[~ 10 minutes]

Listening to: Irfan, In the gardens of Armida

{Spanish version can be read here}

Fire has fascinated us since the dawn of time.

Metamorphosis are cooked on a slow heat, ideas flare like flames in the darkness, love smoulders like embers. The gods quietly hover above the flame.
Fire_from_brazier

As a rule, plants rarely engage in prolonged affairs with fire. Whereas the inhabitants of the ancient mineral kingdom can usually survive its touch, plants —like any living being— cannot resist the fiery onslaught for too long: it’s too extreme, too violent. Life succumbs to the flames’ embrace in a smoky sigh.

Yet sometimes a strange alchemy occurs. In some cases, destruction may become liberation, and the soul pulsing inside vegetable matter is set free. Fire becomes the threshold through which the substance being burnt is transmuted — from matter, to spirit. Everything becomes smoke, and the essence revealed therein emerges imbued with mysterious powers that are both divine, and perfumed.

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December is the month of perfume.

This is an undeclared yet undeniable truth that’s made evident every time I enter a mall: I’m unerringly assaulted by some smiling girl, waving paper strips and costly flasks of perfume with names that always sound oddly half-French.

December is also the month of parents’ mad dashes, frantically searching for the right gift to leave under the Christmas tree. Back when I was a kid, all Spanish children had to patiently wait until Epiphany*: the old tradition of camel-borne Magi riding from the Orient hadn’t yet been superseded by reindeer (have you ever seen a reindeer in Spain? Neither have I), gravity-defying sleighs, or white-bearded elderly men.

*On the 6th January.

The Three Kings reigned supreme as our gift-bearing Christmas figures… and hailing from the Orient as they did, what else could they bring in their caskets, if not precious aromatics?

Two thousand years have passed, nebulous boundaries drawn between myth and reality. And yet scent may effortlessly bend time’s unyielding course, tying knots between distant cultures and geographies.

Perfume mysteriously warps the river of time into meanders, blending layers of memory and emotion until past and present touch and coalesce in a single, timeless experience.

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I’ve spent the last four hours sniffing at my wrist.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. I’m witnessing the slow unfolding of a perfume on my skin.

It’s an expensive perfume. However, I haven’t chosen it because of its price tag, but its history.

In vain I rummage through the scent notes rising from my wrist, trying to identify the one that beguiles me, the one whose acquaintance and remembrance I crave.

Olibanum.

Also known as frankincense, if you prefer.

It’s a very Magi-esque scent, I know: one of the few plant-derived substances that can claim a modest Biblical role during Christmas. On top of that, the perfume I’m wearing is named after a mineral which also sounds like a gift straight out of the Magi’s coffers: Gold… and, last but not least, the third gift brought by the Three Kings, myrrh, appears to be tucked amidst the perfume formula’s convoluted folds (along with some other 140 substances, no less).

amouage-gold-2

I don’t know how to describe it myself.

The first breath I took, straight after having sprayed my wrist, brought to mind my grandmother’s perfumes; two hours later though, I’ve begun to tease apart a whiff of something more, a warm halo that keeps luring me back again and again. If perfumes were treasure chests, it would appear I’ve gotten past the layer of dust and mouldy memories, only to discover a distant, seductive note hidden underneath. An elusive scent that harks back to an exotic past brimming with stories, tales that pulse from the faraway shores of times foregone.

Waves of aroma.

The name of the brand is precisely that: Amouage (French transliteration of the Arabic word amwaj, meaning wave).

It’s been seven hours since I left the perfume shop, and the spell still lingers, sweetly clinging to my wrist.

I’ve sought it out on purpose because of olibanum. It is not the only perfume that features it among its ingredients; yet no other perfume would do, because Amouage is a house that — besides offering rather expensive perfumes— was founded in 1983, in the Sultanate of Oman.

And legend has it that, when they called the French master perfumer Guy Robert to create their first ‘western’ perfume Gold, he was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, as long as he agreed to a sole condition:

that he use Oman’s frankincense, the country’s green crowning jewel.

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If pictures are to be trusted, Wadi Dawkah is a wasteland of rock and sand.

In a land tormented by excruciating heat and sun, only the dark silhouettes of trees stand out against the dry background —trees pretending hard to be shrubs: as soon as their trunks rise a few inches above the soil, they choose to forsake unity and split into multiple branches.

Wadi Dawkah
(Picture courtesy of Kathy, taken with kind permission from her blog wanderingquilter. Thanks, Kathy!)

The Arabs call them al lubān. The Semitic root of the word evokes ideas of whiteness, of purity.

The trees aren’t white, at all. But if you cut them, if you scrape away the bark and reach the raw flesh of wood hidden underneath, you shall see that its blood is, indeed, white.

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(Picture courtesy of Kathy, taken with kind permission from her blog wanderingquilter. Thanks, Kathy!)

