Sitting in my studio apartment here in Al Khobar on the shores of the Persian Gulf is a small plastic box measuring 4 inches long by 3 inches wide by 1½ inches deep and weighing 4 ounces. In it is a prize possession of mine that represents both my nearly two decades in the Middle East and also thousands of years of history of mankind. The object is globules of that aromatic golden-colored resin substance with a husky aroma known as frankincense, which is probably best known in the Western world as one of the three gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus, the other two being myrrh and gold.
As I recall I first encountered frankincense when I went to a wedding reception in a large hall in Riyadh about fourteen years ago. There Arabs were burning it in an incense burner, the type typical of the Arabian Peninsula that is an open box with four prongs sticking up in the corners. I was offered to douse fumes from the incense onto my face and body as a means of perfuming and cleansing for the reception. Such is the style of use here in Arabia, and this is performed at assemblies in public places as well as in private homes. It also serves as an aromatic perfume for a home or public room, much as any incense does.
In ancient times there was a frankincense route along which camels carried the substance on their backs from Oman and Yemen up the Arabian Peninsula and traded on to as far away as Europe and China, as in those times frankincense was quite highly valued. I have visited one of the cities on this ancient route, the city of Najran in Southern Saudi Arabia, a city that prospered long ago because of the frankincense trade. Najran is also known as the place of the Najran Massacre, when in ancient times the local king persecuted Christians and one day decided to do away with them completely. He gathered all the Christians in his kingdom and had them thrown into a burning moat where they met a fiery death. It is said hundreds were so brutally killed. There is one moving story of a young Christian boy, perhaps five years of age, who upon seeing his mother cast into the burning moat, voluntarily leaped to his death in order to be with his mother.
Frankincense has served in many religious rituals in the past and is still used in some Roman Catholic churches, as I understand. It may be the incense I saw being burned in the cathedral in New Delhi I visited on my first trip to India. Thus, it has a holy tradition and is also associated with being a preparation, when applied along with oils, for a new born child to enter into society. It similarly is used on people who are entering a new spiritual stage in their lives, something that rings home with me as I pack my belongings here in the Middle East after a nearly two decade career here and ready for the trip back to my homeland, the United States, to begin a new life there. Once back home I will have my frankincense with me, to remind me of my adventures in the Middle East but also, importantly, to remind me of the new horizons and adventures that await me in my new life in America.