What is the “incense road” ?

Myrrh and frankincense : a psychedelic history

When you visit the city of Petra, in Jordan, you can’t help but wonder: how did a city in the middle of the desert, in one of the world’s driest countries, manage to build itself a regional empire, and feed nearly 40,000 people? Petra, a UNESCO-protected heritage site, abounds in the remains of cisterns, dams and pipelines, testimony to an ancient prosperity unrivalled in the region. The reason for this extraordinary boom: the incense highway. More specifically, the trade in resins from the south of the peninsula to the Mediterranean.

Petra, Jordan

Resins have played an important role in human history, particularly in antiquity. In this article, we’ll explore the role of three specific resins: myrrh, frankincense and terebinth, focusing on their medicinal, economic and religious roles.

Myrrh is an aromatic resin extracted from a tree called Commiphora myrrha, which grows in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In ancient times, myrrh was considered a valuable remedy for many ailments, including infections, joint pain and respiratory diseases. It was also used to prepare perfumes and cosmetics, and to embalm the dead.

Frankincense is a resin produced by the Boswellia tree, which grows mainly in India and East Africa. In ancient times, incense was highly prized for its sweet, pleasant fragrance, and was often burned during religious ceremonies. It was also used for its medicinal properties, notably to treat asthma, rheumatism and skin diseases.

Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 5th century BC, describes the use of myrrh and frankincense in Egyptian funeral practices, where they were burned to perfume embalmed bodies. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist of the first century AD, describes the use of myrrh and frankincense in Roman medicine, where they were used to treat a variety of ailments, including joint pain and respiratory diseases.

Finally, terebinth is a resin produced by the Pistacia terebinthus tree, which grows mainly in the Mediterranean region. In ancient times, terebinth was used for its medicinal properties, notably to treat infections and joint pain. It was also used to prepare dyes and lacquers.

In addition, these resins also played an important role in ancient religious practices. Frankincense, for example, was often burned in religious ceremonies in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. Similarly, myrrh was considered an essential part of funeral rites in ancient Egypt.

It’s no coincidence that the three wise men in Matthew’s Gospel bring myrrh and frankincense. Gold, the third gift traditionally given to the infant Jesus, is in fact less precious than myrrh. Historians have tried to explain the importance of the legend of the three Magi in the Christian symbolism of the anointing: incense for the ecclesiastical character of the divine mission, gold for royalty and myrrh for sacrifice.

While gold is almost universally associated with royalty as a symbol of purity, myrrh requires a little more context: a key ingredient in mummification, myrrh is directly associated with death and oblivion. Thus, the Egyptians saw in this resin the tears of Horus fallen in the land of Punt, or the enigmatic Egyptian queen Hatshepsut sent a great expedition to bring the shrubs back to Egypt.

Interestingly, these resins were often associated with alcoholic beverages, particularly spiced wines, in Middle Eastern cultures. In ancient Persia, for example, a drink called “sharbat” was prepared by mixing red wine with myrrh and other spices. Similarly, in ancient Greece, wine was often flavored with frankincense or myrrh to improve its taste.

The frankincense route, also known as the Incense Road, was a system of trade routes linking the Mediterranean world to the Indian subcontinent via the Arabian Peninsula. The trade in incense, used for religious and medicinal purposes, was a key element of this route. The incense route stretched from the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, via the Red Sea ports of present-day Yemen and Oman, to the Levant, towards the Mediterranean.


  1. The Incense Route: A Cultural Route of the Council of Europe (2007) by the Council of Europe
  2. The Spice Route: A History by John Keay (2005)
  3. The Incense Trade Route: The History of the Rise and Fall of an Ancient Global Economy  by Charles Rivers Editors (2019)
  4. India and the Silk Road by Liu Xinru (2019)
  5. The Archaeology of Incense: Avenues of Trade, from Ancient to Modern Times edited by D.T. Potts and R.A. Pickles (2008)
  6. The Silk Road: A New History by Valerie Hansen (2012)
  7. Trade between Arabia and the Empires of Rome and Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2003)
  8. The Role of Incense in the Roman World by Alison Cooley (2007)

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