The Incense Road
“Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?”
(Song of Solomon.)
“Centumque Sabaeo Ture calent arae sertisque recentibus halent.”
(Aeneid I, 416.)
In the first century of our era an anonymous Greek sea captain wrote the Periplus of the Erythroean Sea. He was neither educated nor literary, but he wrote for the information of sailors and merchants, taking one by one the Red Sea ports of his time, their markets and exports, and following first the western, then the eastern coast, to the regions near Zanzibar whence “the unexplored Ocean curves around towards the West” and eastward to Malacca, “the last part of the inhabited world . . . under the rising sun.”
Few books are more beguiling than this of the old captain—for elderly I think he must have been to have had so intimate a knowledge of voyages behind him.
After his African journey to the frankincense lands that lie by the Cape of Spices which is now Cape Guardafui, he starts from Egypt eastward. He passes the trader’s road from Petra where the King of the Nabatæans collected dues, and, sailing along the coast of Arabia, tells how “the land next the sea is dotted here and there with caves of the Fish Eaters,” and “the country inland is peopled by rascally men who live in villages and nomadic camps, by whom those sailing off the middle course are plundered, and those surviving shipwrecks are taken for slaves. Therefore we hold our course down the middle of the Gulf, and pass on as fast as possible by the country of Arabia, until we come to the Burnt Island. (Jebel Tair 15°359N. 41°409E.) directly below which there are regions of peaceful people, nomadic, pasturers of cattle, sheep and camels.”
Here he reaches the Himyaritic kingdom of Yemen, the last of the ancient independent empires of Arabia, and its port Muza [which is now Mokha or Mauza’], “crowded with Arab ship owners and seafaring men, and busy with the affairs of commerce. . . .”
Here are the high-shouldered mountains of Yemen, dark with abysses and overhanging summits, beyond a yellow foreground of sand a two days journey. Their multitudinous flat heads are massed in distance to one heavy range, so that, as Hamdani says, “they are not many mountains, but one mountain, called Sarrat, which goes from Yemen to Mekka.” Their colour, seen from the sea, is not that of the temperate mountains of earth, but is smouldering and dusky, as if the black volcanic points were coated with desert sand, and the red sandstones subdued by ashes of volcanoes—like embers of coal dying in a crust of cinders.
From here the old navigator sailed southward between converging coasts. Where the sun-darkened waves grow more frequent, he entered the channel of Bab el Mandeb, which “forces the sea together and shuts it into a narrow strait, the passage which the island Diodorus [now Perim] divides.” Close above it, “directly on the strait by the shore,” was a “village of Arabs called Ocelis . . . an anchorage and a watering place, and the first landing for those sailing into the gulf from the south.” This was the most convenient port from India, and north of it no Indian ships were allowed, for the Arabs guarded the secrets of their trade for centuries before the Romans came. The anchorage of Perim and Shell tanks have now taken the place of Ocelis; but the smooth ridges, the treeless snouts of land, the current racing round the sharp corner, are there unchanged; and beyond, “the sea widening again toward the east and soon giving a view of the open ocean,” we still follow, as did the old sailor, the south Yemen coast, and drop anchor in “Eudaemon Arabia, a village by the shore, of the kingdom of Caribael (the Himyaritic king in Yemen) and having convenient anchorages and watering places, sweeter and better than those at Ocelis.” This was Aden, the meeting place of East and West.
Beyond it, eastward, “is a continuous length of coast and a bay extending two hundred miles or more, along which there are Nomads and Fish Eaters living in villages; and just beyond the cape projecting from this bay, another market town by the shore, Cana of the Frankincense country. Inland from this place lies the Metropolis Sabbatha [now Shabwa] in which the king lives. All the frankincense produced in the country is brought by camels to that place to be stored, and to Cana on rafts held up by inflated skins after the manner of the country and in boats. . . . The place has a trade also with the African ports, with Barygaza [Broach in India] and Oman and Persia.”
Thus the old sailor wrote—a newcomer into what was once the richest and most rigidly guarded and perhaps the oldest of all the trade routes of the ancient world.
Its secret had been revealed only a few years before his time. In a.d. 45, Hippalus, a Greek, was the first Western navigator to discover the use of the monsoon. He led Mediterranean commerce across the Indian Ocean. After him the Romans, conquerors of the northern caravan routes and of Egypt, and tired of paying Arabian dues, gradually fought for a sea-way of their own, and pushed into the forbidden waters in new and larger vessels garrisoned with bowmen.
But no one knows how long before them, in what morning light of history this trade began, nor when Dravidian boats first set their single sail, and with high carved stern and rudder at the quarter, and sun and wind behind them in the favourable season, first crossed the Indian Ocean and dumped their cargoes on its Arabian shore.
Here “the Frankincense country, mountainous and forbidding, wrapped in thick clouds and fog, yields frankincense from the trees,” and Arab camelmen waited under the dust of their camps as they do now, and in their bales, together with the incense of Arabia and Africa, tied pearls and muslins from Ceylon and silks from China, Malacca tortoiseshell and spikenard from the Ganges, Himalayan cinnamon leaves, called Malabathrum,
“coronatus nitentes malobathro syrio capillos.”
