A valued present from the three wise men (Magi), the very word frankincense conjures romantic spirits and candlelit narratives. In northern Ethiopia, the incense seeps into to the walls, clocks the ornate crosses and clings to the priests’ robes.
There is still a great deal of confusion about the sources of frankincense which has been traded over great distances. Back in London, we visited Kew’s Royal Botanical Gardens to find out more about this valued commodity. The gardens have over 140 types in their Economic Botany Collection.
Frankincense: resin with many stories, Mark Nesbitt, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
‘It is now clear that the species that grow in the vicinity of the Near East, and which might plausibly have found their way into the baggage of the Magi or wise men, are found in two areas. In that part of Africa south of Egypt in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan. In southern Arabia, in Oman and Yemen.
Biblical scholars have plausibly argued that the symbolism of gold, frankincense and myrrh draws on deep traditions of gifts to royalty in the ancient Near East: gold as precious metal, frankincense for incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. Given this, and the large quantities of frankincense that have circulated in trade in the recent past, one might expect to find plenty of it in archaeological samples’.