Sunday, December 24, 2006

Gifts from a place called Arabia Felix

The Gospels tells us that they came from the east, following a star. But if, as tradition insists, they arrived on camels, and if upon opening their treasures they offered the newborn babe gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, then my guess is that they came from the south, from beyond the trackless wastes of the Empty Quarter, from the place called Arabia Felix.

The clues are the frankincense and myrrh. Gold might have come from almost anywhere in the ancient world, but frankincense and myrrh came from one place and one place only. Both are gum resins exuded by trees that grow only along the coasts of the Gulf of Aden at the foot of the Red Sea, in what is today Yemen and Somalia.

Frankincense trees, of the genus Boswellia, have stiff, low branches and red flowers. Myrrh trees, genus Commiphora, have a low, spreading canopy of foliage that is reminiscent of cedar. Both trees "weep" resins through cracks in the bark, or the resins can be artificially harvested by making holes in the bark, as syrup is tapped from maples and turpentine from pines. The resins are exuded as a fluid and harden upon exposure to the air, typically into tear-shaped lumps.

During the first millennium B.C. a civilization -- Arabia Felix, Happy Arabia -- grew up at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, based almost entirely upon the production and trade of these rare aromatic resins. Archeologist Gus Van Beek, who has contributed much to our knowledge of Arabia Felix, believes the rise of that civilization coincided with the first effective domestication of the camel, and its use as a mode of transport in arid environments. On the backs of these "ships of the desert," and in ships on the Red Sea, frankincense and myrrh made their way to the markets of the north.

Frankincense was used as incense in religious rituals. It is frequently mentioned in the books of the Old Testament as part of Jewish rites. It was customary throughout the Roman Empire to include frankincense on funeral pyres, ostensibly as an offering to the gods, but almost certainly to ameliorate the odor of burning bodies. It is said that Nero added to the funeral pyre of his wife Poppaea a quantity of frankincense equal to the entire yearly output of Arabia Felix.

Myrrh was used in incense, perfumes, and cosmetics. The Egyptian queen Hatshepsut anointed her legs with the sweet-smelling resin. Myrrh was important enough to the Greeks to warrant a myth as to how the myrrh tree came to be: Myrrha, the girl who loved her father in a most undaughterly way, fled into exile in the lands of southern Arabia, where stricken by guilt and grief she was transformed by the gods into a tree that weeps aromatic tears. The myth may have added a whiff of scandal to the use of myrrh as a cosmetic and perfume.

By the time of Christ's birth, demand for frankincense and myrrh outstripped the supply, and the price soared. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder tells us that in Alexandria, in Egypt, where frankincense was processed for market, workmen were required to strip for inspection before they left the factory, so valuable were even tiny amounts of the commodity.

When Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman Empire by Constantine in A.D. 323, burial of the dead replaced cremation. The demand for frankincense was sharply curtailed and the bottom fell out of the market. The rich kingdoms of Arabia Felix reverted to sand.

And what of gold, the third gift of the Magi? It has been said that the history of gold is the history of the world, and no less a historian than Will Durant has told us that civilizations and gold have waxed and waned together. It is no surprise that the Magi included gold among their gifts.

Of the materials of the Earth's crust, none is more highly valued. Gold is pleasing to look at and to touch. It is strong and enduring, resistant to oxidation and corrosion. Gold is wonderfully versatile in the hands of craftsmen, and easily worked into thin sheets or fine threads. Coinage and ornaments of gold have a satisfying heft in the hand.

And rare! In all of human history, perhaps no more than 100,000 tons of gold have been won from the earth, a slowly accumulating treasure that has mostly passed from civilization to civilization. The Egyptians developed the mining and refining of gold to a high art. The Egyptian littoral of the Red Sea was one of the richest sources of gold in the ancient world. The pyramids were built at least partly to protect the golden ornaments that the pharaohs took to the grave.

By the time of the birth of Christ, Roman armies had wrested control of virtually every known source of gold in the ancient world, from the sands of Egypt to Britain and Spain. Some of that Roman gold surely accumulated in the treasuries of Arabia Felix, in trade for the precious resins.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh -- the first Christmas presents. Luxury items, to be sure, the richest gleanings of nature in the ancient world, and perhaps somewhat out of place in the unpretentious surroundings of the stable at Bethlehem -- as gifts for the child whose own gift to us was the simple message "Peace on Earth."

(This essay is a reprise of a Globe column of twenty years ago. Blogger tells us that the great majority of visitors to this site are not New Englanders, and therefore unlikely to have read my newspaper columns. Most of what you read here is new, but occasionally I can't resist recycling some of the million words I wrote for the Globe. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas.)

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