During my first visit to Sacré Coeur, a monumental Basilica in the most touristy Parisienne neighborhood of Montmartre, I encountered this mysterious scent that made me nostalgic for the time my mother burnt frankincense to purify the air in the house after her morning prayers. I saw her practicing it less over the years, but this peculiar smell and the dense, curly fumes remain etched in my memory. A few years later, I again encountered this scent at the Dubai Souk at a spice store selling these precious creamy off-white crystals at an exorbitant price. Although, UAE is famous for bakhoor and oud, some households, especially those from Oman and Morocco, burn frankincense in their homes and offices. Some of my friends from Tunisia also chew on frankincense crystals to strengthen their gums and improve digestion.
Frankincense, also known as olibanum or incense, areoleoresin crystals, which are the most expensive and luxurious trade items since antiquity. Have you ever wondered why they are associated with rituals? Why are they used for evoking the gods? How have different religions used it for similar purposes?
On a starry night when Jupiter and Saturn formed the rare alignment known as the “Star of Bethlehem,” the three wise men bearing precious gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold visited baby Jesus at the stable. Therefore, frankincense was regarded as a priceless commodity, and was only offered to the divine. Although the magi story made frankincense famous, the use of frankincense has been dated back to 3200 BCE during the Egyptian civilization. Egyptians used frankincense for rituals to appease the gods, as fumigants to purify the air, as a digestive, and for preparing cosmetics such as kohl for the eyes. Later due to trade in this region, the raw material grew in popularity and became an essential commodity for Babylonians, Romans, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese and Persian civilizations. These civilizations also used it for appeasing the gods, sacrificial rituals, and medicinal purposes. To this day, the practice of burning incense is believed to be an offering to the gods to appease them.
There are more than 25 species of frankincense found widely in countries such as Oman, Ethiopia, Somalia, India, East Africa, Sudan, and Yemen. Of these, the most famous variety is the Boswellia sacra, which grows in the inlands of the Arabian Peninsula and thrives in the limestone hills of Khor Rori in Dhofar governorate in Southern Oman. The port of Al-Baleed, Wadi Dawkah, and the ancient caravan oasis in Shisr close to the Great Arabian desert, Rub Al Khali, are lands rich in frankincense trees due to their calcium-rich soils.
The mystical and enigmatic frankincense has always been associated with other-worldly forces and is closely linked to magical energy. Its scent is warm, woody, honey-like balsamic with piney lemon nuances. These resins are categorized based on the color from amber brown, the low grade to creamy white crystals, high grade, or classified based on the citrus notes of lemon, orange, and lime. The frankincense trees appear to be knotted and weather-beaten due to the arid conditions in which it thrives. Luban, the Arabic name for frankincense, which means milk, is harvested by making several incisions on the trunk, and the thick milk is scraped out from the core of the branch and hardened in the sun to form translucent crystals. There is a high demand for Luban in recent years, resulting in an increase in the number of incisions per tree throughout the year. Over tapping and over-exploitation of the trees have made some species, such as Boswellia sacra, a threatened species. Therefore, most of the trees in Oman are located in the UNESCO World Heritage sites and protected by law.
This priceless frankincense resin has several properties and can be used for relieving cold, like chewing gum for oral care, a cure for joint inflammation, etc., and its essential oil can be used in perfumery, aromatherapy, as well as exotic desserts such as artisanal ice-cream in Salalah Oman, made famous by Trygve Harris, an American entrepreneur. Frankincense is a special note in perfumery, therefore exclusively used by niche brands such as Byredo, Guerlain, Gucci, Kilian, etc.
The three fragrances which have a slightly eerie, unearthly, and bold presence of frankincense include:
Gypsy Water by Byredo
For those of you who find incense over-powering, this fragrance is a breath of fresh air. Just like the lush green oasis of Salalah, the vibrant sparkling nuances of bergamot, lemon along with cool pepper, and juniper are a blessing in the barren, hot desert. Piney notes along with incense and ambry vanilla, add warmth and comfort to those whose thoughts wander to such paradise. One can wear this perfume in the sultry summer heat to feel fresh and elevated.
Encens Mythique by Guerlain
It is an enchanting fragrance by Thierry Wasser, in-house perfumer of Guerlain, that captures the essence of Arabia. Perfectly well-balanced notes of rose, velvety saffron, and vetiver glorify the star ingredient Frankincense in the most magical and surreal way. It is truly divine and speaks of the civilizations that thrived on these precious raw materials trade.
A Midnight Stroll by Gucci
When the clock strikes twelve, and all is still, supernatural powers are set free in the wee hours of the night. Similarly, in this fragrance within the complexities of smoky aromatic nagarmotha and tar-like cade emerges the spell-binding frankincense, which is hauntingly visible amidst this perfume’s depths. Talk about a scent that gives you the creeps! This perfume is suitable for a bone-chilling winter night worn underneath thick heavy coats.
These are just some fragrances that celebrate frankincense’s surreal scent, and more are in the making. Notwithstanding the mystery why these resins are used to evoke the divine, try these fragrances to invoke the gods or goddesses within you. Happy Sniffing!
The author is a fragrance evaluator at Identiscents FZC, Sharjah, UAE