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Retracing the incense route.

The material wealth flowing into the Arabian Peninsula in the twentieth century, though massive, will probably never rival the relative prosperity that reigned there at the height of the incense trade 2,000 years ago. For more than a millennium, trading caravans from the south Arabian coast supplied sweet-smelling incense resins, spices, and other luxury goods to insatiable markets in the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions. As a result, Arabia, in particular the region of present-day eastern Yemen and western Oman, were transformed into one of the epoch's wealthiest societies.

Incense, even today, grows exclusively on the southwestern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, in Somalia some 200 kilometers across the Gulf of Aden, and on a few islands in between the two. The resin collected from incense plants, when burned, produces a strong, pleasant odour. The best known are collected from the frankincense and myrrh trees, although the resin from dozens of others was traded too.

The original spark to the incense trade seems to have been from pharaonic Egypt some 3000 years before the Christian era (BC). The Egyptians used the oil from myrrh to embalm their dead. Originally carried north to Egypt, the Mediterranean, and Mesopotamia by mule or donkey the trade was slow and tedious. A revolution occurred sometime between 1500 and 1000 BC with the domestication of the camel. These beasts allowed larger quantities of goods to be carried more quickly across the deserts of western Arabia. Use of the camel, coupled with rising demand from the Greek and later Roman empires, whose pagan religions considered the burning of incense indispensable to winning the favour of their Gods, led to an explosion in the incense trade. The resins were also much sought after for use in medicines and perfumes.

Commerce became increasingly organised as the pace of the incense trade picked up. The resin harvest was brought from Somaliland, Dhofar in western Oman, and the island of Soqotra and transported to towns in the Hadhramawt region of eastern Yemen. There, between 10% and 20% of the incense was taken as a tax, while the rest was stored in warehouses until caravans arrived or were formed to carry it north. Small towns emerged around oases along the way to serve as stopping points for the caravans. These towns, too, began to collect their own portion of the caravans' goods in taxes, but never so much as to choke off the trade.

The incense route, from the Hadhramawt coast on the Indian Ocean, along the eastern slopes of the west Arabia mountain range, all the way to Gaza on the Mediterranean, could be travelled in 60-70 days. At Petra, in modern-day Jordan, the incense route divided, one road leading east to Babylon and Mesopotamia, the other West to the Mediterranean.

As the amount of merchandise crossing Arabia expanded, the numerous bedouin tribes roaming and raiding the region developed a vested interest in the trade's success. Many tribesmen found lucrative employment as guides and scouts. Plundering of the caravans by bedouins, which had until then been common place, declined as commerce increased.

Assured security on the routes soon led to a growth in other types of trade, Spices, ebony, silks, and textiles were brought to Hadhramawt from India, while rare woods, feathers, skins, and gold arrived from nearby African coasts.

South Arabia tapped into the riches of the Greek and then the Roman empire. On their return journeys south, caravans brought back gold and silver, as well as Greek coins. Trade and the fortunes arising from it set the scene for the emergence of highly centralised states, formed from a confederation of powerful tribes at both ends of the incense route. The first and best known state to emerge in Southern Arabia as a result of the incense trade was the Kingdom of Saba or Sheba.

By the fifth century BC, several smaller states began to exert their independence from Saba, including Ma'in, Qataban, and Hadhramawt. The latter was particularly significant because it controlled the major incense-producing areas along the Indian ocean. Nevertheless, Marib, the capital of Saba, remained an important stopping point on the incense route. Although armed conflict occasionally erupted among the states, all understood the importance of avoiding any real disruption of the incense trade since they were the main benefactors.

Saba initially put its new found wealth to good use. Irrigation existed since the third millennium BC around Marib,which lies on the edge of the great Empty Quarter desert, a mass of sand covering nearly one quarter of the Arabian Peninsula. Under the sovereignty of the kings and queens of Saba, agriculture spread its tentacles further afield with the development of this irrigation system. A great dam was built in the eighth century BC, the ruins of which remain to this day. The abundant orchards and gardens around Marib led many to speculate that this lush and fertile region was the location of the Garden of Eden, also mentioned in both the Bible and the Koran.

The incense route continued to grow in importance in the centuries before the Christian era. Caravans of 2,000 to 3,000 camels were not uncommon, plodding their way through the desert on the four-month trek north and back again. Portions of the route were even paved with flat stones, and diverging from the main road in order to bypass a stopping point and payment of its inevitable taxes, was treated as a serious offence.

The Mediterranean nations assumed that all the wealth carried by these caravans originated in southern Arabia although in reality only some of the incense did. Most purchasers of the caravans' goods in Mediterranean and Mesopotamian cities were not even sure where southern Arabia was, and the traders from Saba and Hadhramawt offered little information to enlighten them. However, it was only a matter of time before the northerners attempted to find and seize control, of the precious trade.

