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...