These coagulated teardrops are the keepers of the secret to make the gods happy —or, at least, that’s what many ancient (and not-so-ancient) civilizations believed. ’Twas a substance intimately connected to the sacred, and even its scientific name is a reflection of that: Boswellia sacra.

It’s not the only extant species of the genus Boswellia; neither is its oleogum-resin the only one to yield such sweet perfume on embers. It is no exclusive treasure of this valley, a UNESCO-declared World Heritage site since 2000; not even exclusive of the region wherein it lies, Dhofar, nor of the nation that shelters it, the sultanate of Oman.

And yet, its perfume was one of the main seeds from which the Incense Routes grew, one camel-stitch at a time, criss-crossing the Arabian peninsula like rivers flowing out and spilling scent at the borders. There, the streams poured aromas into a necklace of seaports perched on the coast, where the precious resins could catch a ride on any number of eager ships awaiting their arrival.

There was no single route but many, whether by land or by sea. Their relative importance surely waxed and waned in time, dancing at the tune of the regions’ political and economical changes. As a rule, most of them tried to avoid the harshest desert areas; and there were ports that specialized in certain merchandise, such as Muza (overlooking the Red Sea, on the southwestern corner of the peninsula) for myrrh, or Qana’ (today’s Bi’r Ali, in Yemen) for olibanum. From there, merchant ships both Arabic and foreign would escort the scented teardrops to the very edges of the known world, crossing the Indian Ocean to the east, or sailing up the Red Sea to the west.

 

Many monsoons have passed since those days in Arabia Felix. Nowadays Dhofar’s economic ‘happiness’ lies a few kilometers away from Wadi Dawkah, and its name is Salalah: capital city of the region, and one of the peninsula’s main commercial ports. Lying at the crossroads between the Middle East, Africa and Asia, all merchant ships stop by Salalah for their cargo’s transshipment. If you saw the film Captain Phillips, that’s where the movie begins.

If we were to travel back in time three thousand years, we would have seen neither containers nor cranes; and we might have had to walk along the coast for several miles before encountering any signs of activity. Yet once found, in all likelihood we would have been able to recognize the constant that, now as before, remains: trade.

Trade that reinvents itself, adopts different masks and different conventions. The blood running through its veins, made of trails on seas of water and sand, has changed; it is no tree’s white blood anymore.

The caravans in the desert, the hand-sewn ships, the levies paid to the priests in Shabwa as a tribute to be offered “in honour of their god, whom they call Sabis”; the long routes covering thousands of kilometers (circa 3000 from Dhofar to Gaza; over 6000 to reach Rome), the risk and adventures that the voyages with such coveted riches entrained… All those things are long gone.

It may be that in this corner of Earth, trade and resin were born of the same scented teardrop, but their paths have diverged since twilight set over the incense routes. Today they advance in parallel, their survival dependent upon their ability to reweave and reimagine the privileges bestowed upon them by geography and history.

Just like that old essence of olibanum now distilled in a flask of gold, everything must change, so that nothing ever changes.

(Promotional Amouage video of one of its perfume collections; notice the appearance of frankincense on paper…)

There was a time when olibanum itself, and not only the luxury perfumes that use it in their formulae, was worth its weight in gold. It may not have been found on every neighbourhood grocery shop, but it surely wasn’t difficult to come by.

Nowadays we don’t bump into oleo-gumresins on a daily basis.

In fact, the first time I accidentally stumbled across them happened over a year ago, in a big fair in Madrid. There was a stand with a wide assortment of resins and substances that I would’ve been hard-pressed to identify on sight. Yet simply reading their name tags sufficed to kindle my instant recognition and desire.

I had met them before. On paper; in dreams. I had read much about them and their stories while researching my last book, and even then I’d been seduced by them.

(It was a purely theoretical seduction, granted. I’m the kind of person that may easily fall prey to any plant-related infatuation entirely built out of paper and pretty words. And the descriptions of perfumes, their ingredients’ stories are so brimming with lyricism and poetry, that their actual scent I dare say is almost secondary).

I’ll confess that, at first glance, all resins looked the same to me.

Well, not exactly the same. But similar enough to trigger the uneasy wariness of one alert to the possibility of being thoroughly bamboozled. What if I am swindled? What if the seller herself has been swindled, and I’m the one who ends up paying for her mistake?

In that moment I suddenly understood how British naturalists must’ve felt during the Raj when they had to go in search of medicinal remedies in India’s bazaars. That sense of utter and complete ignorance, the awareness of knowing oneself to be an easy prey to anyone wanting to take advantage of you. And being able to do very little about it.

It is indeed possible to be swindled in other plant-related areas (saffron is a good candidate, to mention but one). But until that moment I hadn’t felt like that: defenseless, utterly incapable of detecting a fraud.

I didn’t buy anything. I was dying to, but my misgivings were stronger.

Had I known how to recognize the resins, how to evaluate them, things would’ve turned out differently. Knowledge would’ve given me a certain measure of confidence in my own judgement; knowledge would’ve set me free.

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Judging from the writings he left, Pliny the Elder felt quite free in all resin-related matters.

