Ancient Perfume Route
The production and trade of perfume was a tremendous source of wealth and
consequently power as far back as the 13th century BCE – early biblical times. Merchants from the ancient Arabian Peninsula, who
were prepared to weather the challenges and obstacles along a difficult trade
route to the west, emerged as some of the wealthiest businessmen of their times.
They found markets among the ancient civilizations of Egypt,
Mesopotamia and Assyria, filled with buyers who were willing to pay high prices for body oils
used for seduction and erotica, and aromatic incense used for ritual
These needs and desires, together with the resulting industries that
serviced them, gave rise to the famous “Incense
Route” of ancient times – also referred to as the Perfume route.
The use of perfume and scent is mentioned many times in the bible and in
ancient manuscripts, with references to production sites in ancient Egypt, the
land of Israel, India, Mesopotamia and in the Far East.
The importance that incense and perfume gained exceeded in many cases that of silver,
gold, and precious stones.
Assyrian records from 890
BCE refer to gifts given to the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta II by the
Aramaean kingdoms. In particular, balls of myrrh are mentioned among the
There are also records of
large quantities of frankincense and myrrh
used as incense in the Jewish temple in
Jerusalem, and which were kept within the temple together with the King’s
|Model of 2nd Temple - Israel Museum
The merchandising of oils
and incense looked, in particular, to religious ceremonies as well as the
pleasure of body care for its most profitable market.
As a result of the
tremendous demand, the production of incense and perfume grew.
trading industry emerged, along with the trade of spices and precious stones,
playing an important part in the connection between the East and West.
Saffron - one of the world's most
Most of the spices and
perfume plants were brought from the east: cinnamon from Ceylon and China; aloes
from India, Spikenard - one of the more expensive perfumes plants - from Nepal
and the Himalayas.
types of peppercorn - grown in India
However the perfume trade concentrated mainly on
Frankincense and Myrrh and both plants were grown in southern Arabia and the
north of Somalia.
The high cost of
importing perfume plants, due to their rarity and to the difficulties of shipping, led
some Egyptian kings, already during the 15th Century BCE, to try and
grow the plants by themselves.
Queen Hatshepsut, who
ruled in the early 15th century BCE, sent a royal expedition of 5 ships to the
land of Punt (Somalia) in order to bring seeds and plants of Frankincense and
Myrrh. This expedition is commemorated in inscriptions on the walls of her
temple in Deir el-Bahri.
seeding taken to Egypt, after a relief in Queen Hatshepsut’s temple at
Deir el-Bahri Egypt, 15th Century BCE.
African myrrh commiphora
The experiment was not
successful; the seeds and plants did not pick up. As a result, southern Arabia
established itself as the key grower of Frankincense and Myrrh, primarily in the south west of the
peninsula in the mountains of Dhofar.
With its relative proximity to
north Somalia, which was a main source of myrrh, and also it’s location
on a crossroad, southern Arabia remained the main figure in the merchandising of
perfume and spices.
This role, played by
Arabia, was emphasized by
Pliny, the Roman author and natural philosopher ( AD 23 - AD 79)
known as ‘Pliny The Elder’, who defined the Arabians in his writings as the
wealthiest race in the world.
One of the most famous
perfume plants was the ancient Persimmon (not to be confused with the modern
persimmon fruit). The ancient plant was grown in Ein Gedi by the shore of the
groves beside the Dead Sea
The process of growing the plant and manufacturing the perfume
was kept a secret throughout the generations.
In 1988 a
jar of oil, believed to be a rare finding of the fragrant oil of the
persimmon, was discovered in the Qumran caves beside the Dead Sea in
ancient scroll discovered in the same caves, 36 years earlier, listed the
location of 60 items taken from the second Jewish Temple between A.D. 66
and 68 and hidden in an effort to keep these items from the
approaching Roman army. Among the items were 23 talents of persimmon oil.
