kingdoms of Arabia.[10] The aromatics of Dhofar were shipped out from the natural harbor of Khor Rori towards the western inhospitable South Arabian coast.[11] The caravans carried these products north to Shabwa and from there on to the kingdoms of Qataban, Saba, Ma'in, Palestine up to Gaza.[12] The tolls levied by the owners of wells and other facilities added to the overall cost of these luxury goods.[12]

Greco-Roman bypassing of land routes

The Nabateans seized Petra, 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.[13] This position gave the Nabateans a hold over the trade along the Incense Route.[13] In order to control the Incense Route from the Nabatean a Greek military expedition was undertaken, without success, by Antigonus Cyclops, one of Alexander of Macedonia's generals.[13] The Nabatean control over trade increased and spread to the West and the North.[13] 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.[14] 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 favored the Western Abyssinian coast of the Red Sea."[15] The monopoly of the Indian and Arab middlemen weakened with the development of monsoon trade by the Greek 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.[14] Indian ships sailed to Egypt as the maritime routes of Southern Asia were not under the control of a single power.[14]

According to one historian:[16]


The Roman trade with India kept increasing, and according to Strabo (II.5.12.):[17]



According to a historian[18] Template:Cquote

At the end of the sixth century Isidore of Seville enumerated the aromatics still being imported into Visigothic Spain.[19] 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.[20]

The decline of the incense trade saw Yemen take to the export of Coffee via the Red Sea port of al-Mocha.[21]

Following the Roman-Persian Wars the areas under the Roman Byzantine Empire were captured by Khosrow I of the Persian Sassanian Dynasty.[22] The Arabs, led by 'Amr ibn al-'As, crossed into Egypt in late 639 or early 640 CE.[23]

This advance marked the beginning of the Islamic conquest of Egypt[23] and the fall of ports such as Alexandria,[24] used to secure trade with India by the Greco Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.[25]

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.[26]

Present status

UNESCO's World Heritage Committee meeting since November 27, 2000 in Cairns, Australia attached World Heritage Site status to The Frankincense trail in Oman.[27] The official citation reads:[28]


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.[29] The official citation reads:[1]


See also



External links

  • BBC Frankincense Trail Series
  • Frankincense Trail in Oman article
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.