It has been a prized commodity for millennia – but a cocktail of conflict, poverty and burgeoning demand is putting frankincense under pressure
18 December 2019
“As you close your eyes and inhale frankincense oil, you see yourself walking in a pine and eucalyptus forest, your steps taking you to a sun-bathed clearing. Here, a steamy spring welcomes you in its warm and surprisingly citrus-scented water. While you thought you couldn’t be more relaxed, a misty incense smoke spreads around you, balancing and settling your mind.”
This honeyed prose from the website of cosmetics company Lush underlines what was clear two millennia ago: there is something magical about frankincense. In the biblical telling of the birth of Jesus, the Magi deemed it worthy of a king. As wise men, they knew about these things.
Frankincense was once one of the most valuable commodities of the ancient world. Today, we are probably most likely to associate it with the emanations from the incense-burning thuribles that swing in many Christian churches.
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Just recently, the wider world has renewed its interest in the scent. That is creating a problem, with rocketing demand for frankincense oil endangering its supply. It is a classic tale of the conflict of economy and ecology – but the hope is that, in this season of goodwill and promised redemption, this one might have a happy ending.
The backdrop for the struggle is formed by landscapes that could hardly be more different from those conjured up on the Lush website: hardscrabble semi-deserts in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and parts of India. There, scrubland forests are home to …