Pliny, the Roman writer,
historian and natural Philosopher, wrote that an amount of this perfume oil that
was equal to, in today’s language, a half a liter, cost 300 Dinars and could
go up to a thousand.
Today, nobody knows what
happened to this plant. It is believed that during the war against the Romans,
in the 1st Century CE, the Jews of Ein-Gedi, who did not want to
reveal the secret of growing this plant and producing its unique perfume,
decided to exterminate it and take its secrets with them to their graves.
The Frankincense plant is a low small bush that generates a
transparent yellowish resin from which the aromatic essence is extracted.
Frankincense tree boswellia sacra
The resin is produced by making cuts along the stem
and peeling off a small amount of the stem skin. At this point the bush
generates the resin that is hardened in the stem at the bottom of the cut. After
three months, the hard yellowish resin ball can be picked.
Frankincense tree boswellia sacra
Myrrh on the other hand is a tallish tree, which
usually produces a
reddish brown resin that is generally gathered from the trees in the summer.
African myrrh commiphora abyssinica
Myrrh stem commiphora abyssinica
With the growing demand for it, during the Roman
period, a 2nd extract was made in the early spring, by small cuts
made along the stem.
In preparation for
shipping, the Myrrh resin was kept in leather bags in order to keep its oily
constituency. The hard Frankincense resin substance, on the other hand, was
packed in baskets and was handled very carefully in order to keep the resin
balls and branches intact.
The increasing demand for
spices and perfumes in the ancient world led to the development of an extensive
network of trade routes, connecting the West to the East by land and by sea.
These routes connected India and Arabia to Mesopotamia, Syria, Israel, Egypt,
Greece and Rome.
The transportation of the
merchandise followed several routes, depending on where the end destination was
and corresponding to the level of security they offered.
Station along the Ancient Perfume Road
The desire for trade
between the east and the west resulted in the rise of a number of main
routes, such as the Silk Trade Route between China and Europe, and the Kings
Highway from Egypt, through Aqaba up to Damascus and Assyria.
One of the primary routes of
commerce, which was
defined later as “The Incense Route”, started in the southern part of
the Arabian Peninsula, where some of the finer perfume plants
It went north, parallel
to the Red Sea, with approximately 65 resting stations.
Towards the end of the
route, at Dedan, it divided into a few different routes. One
turned north eastward, toward Mesopotamia. Two other routes were
directed toward the seas - both ultimately brought the perfume, spices and
incense to Petra. One continued inland directly to Petra while the
other turned southward to the port of Leuce Come, situated beside the east shore of
the Red Sea. From there this route continued by land, also to Petra.
At Petra it split again.
One route went north to Damascus, the second one went west, through Israel
to Gaza and from there to Egypt or to Greece and Rome in Europe.
There was another route
that went from the southern part of Arabia, through the desert, north, some 40 days
of traveling, to the port city of Gerrha, in the Persian Gulf, and from there to
Mesopotamia and Israel and Europe.
On land the
transportation was carried mainly by camels that were domesticated already
around the 12-13th century BCE.
Convoys at that period
were composed of many dozens and sometimes hundreds of camels loaded with
merchandise, food and water. These convoys were able to go some 15-20 Kilometers
a day and the whole trip from South Arabia, or what is today Yemen, to Gaza,
took about half a year.
The route stretched along
some 2400 kilometers, and a difficult topography was chosen in many areas in
order to avoid robbers. Fortresses and resting
stations were built in strategic points along the trade routes in order to serve
and protect the convoys that were carrying the expensive merchandise from
robbers. These stations controlled the water sources and the security
along the main and the secondary routes.
The Nabataeans, also known
as the “Lords of the desert”, were inhabitants of North Arabia. They
played a central role in the marketing of perfume and controlled the trade
routes that stretched from Leuce Come, a port on the north east side of the Red
Sea, up north to Petra; the route from Petra, west, through Israel’s Negev to
Gaza in the Mediterranean; and the route north, from Petra to Damascus.