And from India, diamonds and sapphires, ivory and cotton, indigo, lapis lazuli, and cinnamon and pepper above all. And dates and wine, gold and slaves from the Persian Gulf; and from the eastern coast of Africa, long subject to Arabian traders, frankincense, gold and myrrh, ivory and ostrich feathers and oil.
From the sandy coastal strip, relays of beduin and camels took the bales through defiles of the hills, over the plateau steppe to inland valleys and the eastern lands of Yemen, till they reached their markets through the deserts north of Mekka, and the Arabian incense smoked on altars of Damascus, Jerusalem, Thebes, Nineveh or Rome.
This was the great frankincense road whose faint remembrance still gives to South Arabia the name of Happy: whose existence prepared and made possible the later exploits of Islam. On its stream of padding feet the riches of Asia travelled: along its slow continuous thread the Arabian empires rose and fell—Minean, Sabaean, Katabanian, Hadhramaut and Himyar. One after another they grew rich on their strip of the great highway; their policy was urged by the desire to control more of it, to control especially the incense regions of the south and the outlets to the sea: they became imperial and aristocratic, builders of tall cities; they colonized Somaliland and Ethiopia and made themselves masters of the African as well as the Arabian forests.
We can scarcely realize what riches their monopoly gave them in days when every altar and every funeral was sweetened with frankincense. Sacred rooms were kept to store it in the Temple of Jerusalem. To the Temple of Amon, in the early twelfth century b.c., 2,159 jars and 304,093 measures were delivered in one year: and the Chaldean priests burnt ten thousand talents’ weight annually on the altar of Bel in Babylon alone. A thousand talents’ weight used to be paid as tribute by the Arabs to Darius. Alexander the Great, after the taking of Gaza, sent five hundred to his tutor, who had reproached him in Macedon for extravagance to the gods.
“Let us only take into account the vast number of funerals that are celebrated throughout the whole world each year, and the heaps of odours that are piled up in honour of the bodies of the dead.” So Pliny wrote (VII, 42), and concluded: “It is the luxury of man, which is displayed even in the paraphernalia of death, that has rendered Arabia thus ‘happy. ” He describes the precautions which were taken for the safeguarding of the precious merchandise; the penalty of death imposed on its carriers if they deviated from the highroad between the sea and Shabwa; the “single gate left open for its admission” into that city; the rule in Alexandrian shops where workmen were stripped before leaving, their aprons sealed and a mask or net put over their head. All proves the value of this cargo, which merchants sent two thousand miles from sea to sea across Arabia, and sold eventually in Rome “at one hundred times its cost.”
To the magnitude of this commerce must also be added the riches of accumulated time, for the earliest days of the traffic are quite unknown. The Minean nation, the first we hear of, “through whose country is the sole transit for the frankincense, along a single narrow road” has king lists which probably go back to the thirteenth century b.c. at latest. Inscriptions show it emerging like Minerva, fully armed, civilized and prosperous already from the uninvestigated background of Arabia, and with an alphabet whose ancestor is our own. What pre-historic adventures brought it to this emergence, what migrations lie behind, where and by whom the alphabet was invented, is all undiscovered: nor has anyone except Joseph Halévy, disguised as a Yemen Jew, ever visited Ma’in, the Minean capital in Najran.
South of it and later, the Sabaean kingdom flourished,—the Sheba of Solomon—with capital at Marib, also on the incense road and visited by Arnaud, Halévy and Glaser. The centre of power continually shifts to the South. As the Sabaeans increased they absorbed their Katabanian neighbours, whose city of Tamna’—yet unknown—must have been near their mint at Harib, also on the incense road; for Pliny declares that “the incense can only be imported through the country of the Gebanitae,” who were successors of the Katabanians in Tamna’. After the Sabaean, the Himyarite—last of the ancient Arab kingdoms—ruled from Tzafar near Yerim and survived into Christian times: the Imam of Yemen to this day sprinkles red dust on his letters to show his descendance from Himyar.
But the key of the trade lay east of all these nations in the cliff-bordered valley and narrow defiles of Hadhramaut, whose “people alone . . . and no other people among the Arabians behold the incense tree”; who ruled over the port of Cana and the coastlands to Dhufar; and whose capital Shabwa, the Sabota of Pliny “situate in a lofty mountain” and with sixty temples within its walls, could open or lock from its single gateway the sluices that fed the great commercial road.
Shabwa, last year, was still unvisited. It is marked on the maps about sixty miles west of Shibam. In some early invasion, the Banu Kinda descended and the inhabitants, according to Yaqut, abandoned Shabwa and founded Shibam. However this may be, a few diminished tribes still dwell there round brackish wells, though at some distance, it is said, from the ancient site; they live by quarrying salt and have been doing so since the tenth century at least when the geographer Hamdani found them at it.
Yielding to a passion I have always had for roads or rivers, I thought last year to try to reach Shabwa by way of the Hadhramaut. Thence I would follow either the main route by Harib and Marib to Ma’in in Najran—the “single narrow road” which led, as we have seen, through the capitals of the four Arabian empires; or if this proved to be impossible, I would do what I could round Shabwa and return to the ancient port of Cana—somewhere near Bir Ali on the coast—along what must once have been the main thoroughfare through the hills.
Excerpted from The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark. Copyright © 2001 by Freya Stark. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.