The Fragrances of Aybury: Frankincense


January 17, 2017

 

Frankincense - also known as Olibanum - is a fragrance with a rich and colourful history going back at least 5,000 years. As one of the two elements of the Aybury Limenence range (along with mandarin), frankincense is characterised by its spicy balsamic fragrance with sweet lemony undertones.

It’s derived from the gum resin of the Boswellia Carterii and other species of the Balsaminacae tree, which, according to Poucher’s Perfumes, Cosmetics & Soaps (1925), are found “in the torrid regions of East Africa and on the southern coast of Arabia.” Today trees are grown in western Oman, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, including Somalia and Ethiopia. Boswellia is also cultivated in China, where frankincense has been a staple of traditional medicine since at least 500 B.C.

The aromatic resin permeates the leaves and bark and the gum takes the form of large translucent tears, used either in their dried form or steamed to yield essential oils. British traveller Charles Cruttenden, visiting the Somali countryside in 1843, noted how in harvest seasons, “the mountain sides are immediately covered with parties of men and boys who scrape off the large clear globules of gum.”

Across the ancient world, frankincense was combined with myrrh, cinnamon, cassia and other herbs and spices to produce a fragrant incense for religious and funereal events and as a calming and healing compound. The healing properties of frankincense are legendary: as an astringent, the essential oil helps to protect the skin cells, while the unique aroma calms both body and mind, and reduces tensions. 

When the tomb of Tutankhamun was cleared in the Valley of the Kings in the 1920s, the incense found in it was, according to the chemist’s report, frankincense. Burned, it still gave off a ‘pleasant aromatic odour’ after 3,500 years underground! A mural depicting sacks of frankincense traded from distant lands adorns the temple of Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, who died circa 1458 B.C. The ancient Assyrians offered frankincense to the Tree of Life.

In the first Christmas, the Three Wise Men brought frankincense and myrrh as gifts to the Christ child. The overland trade to the Mediterranean saw caravans of camels stretching for miles across the desert, and frankincense was so expensive in Europe that southern Arabia became known as Arabia Felix, “Arabia the Blessed.” (The historian Pliny the Elder noted that the sap of frankincense had made the southern Arabians the richest people on earth.) The Roman emperor, Nero, is said to have burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense at the funeral of his favourite mistress, thereby pushing up prices astronomically around the known world.

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