The Incense Route
One of the world’s oldest trade routes, the 2,000-kilometer Incense Route brought the rich resins of frankincense and myrrh — sourced from the waxy dripping “tears” of trees that grow only in southern Arabia and northeastern Africa — to the Mediterranean. Frankincense and myrrh were hot commodities in the ancient world. They were used to embalm mummies in Egypt and to create medicine and cosmetics and perform religious ceremonies in Roman and Jewish temples and Christian churches. Demand was so strong that frankincense and myrrh were at times priced higher than gold, and the long, treacherous journey through Arabia only added to their cost.
Started more than 4,000 years ago, the Incense Route ran parallel to the Red Sea along Saudi Arabia’s west coast. The Nabateans, an ancient civilization that understood the tricks of crossing the perilous desert, profited handsomely from the passing merchants. They funneled their profits into elaborate building projects, such as Hegra
(also known as Al-hijr), a UNESCO-listed, immaculately carved sandstone city that operated as the kingdom’s second capital after Petra, which today falls within Jordan’s borders.
What remains of the city now is more than 100 wonderfully preserved tombs etched straight into the rock faces, frozen in time and decorated with Nabataean funerary symbols that borrow heavily from the Romans and Greeks, a direct result of cultural exchange along the trade route. Evident in their architecture, the Nabateans also learned to tame the danger of the desert with impressively engineered water capture and storage systems that allowed the growing towns to develop agriculture to feed their own people as well as short-stay travelers.
When the ancient Romans conquered southern Arabia in the first century A.D., they named the region Arabia Felix, meaning “Happy Arabia,” because of the extraordinary wealth accumulated from this trade route. However, the seafaring Romans, lacking local knowledge and rebuffed by the geography of the desert, soon turned their attention to the water and began developing a boat-based trade route that they could more easily control.