Besides the myriad interesting (yet perhaps not all of them entirely true?) details he left concerning olibanum in his Natural History, he also informs us of the different quality grades that reached the Roman market (superior quality, or carfiathum, and inferior quality, or dathiathum), as well as of the substances that could be used to adulterate it: “white resin* drops” (resinae candidae). However, he was quite convinced that the fraud was rather easy to detect after evaluating the resin’s whiteness, size, fragility, and the speed at which it burns once placed on hot coals.

*… A rather useless clarification for the modern botanist, I daresay: olibanum itself is “white resin”. I’ll assume this fraudulent, other “white resin” must’ve come from another plant, but… which one? Pliny didn’t know —or didn’t commit his knowledge to paper.

Frankincense is, alongside myrrh, one of the tree-derived substances to which Pliny devotes more chapters in his oeuvre. He writes about ports, cities, trading villages, harvesting traditions in Arabia, and countless other details that I won’t mention here.

Profoundly desired, it was The sacred substance par excellence.

The gods wouldn’t sniff at unguents, to be sure; neither would they refuse perfumed oils. But what they truly wanted, only the flames could reveal, and that was aromatic essence.

Twas smoke

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Buy the ebook on amazon :)

References&Resources

~ On olibanum in a flask ~

For those curious about Gold, its description on Amouage’s website is the following: “Gold is a classic oriental fragrance, rich in splendor and sophistication, created for the most special luxurious evening occasion”.

The first time I stumbled across this perfume was thanks to the critique I read on the (Spanish) blog Olibanum – Cuaderno de Perfumes.

If you want to know more about these fragrances and their evident connection to frankincense, you might go read the article (old, yet still relevant) on SaudiAramcoWorld, or this article about the company and its perfumes.

~ On olibanum on soil ~

Wadi Dawkah is on the UNESCO World Heritage list (since 2000!), and you may read about it here; the first time I read about the place was in Coppi, A; Cecchi, L.; Selvi, F. y Raffaelli, M. 2010. The Frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra, Burseraceae) from Oman: ITS and ISSR analyses of genetic diversity and implications for conservation. Genet Resour Crop Evol 57:1041–1052.

According to the paper, and in spite of the park’s protected status, it doesn’t seem to be the place where Boswellia‘s genetic diversity is greater (thus any conservation efforts seeking to preserve its genetic diversity should look to trees further east…).

Taxonomy of the genus Boswellia (fam. Burseraceae) has been through tango and upheaval rather often during the last decades. If one checks papers published during the 20th century, several species are listed as frankincense-yielding, among which Boswellia carteri, B. frereana, B. papyrifera, B. serrata, and others. Last time I checked, The Plant List lists B. carteri as a synonum of Boswellia sacra Flueck., as a variety that mainly differs from B. sacra in its growth habit.

The other species that yield (or have yielded in the past) fragrant resins are, according to my dear Langenheim (Plant Resins – Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology, and Ethnobotany. Timber Press, 2003):

  • Boswellia frereana (mostly in Somalia);
  • Boswellia papyrifera (B. sacra‘s closest relative, in regions of Ethiopia, Sudan and East Africa; it’s considered to be the main source of frankincense in antiquity, whereas B. sacra would be the main one during Classical times);
  • B. serrata (in India);
  • B. ameero, B. socotrana (from the island of Socotra).

Why do I call frankincense an oleo-gumresin? Well, because that’s what its composition tells me; according to Tucker, A. O. 1986. Frankincense and Myrrh. Economic Botany 40 (4): 425-433, its (more-or-less) precise components are the following:

5-8% essential oil ||| 65-68% resin (alcohol-soluble) ||| % remaining, gums (water-soluble)

The information concerning the distances covered in the Incense Routes are (among many other places) in Langenheim (2003).

References about levies paid in Shabwa (Sabota) to the “god Sabis” are taken from our dear Pliny the Elder, HN 12.32; in books 30 to 32 he deals with frankincense, its quality grading, its price (up to 6 denari per pound for the best quality), etc.

Illustrations

The picture of the brazier aflame comes from Wikipedia.

The pictures of Wadi Dawkah are courtesy of Kathy, who kindly gave me permission to use them after having seen them on her blog Wandering Quilter (to be more precise, I saw them in her article Wadi Dawkah: The Frankincense Park near Salalah. She also has one describing a visit to the Amouage perfume factory in Muscat: very interesting.

The map of the Incense routes is based on the one appearing in Langenheim, J. 2003. Plant Resins – Chemistry, Evolution, Ecology, and Ethnobotany. Timber Press (in chapter 6). The ornamental curly borders come from an illustration of the 1847 edition of The Thousand and One Nights (vol 2), freely available on Google Books.

All other pictures are from Yours Truly 🙂

Thank yous

My most heartfelt gratitude to Bea González, for edits and advice on all things English (and Holmesian!).

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2 thoughts on “Of perfumes & gods: Olibanum in a flask

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