In 24 BC, Aelius Gallus, the Roman governor of Egypt, led a force of 10,000 men through the deserts of Arabia in search of the source of the incense plants. Malaria, lack of water, fierce tribes who harassed them as they moved south, and rumours that the incense-producing areas were guarded by winged serpents who spared no intruders (stories undoubtedly encouraged by the south Arabians themselves) forced the Romans to retreat before reaching their destination.

Although the Roman expedition failed, it was a sign of the growing comprehension of the world and its geography, which would soon contribute to the devastating decline of the incense route and the kingdoms which are dependent upon it.

Many explanations are offered for the collapse of the incense trade from southern Arabia. Probably the most decisive event was the mastery of the Indian Ocean monsoons by a Roman sailor around the year 50 of the Christian era (AD). This "discovery," which the people of south Arabia had understood for some time, allowed Mediterranean ships to sail down the Red Sea to the ports of India, Africa, and Hadhramawt on the Arabian coast, They could then purchase goods directly, by passing the expensive middlemen and taxes.

And this is exactly what happened. By the first or second century AD, Roman traders had at least partially succeeded in breaking up the south Arabian monopoly of the incense trade. The state of Hadhramawt, which controlled the major incense-producing areas along the Arabian coast and which by this time had completely severed its allegiance to Saba, began to sell goods to the Roman merchants arriving by sea.

Before the Roman trade offensive, the seemingly endless wealth pouring into south Arabia, and the confidence it instilled, led to neglect of other achievements: notably agriculture. The clam at Marib which was so important to maintain a steady food supply for the region's flourishing cities slowly fell into disrepair. The dam collapsed on several occasions during years of heavy rain. It was patched up each time, but the fact that it ruptured ever-more frequently showed it was not considered to be of primary importance to the rulers of Saba anymore. Researchers agree the agricultural decline was also prompted by ever-growing numbers of livestock, a rising demand for wood which resulted in the disappearance of most of the area's trees, as well as a slight but devastating decline in the region's rainfall around the turn of the Christian era.

As the wealth diminished, the tense but so far restrained efforts of the various south Arabian states to expand their power at the expense of the others, became more concentrated.

A combination of these factors began to make the south Arabian kingdoms a less desirable place to live. A steady migration farther west, to the highlands of Yemen where rain was more abundant, took hold by the first century AD. The reduction in south Arabia's revenues from the incense, spice, and other trades, caused the bedouin tribes to become impatient. They were no longer required as guides and they had now more to gain from raiding the settled areas and the few caravans that continued to pass than in continuing to guide them.

The steady migration to the highlands was encouraged by the formation of another centralised state there, Himyar. The kingdom of Himyar was not based on the incense trade, but rather on its command of the rapidly growing ports on the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, west of the incense areas in Hadhramawt and Dhofar. Himyar was aided in its frequent wars with other south Arabian kingdoms by the introduction of the horse into the Arabian Peninsula in the first or second century AD. Himyar's close contact with the Romans in the Red Sea region assured them a supply of horses the other states did not possess. Horses gave the Himyari armies a military advantage over the foot soldiers of their enemies, who were eventually defeated.

Another decisive blow to the incense trade was the unrelenting rise of Christianity in the Mediterranean area, climaxing in the Roman Emperor Theodosius ruling making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century. Although Christians, too, burned incense at certain religion celebrations, it was nowhere near on the scale of the pagans, who used it almost daily. The slow but steady conversion of the Roman empire's subjects to the new religion resulted in a further reduction in demand for incense resins from south Arabia.

By the time of the coming of Islam in the seventh century AD, the incense trade from south Arabia and the kingdoms dependent on it were all but extinct, transformed beyond recognition. Despite a slight revival of the incense route trade in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, when wars between the Byzantine empire and the Sassanians in Persia made the sea routes too risky, the decline of the ancient south Arabian kingdoms was complete. In 570, the year of the Prophet Muhammad's birth, the dam at Marib ruptured for the last time, never to be repaired. This event set off the last great migration, in which inhabitants of the region either became bedouins or relocated. Most went to the Yemeni mountains, though some moved as far away as Syria. The current ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayad bin Sultan al Nahyan, claims his ancestors moved to Abu Dhabi from Yeman during this period.

Although few ruins of the ancient kingdoms remain today, south Arabians still remember with pride the history of that period. In 1986, a new darn located less than one mile from the ancient dam at Marib was inaugurated, with plans to rejuvenate the agricultural production of the area. At the same time, increasing production and expanding exploration of oil near Marib and in Hadhramawt have raised the hopes of many that south Arabia may soon rekindle some of its opulent and illustrious past.
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Title Annotation:south Arabia and its incense trade with markets in the north some 2,000 years ago
Author:Hoots, Charles
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Understanding Arabs: A Guide for Westerners.
Next Article:Progress and preservation in Oman.

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