Tracking the Trail of a Spice of Ancient Life


Twelve days after the first Christmas, three magi appeared in Bethlehem bearing gifts of "gold, frankincense and myrrh."

The gold cited in the Book of Matthew, many experts now believe, was actually golden frankincense, an aromatic resin that was then more precious than even the yellow metal itself.

And both the normal frankincense and its golden counterpart probably originated in the recently discovered city of Ubar on the edge of the desolate Ruba'al Khali or Empty Quarter of Oman.

That discovery, announced to much fanfare in 1992, shed the first glimmer of light on the ancient trade in this most valuable of spices, but researchers soon hope to learn much more.

This Saturday, the team that discovered Ubar will leave for an even more desolate region of Oman's neighbor, Yemen, where members hope to discover as many as seven additional fortresses that sheltered and protected merchants along the frankincense trail to the centers of civilization.

Armed with satellite images of the 2,000-year-old hoofprints of camels, they hope to identify these mysterious caravansaries and lay bare the details of trade in this crucial accessory of early religion.

Frankincense is the dried resin of a scraggly shrub named Boswellia sacra, which grows well only in the Qara Mountains of Oman. Residents of the region tap the bushes in the spring to gather the resin, much like maple syrup producers tap their trees.

By the time of Christ's birth, more than 3,000 tons of frankincense were exported from Oman at a cost of as much as $300 per pound. The material was widely used in religious ceremonies, to consecrate temples, to mask the odor of cremations, to make cosmetics and to treat various illnesses.

The resin was extremely popular in Rome. The Emperor Nero used the equivalent of a whole year's production in the funeral of his consort Poppaea.

Ironically, considering the role of frankincense in the Christmas story, the rise of Christianity--where ceremonies required little or no incense--in the 5th century, along with the disintegration of the Roman empire, dramatically slowed trade in the resin.

The 7th century rise of Islam, whose rituals also required no frankincense, was the final nail in its coffin. Although frankincense continues to be produced today, it has little economic importance.

At its height during the 500 years before Christ, the frankincense trade was controlled by a tribal group that the Greek historian Pliny the Elder called Iobaritae, or Ubarites. Little is known about this mysterious group, but Los Angeles lawyer and amateur archeologist George Hedges, who organized the current expedition along with archeologist Juris Zarins of Southwest Missouri State University, argues that the current residents of the region are the Ubarites' direct descendants.

"They were an indigenous people who began to domesticate the area based on cattle herding," Zarins said. "But they found themselves in control of a natural product, frankincense, which grows on their territory." The profits from that product gave them a prosperity previously undreamed of--until pride and profligacy overtook them.

The capital city of the Ubarites was the wealthy, turreted city of Ubar, cited in the Koran and "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights" and long thought by scholars to be mythical. According to Islamic legend, the residents of Ubar became so wicked and debauched that God eventually destroyed the city, allowing it to be swallowed by the restless desert.

The fortress discovered in 1992 by Hedges, Zarins, filmmaker Nicholas Clapp and their colleagues near the small village of Shisur matched the particulars well: a walled city with eight towers of different shapes and sizes at its corners. Most significantly, the city originally sat over a large limestone cavern that supplied its water. The city was abandoned when the cavern collapsed from an earthquake, swallowing much of the city.

Charred timbers and remnants of weapons suggest that what was left of the city was overrun and looted, Zarins said.

Although the site will probably continue to be called Ubar, Zarins added, it was probably merely a fortress that Pliny called Marimatha. The term Ubar, he said, "probably refers to the whole region."

The team finished excavating at Ubar in 1995, cataloging more than 5,000 objects. They include pottery, luxury wares from Rome and Persia, the remains of glass mementos, figurines, lamps, stone vessels, coins and even pieces from a chess set. The report was recently presented to the government of Oman, and the team hopes to publish it soon.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that most of the ceramics recovered tie the site to ancient Persia.

"We knew they controlled the northern tip [of the Arabian peninsula], but not this far westward," Zarins said. "It seems to suggest that the Bible was correct in using 'magwi,' a variant of magi, which means wise men in Persian. Most bible scholars wouldn't know that."

The series of fortresses the team hopes to find in Yemen are "almost certainly [along] the route of the magi," Hedges added.

The search for the fortresses will be guided by geologist Ronald Blom of JPL, who has enhanced images of the region from the Landsat satellite to accentuate ancient trails. The images "let the region tell its story," Hedges said.

The team will spend a month exploring an archeologically untouched region of Yemen that has no permanent habitations and no inhabitants other than a few wandering herdsmen.

"The picture emerging is still a partial picture," Hedges said. "We don't have a specific city to focus on in Yemen like we did for Ubar, but we have good information and ideas. There is a magnificent story yet to be told."

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