Who’s up for something pretty cool? Because I think this is pretty cool. History, jumping camels, adventure, history, and frankincense. This is the story of the ancient Arabian frankincense trade route. The documentary is by the BBC and the link to the YouTube video is waaaaaaaaay down at the bottom of this post. It’s an hour long and well worth watching, but if you don’t have an hour, I’ve summarized the whole thing. With quotes! And pictures!

Without further ado~~~

Documentary on the Frankincense Trail- Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia
Presented by: Kate Humble
Produced by: Diverse Bristol -a Zodiak Entertainment Company- for BBC

Its smoke was though to have divine powers that directly connected man to his god. From its source in Oman, an epic trade route was across Arabia to the Holy Land where it was shipped throughout the ancient world. And along the way entire civilizations emerged from the desert and prospered. Now after 5000 years after the frankincense trade began, I’m following in the footsteps of one of the great epic trade routes of ancient times.

Begin the journey in the Dhofar Mountains of southern Oman, where frankincense was harvested for thousands of years. Frankincense is produced from the Boswellia Sakura tree. To harvest the frankincense, cut into the branch and the sap comes out. After making several cuts in the branches, the trees are left so the sap can harden before it’s collected. Did anyone else know that this is how it’s done? Because I did not know this. I guess I’ve never really though about it.

Embed from Getty Images

OMAN – DECEMBER 21: Collecting Frankincense in wadi dawkah in Oman on December 21, 2009 – Mister Musallem, from Gedad tribe, collecting frankincense. he uses a mansaha to cut the tree. The Frankincense Route in the Governorate of Dhofar, which was listed by UNESCO in 2000. The Route comprises the ancient cities of Al-Blaid and Shasr, Khuwr Rori, and Wadi Dooka. These locations collectively contributed to the flourishing of the frankincense trade for many centuries throughout the Middle Ages. At the beginning of April, as soon as the temperatures start to rise, the frankincense gatherers cut the frankincense trees in many places. The first ‘cut’ is called the tawqii and consists of paring off the outer bark of the branches and trunk. This causes a milky-white liquid to ooze from the tree which quickly solidifies and is left in this condition for 14 days or so. The second ‘cut’ which follows this period, produces resin of an inferior quality and the real harvest begins two weeks after the second ‘cut’. With this third ‘cut’ the tree produces frankincense resin of yellowish color which is sold commercially in the market. The ‘cutting’ of the frankincense trees calls for great skill. The harvest lasts for 3 months and the average yield of frankincense resin for one tree is around 10 kilos. The Governorate of Dhofar produces approx. 7,000 tones of frankincense annually Omani frankincense, which is considered to be the finest quality in the world, is still much in demand in many countries. It is an important ingredient in the manufacture of incense which is burned on social occasions, in the manufacture of medicines, fragrant, powders, perfumes, candles as well as in halls of worship around the world. (Photo by Eric LAFFORGUE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 3.35.57 PM.png

The BBC crew takes 240 Omani rials worth of frankincense, which today is about $620. At the height of its popularity, most of the frankincense harvested went to the Roman Empire. Back then the traders walked in camel caravans (up to 1000 camels) from Oman, were met by a tribe from Yemen, and then 2000 miles to the port in Gaza where they would make their trades. All together it took up to 210 days. The camels carried up to 200 kilos each.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 3.46.55 PM

The caravan used in this BBC documentary had 300 camels that left from Oman. At this point, it’s described as a “mutiny of camels” that were rounded up with smartphones and pickup trucks, which they obviously didn’t have in ancient times. The camera crew made them a little nervous! The stopped at a camp to dance and rest for the night before heading for the Yemen border, a crossing which is rarely used, and also a dangerous area. From this point on, the documentary crew will travel with a security team and police escort.

The only road for them to take goes right through Osama Bin Laden’s ancestral homeland and to Shibam, the world’s first skyscraper city which prospered thanks to the frankincense trade. The buildings here are made of mud and the tallest is 11 stories high.


They’re invited by their translator to the blessing of a newborn, which is a tradition over 2000 years old and older than Islam. Some of the frankincense harvested in Oman will be used in the ceremony to bless the 6 month old baby girl. Its smoke is used to cleanse, purify, and ward away evil spirits. Only women and children are allowed in the room, so the BBC set up their cameras and had to leave.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 4.17.07 PM
“I wonder whether the frankincense brought by the Three Wise Men was used this way to bless the baby Jesus. All children born in Shibam are welcomed this way.”

Because of conflicts between tribes and the risk of foreigners being kidnapped, the crew cannot travel the way of the original frankincense traders to Shabwa. They go to Qana instead.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 4.24.07 PM.png
“It’s not like you know when you’re crossing the border into hostile territory, it’s sort of insidious, it could come from anywhere. There is a risk. In the back of your mind, it’s like you’re being forced to have a kind of jumpy feeling that you wouldn’t normally have because out there it doesn’t feel like you need to be jumpy.”
“Amazingly in the middle of nowhere, there’s a roadside cafe.”