The great wealth accumulated
by the Nabataeans is described by Diodorus Siculus who lived in the 1st
“While there are many Arabian tribes who use the desert as
pasture, The Nabateans far surpass the others in wealth, although they are not
much more than ten thousand in number; for not a few of them are accustomed to
bring down to the sea frankincense and myrrh and the most valuable kinds of
spices, which they procure…from what is called Arabia…” (Diodorus
The Nabataeans reached their peak between the last third of
the 1st century BCE and the middle of the 1st century CE.
The Nabateans set their
capital in Petra, in what is today Jordan.
It is situated some 80
Kilometers south of the Dead Sea, not far from the Israeli border. The
impressive shrines and palaces carved into the hard red rocks reflect the
richness and wealth they experienced.
Famous red rock of Petra
In 104 CE, the Nabataean Kingdom and its capital city, Petra, were annexed by the Romans. The
fortresses and rest stations fell into the hands of the Romans as well.
Extensive building projects were undertaken then, reaching a peak in the
The Nabataeans, who were
pagans, eventually converted to Christianity around the 3rd-4th
century CE, followed by extensive buildup of churches in all of their cities.
The knowledge about them is mainly extracted from Greek and Roman sources.
Mamshit (Memphis) Baptistery
The Nabataeans' two fields of expertise were merchandising and desert agriculture. They led the
perfume and spice convoys in the desert and built the resting and guard stations
along the routes. These stations were set at a distance of a day’s walk from
It is not clear yet how
and why they disappeared from the stage of history. Some believe that with the
decline of the demand for perfume and spices, and subsequently the diminishing
importance of the trade routes, the cities were deserted and the Nabataeans integrated with neighboring tribes.
overlooking the Ein Avdat canyon
Although the trade routes
were well established, even during their prime the transportation of
perfumes and the spices was a long and dangerous process - inland, because of the
desert conditions and robbers, and at sea because of the storms and pirates.
Station along the Ancient Perfume Road
On top of that, heavy taxes were imposed on perfume and spice shipments,
especially on the overland convoys.
Pliny, The Roman writer, and
natural philosopher describes this clearly: “Fixed portions of frankincense are also given to the
priests and the king’s secretaries, but beside these the guards and their
attendants and the gate-keepers and servants also have their pickings. Indeed,
all along the route they keep on paying, at one place for water, at another for
fodder or the charges for lodging at the halts and the various octrois.
So that expenses mount up to 688 denarii per camel before the Mediterranean
coast is reached” (Pliny Nat.Hist. XII:65) 3.
It is not surprising
therefore that under such circumstances, the price of perfume and spices was so
The great demand together with the limited supply made them so desirable,
to a point where it triggered thievery even during the production and
The commercial relations
between the east and the west reached their peak during the 2nd
Century CE. At this time the Romans succeeded in sailing directly to and from
south Arabia and India, the source suppliers of spices and the raw material for
perfume. As a result, the importance of the Arabian kingdoms slowly
diminished since they were no longer required for the transport of the costly
From the 4th
century on, when Christianity became the official religion, the practice of
cremation was avoided and there was a return to ordinary burials which led to a
significant decrease in the demand for incense. The consumption of cosmetics for
body care also diminished drastically in the Christian world, which frowned on
luxuriousness and indulgence in bodily pleasures.
The trade in spices and
resins used for the cosmetic industry, although diminished, did not completely
cease but it never reached the same importance as during it’s grander times.
Following the Moslem
conquest of the area in the 2nd half of the 7th century,
and the decline in the demand of perfume in the new Christian world, the perfume
trade routes died out and the cities along these routes were gradually deserted.
more about some of the stations along the trade route between Petra to the
Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Ancient World: Page 122, Dayagi-Mendels,
Michal, Publisher: Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 1993
Basics | History
of Perfume | Ancient
Perfume Route | Stations
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