Frankincense was one of three gifts given to the baby Jesus by the maji or wise men, widely thought to be Persian priests, when the “King of Jews” was born in Bethlehem. Today, one-fifth of the Palestinian city’s population are Coptic Christians. On Christmas Eve, Christians, Jews and Muslims gather together at the Church of Nativity, at the site of His birth, as the sweet smelling smoke of frankincense wafts through the crowd from the patriarch’s sacred censer.The word frankincense comes from “franc” meaning “noble or true” in Old French and “encens” or “incense.” The aromatic sap is also called “olibanum,” and the 25 species of trees from which it comes is the genus Boswellia, family Burseraceae. Star-shaped flowers are pink and leaves are glossy, bright green on crooked branches.
The deep-rooted trees and shrubs have grown for thousands of years, small and tall, in single or mixed forest stands, in highly alkaline soil, sometimes from seemingly solid rock. Boswellia carterii and frereana grow from marble slabs in Somalia and Boswellia sacra limestone in the Dhofar region of Omar, where the farming of frankincense is passed down through the generations. We’re talking 9,000 years, give or take a few millennia, certainly since the Neolithic.
Not too long ago, dozens of families harvested B. sacra on public lands in the Dhofar region, during the dry season, but now there is only a handful, if that. Omani people believe frankincense keeps bad spirits at bay but they also use it as a perfume, mosquito repellent and medicine. It’s collected by tapping the bark, away from the wind, so that the milky sap drips down the tree and hardens over time.
Wadi Dawkah Frankincense Park, one of four sites in a Unesco World Heritage Center, harkens back to a time when 3,000 tons of frankincense was traded in “the Land of Frankincense,” one-third of what is traded world-wide today. Frankincense generated so much wealth, opulent cities sprung from the desert while camel caravans trekked thousands of miles through Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and boats sailed up and down the Red Sea.
Eventually, frankincense from Oman would make its way to Rome. “The Romans used it like there was no tomorrow,” historian Jane Taylor told English journalist Kate Humble in “The Frankincense Trail,” a documentary that aired on the BBC in 2011.
In the three part series, Ms. Humble makes the 2,000-mile journey from Oman and ends up in Bethlehem in time for Christmas Eve Mass at the Church of the Nativity. Along the way, she stops at Petra, a city carved out of stone.
During Nabatean times, Petra had a population of 30,000 people. Guards sent smoke signals from the “station” alerting the city to the camel train’s arrival. Travelers were forced to pay a fee for protection against marauders and were led down the long twisting gorge to the “Treasury,” a reflection of the extensive trading empire, an “incredible feat of human endeavor.”
Ms. Humble flew over the desert mountains in a glider flown by a Saudi Arabian royal who went into space on the United States space shuttle Discovery. She dove an intact shipwreck, off-limits to most, where she found an incense burner at the bottom of the Red Sea.
She traveled through Sh’bam, where the first skyscrapers, 11-stories of mud, were built by the frankincense trade. She cried in Mecca, where there are 36 mosques per-square-mile, during a call-to-prayer and danced with “flower men,” who ate her gifts of frankincense, not burned them.
The frankincense Ms. Humble carried with her, on the backs of camels through the desert and in feluccas crafted from the trunks of palm trees, along the Nile River, was used to consecrate a Nubian marriage. She went inside the pyramids, where the Egyptian pharaohs would have used frankincense to communicate with the Gods, slept in goat hair tents and witnessed a healer who used 500 medicinal herbs from the desert in Bedouin of the Sinai.
Frankincense has powerful anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial and anti-neoplastic agents. Historically, it was used to treat every system in the body. Studies are now showing benefits in treating anxiety, arthritis, asthma, bowel disorders, cancers and oral, skin and uterine issues. Everything we knew all along. However, pharmaceutical companies and other businesses are on the fast track to figuring out how to make money off of the exotic plant once again.
Although nature cannot be patented, ways to isolate and extract compounds within nature can be. If more research makes frankincense available to treat diseases such as cancer in today’s society, without the toxicity and side effects of chemotherapy, at an affordable cost, I say go for it.
Frankincense consists of essential oils, gum and terpenoids including boswellic acid. Acetyl-keto-beta-boswellic acid, AKBA, is the most potent anti-inflammatory agent among the Boswellic acids. One 2013 Chinese study showed, “AKBA could be useful in the treatment of gastric cancers.”
One of the most recent studies to pop up on PubMed, “An association of boswellia, betaine and myo-inositol (Eumastós®) in the treatment of mammographic breast density: a randomized, double-blind study,” concluded, “that the association comprising boswellic acid, betaine and myoinositol significantly reduces mammary density, providing the first evidence for a new and safe approach for the management of mammographic density treatment.”
Here’s another one that struck a chord with me because it sounded very familiar to this Lyme Disease sufferer. “Curcumin and Boswellia serrata gum resin extract inhibit chikungunya and vesicular stomatitis virus infections in vitro.” The mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus (CHIKV) has infected millions of people and “is characterized by rash, high fever, and severe arthritis that can persist for years.”
The combination of curcumin and frankincense is panning out to be a synergistic powerhouse. Frankincense used with turmeric treated colon cancer in a 2015 study at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Ajay Goel noted that 500 milligram to 1 gram of BCM-95 and 250 to 500 milligrams of BosPure (available online or at health food stores) could be used daily for prevention if there is a family history of colon cancer. Double or triple the dose if fighting colon cancer, he suggested in a NewsMax Health story. As always, talk to your doctor first.
If you’re thinking you’d like to grow your own frankincense tree, you can forget about it. Horticulturists say you pretty much need a miracle to grow it outside its native lands, but Arizona and California are doable.
I sniff my frankincense right out of the bottle, but after watching “The Frankincense Trail,” with Ms. Humble, I ordered some resin online and can’t wait to burn it in the house. Another study, “Incensole acetate, an incense component, elicits brain activity by activating TRPV3 channels in the brain,” out of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2008, showed that frankincense smoke can reduce depression and anxiety in mice.
Frankincense helps us connect with our higher selves while staying grounded. It helps us focus the mind on what is truly important, peace and love.
Merry Christmas, everyone.