300 miles through a 116 degree desert later….

From 500 BC to 500 AD Qana was one of the most important ports in the Gulf. The warehouses that stored the frankincense were built like bank vaults. Boats came in from Dhofar in Oman and then the camel caravans picked up the cargo. It is now all in ruins.

“This now empty bay was once a major hub for the frankincense trade.”

The Yemeni army then escorts the BBC crew through a hostile area to an important historical monument on the frankincense trade route. It’s a gate built by a tribe in Shabwa where all the caravans passed through and paid a tax. Not passing through the gate was punishable by death.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 4.42.26 PM
“This ancient gate is a reminder of a forgotten civilization which became rich on the frankincense trade. For close to 1000 years the tribes who controlled this region claimed a quarter of all the goods that passed through here.”

But the BBC crew can go no further along the original route to Saudi Arabia because it is too dangerous, so they continue along the coast from Qana to Aden, which is the modern capital of the frankincense trade. The city is built in the crater of a volcano and was once a British colony, but is now a hub for shipping frankincense around the world.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 4.53.49 PM
“I feel like I’ve gone back about 200 years in time. This is amazing.”

One warehouse has been in the family for over four generations. The frankincense resin is graded here by clarity and weight. The resin is cleaned of impurities before it is sent off around the world to be burned or used in perfumes in medicines.

That frankincense they brought with them from Oman? It can be sold from this warehouse for FOUR TIMES what they bought it for.

Next is a visit to a local tribe, the only one in the world to practice a particular sport…. CAMEL JUMPING. It is a right of passage for young men in the tribe, which relies on strength and stamina instead of weapons.

“Camel jumping. Not jumping camels, but MEN JUMPING CAMELS. The rules are simple: the man who jumps cleanly over the most camels is the winner.”

THE WINNER JUMPED OVER FIVE CAMELS!!! The 16 year old has earned his tribe’s respect and admiration. Mine too.

After a day of camel jumping, the BBC travels to the Haraz Mountains. This mountain range has some of the highest peaks in the Arabian Peninsula. Most of Yemen is desert, but the mountain range is full of greenery. The mountain sides are covered in terraced farms. At the top? Medieval fortresses to defend Yemen’s capital.

“Cradled in the heart of the Yemeni highlands is the ancient beautiful city of Sana’a. It’s known as Sam City, after the son of Noah, who according to legend built it on the highest ground he could find after the waters of the great flood had subsided. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and like a living museum.”
Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 6.06.20 PM
In the city’s spice market, goods have been sold for thousands of years. This merchant says that he burns frankincense to repel insects at home.

The documentary takes us to Saudi Arabia after Sana’a, but what can be expected? How do you dress? Do you need a veil?

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 6.22.17 PM.png
“There’s a stereotype that we don’t accept others as they are and we want them to be just like us. That is not true. In all Arab countries, not just Saudi Arabia, they accept you as you are.”

So they go shopping (just in case) for something that our documentary host can wear in Saudi Arabia. She is 5’9, so hopefully the store has something long enough! In Yemen, the long black dress that you wear over your clothes is called a balto.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 6.25.34 PM
“You’re going to have to give me intensive lessons in how to do this. I can barely put on a warm muffler scarf.”
Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 6.30.42 PM
“This is too weird. Do I really need this? If it wasn’t so uncomfortable, it would be really funny. I can’t believe what you women go through.”

She goes on to say:

“I mean it was funny, but at the same time all my tears weren’t entirely hysterical laughter. You suddenly realize how lucky you are as a woman living in the West and not having to dress like that.”

They cannot travel to Saudi Arabia by land since the border is closed, so they fly there instead. That’s when the airport in Sana’a was functioning. Currently, the airport is closed and has been hit by airstrikes. The original frankincense trade route would cross Yemen’s border and then travel up the western coast of Saudi Arabia.

Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 6.38.35 PM.png
“Saudi Arabia is a kingdom of contrasts and contradictions. Here, devout faith and extreme wealth have to find a way to coexist.”
Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 6.42.40 PM.png
“Only three hours from Yemen, but suddenly I feel like I’m back in the West. Riyadh shopping centers are depressingly similar to those back home. Many of the shops here are recognizable brands.”
Screenshot 2017-07-08 at 9.27.29 PM.png
“Unlike anywhere else I’ve been, every single shop closes for prayer five times a day and I’m told this happens clockwork everyday of the year. The people are just melting away before my very eyes.”

But back to the frankincense trade, the Islam you see in Saudi Arabia now did not exist back then. The people were linked by this frankincense trade instead of religion.

And with that final thought, that concludes the first part of the documentary. There’s another hour to this, all taking place in Saudi Arabia. I will post that later as I haven’t even watched it yet, but for now here is the video of the part summarized above.