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On the Frankincense Trail

An archeologist travels ancient trade routes in search of clues to a lost civilization

Frankincense and myrrh, aromatic resins from spindly trees, were once highly prized from Rome to India, and deemed essential for a host of uses ranging from religious to cosmetic to medicinal. According to Christian belief, the three wise men who traveled to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child brought gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts. Thanks to the domestication of the camel, a complex trade network evolved to transport the priceless resins from the remote valleys, where the trees grew, to the markets where kings and emperors vied for the finest grades.

 Last June, an expedition led by archaeologist Juris Zarins set out to explore some of the most remote areas of the Arabian Peninsula to find clues to the lost civilization that once controlled the trade in frankincense, which was perhaps the most precious commodity in the world 4,000 years ago. This expedition built on a previous one in 1991 that uncovered an Iron Age fortress at Shisur ("Ubar") in Yemen. Zarins believes it was the first confirmation of a sophisticated culture in the region. The recent journey into the remote Mahra governate of Yemen, a hostile desert environment of relentless heat and terrain that would challenge the most hardy adventurer, resulted in new evidence of the existence of the Incense Road, which was as important to the civilization of the West as the Silk Road was to that of the East.

 When Zarins and his team explored the desert and coastal areas, their road map was Landsat photographs, which see far more than the human eye. These images revealed faint traces of camel caravan trails, which the researchers followed in their search for evidence of ancient settlements. Combining this technology with Islamic, biblical and classical references to the trade caravans, Zarins and his team discovered several major sites worthy of excavation that will help unravel the mystery.

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