Frankincense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

Smells excite, attract, enchant, warn, and repulse. We know that they are able to inspire sympathy and dislike, fear and delight. But in the East they know more

“Get lost in the motley chaos at the Souq al-Milh market in Sana’a” is a must-have recommendation for travel guides to the Yemeni capital. Shopping streets, squeezed by “gingerbread” clay houses, scatter in all directions. Whatever the shop, then Aladdin's cave with a pile of treasures. Treasures are guarded by imperturbable merchants. Each one wears a white foot (traditional men's skirt), a light shirt, a jacket, behind the belt a crooked jambia dagger, behind the cheek a wad of kata leaves (a light drug of national importance). In this kaleidoscope of goods, people and sensations, the most reliable navigator is the nose.

Incense for the people: how incense changes life in Yemen for the better

At the main, southern, entrance to the market quarter, bread and cakes are baked, vats of meat stew gurgle on the fire, pots of mint tea and quisher, which is sometimes called Yemeni coffee, boil. In a country where the coffee trade has long been a source of wealth, enterprising merchants sell almost all the grain, and leave the pulp of coffee berries, in fact, production waste, for personal needs. Yemenis brew the pulp with ginger, add sugar and a little amber, which makes the flavor of the drink more intense and complex.

Incense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

Closer to the center of the shopping area, the spirit dust from bags of cardamom, zira, turmeric, saffron, standing in the air, becomes denser. Spice sellers use all the available market space: they fill shops with bags and block street passages. The scope of the trade makes us remember that the locals controlled the circulation of spices between Asia and Europe until the era of the Great Geographical Discoveries.

You can feel the main, basic notes of the aroma of Yemen in the depths of Souq al-Milh. In the shade of linen awnings, in the semi-darkness of the shops, scatterings of hardened fragrant resin gleam. Frankincense and myrrh are sold here. The incense of the ancient world and the fabulous Happy Arabia, as this country was called many centuries ago.

The scent of desires

“Why do you need incense?” asks the incense merchant. I feel in my gut that for the word “souvenir” I will be sent to the exit from the market, where they sell Indian incense sticks and other penny nonsense. Therefore, I act as if I were at the doctor's office. The more details, the more accurate the diagnosis and choice of remedy. I explain that my best friend is getting married and I need a special gift.

Saffar, that is the name of the seller, nods approvingly and dives into the depths of the shop. I note that his leather belt is adorned with agate not only on the front but also on the back. The futa is made from expensive fabric. Old gold coins glisten on the handle of the jambia dagger, without which men do not leave the house. Incense trade no longer brings a fabulous income, as in ancient times, but enough income to live on.

Saffar returns with a paper bundle. Inside are large round tiles of dark amber color. “The best bakhoor for a wedding,” he says. In response to the timid objection that I asked for incense, the Yemeni sighs and begins to explain.

In Arabia, pure incense is rarely burned, preferring to use bakhoor. This is the general name for compound incense. A special master mixes fragrant resins, oils, tree bark crushed into a paste, adds amber, musk and boils it all over the fire. The exact composition of bakhoor is kept secret and is passed on only by inheritance. After brewing, the incense is aged so that the aromas “marry” each other. It can take a month to make one kilogram of bakhoor. Hence the price. Up to two hundred dollars for one hundred grams.

Incense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

The wedding bahur tile looks like candied buckwheat honey. The smell is sweet, spicy, languid. “This bakhoor is not for celebration, but for a more important purpose,” Saffar warns. “Let your friends fumigate the bedroom. Every night during the honeymoon.”

I appreciate the elegant formulation with which they sell me an aphrodisiac, and ask for advice on another fragrance for the house. The question “For what occasions?” puts me in a dilemma. I didn't think that a meeting of friends, a reception of important guests or a family holiday should smell different.

With the help of incense in Yemen they express love, create a feeling of comfort and bliss, let the guest know how valuable his visit is. Saffar opens a pharmacy-looking flask of wood chips, takes a piece the size of an apple stalk, puts it in a copper mabhara censer, and brings it to my nose.

“Sandal?” — I ask. The merchant grins, not hiding a slight indulgence. Once again I inhale the smoke and remember the journey to the north of Lebanon, where a grove of relict cedars has been preserved. The sun-warmed trees smelled better than expensive perfume. Saffar slivers smell even richer. As if the wood was aged in balsamic vinegar.

Incense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

The seller says it's not cedar, but agarwood. The most expensive type of incense on the market. Saffar sells fragrant wood from the Indonesian jungle for $1,000 per 100 grams.

“This is the smell of good taste. And wealth. This is how people from noble families smell. Well, or those who want to make a similar impression. Smoke impregnate clothes, fumigate hair. A woman who exudes this fragrance immediately stands out from the crowd.”

A girl in a black robe, common for Muslim countries, hiding her body and face, passes by the shop. If the seller exaggerates the value of his product, then not much.

From Saffar, I take away a scented package and a strict instruction on how, when and under what circumstances to use scents. In addition to valuable instructions, Saffar gives an equally valuable phone number to his friend Nadir. Nadir, guide and driver, is ready to take me through the region of Hadhramaut, along the road that the incense caravans traveled two thousand years ago.

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The Spirit of Protection

A slight smell of ambergris makes the interior of a battered Land Rover cozier. Nadir wraps the dashboard with sheepskin “from the sun”, adjusts the amulets hanging by the rear-view mirror, squeezes behind the wheel and says “Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim.” This is usually said before an important matter: “In the name of Allah, the Gracious and Merciful,” the Arabic version of our “With God!”.

Incense for the people: like incense change life in Yemen for the better

I understand that this is an important matter when a young man in military uniform sits down next to Nadir at the border checkpoint at the entrance to Hadhramaut. He adjusts the Kalashnikov assault rifle, puts a generous handful of khat leaves behind his cheek, and makes the sound of the radio louder, from where the singsong recitative of prayer is heard. The task of Mohammed, as Nadir introduces him, is to accompany tourists on trips outside the big cities. Normal security measures in Yemen.

Nadir drives the car along the bottom of a colossal wadi, a dry river bed with high slopes. Numerous wadis cut the mountain plateau into isolated gorges, creating a bizarre landscape. Residents of two neighboring wadis may regularly fly to other cities by plane, but they will never meet “neighbors” in their lives.

“There are no neighbors here. There are tribes here,” says Nadir, a native of Hadhramaut. “The relationship between them is not simple.” With a vague wording, he ends an uncomfortable conversation.

Two millennia ago, local tribes became fabulously rich by controlling the route of incense caravans. For the passage through their territory, the Hadramians charged a tenth of the cargo. But the adoption of Christianity and the change of funeral rites in Ancient Rome, one of the main consumers of fragrances, brought down the demand for Yemeni frankincense and myrrh as early as the 4th century. Clay cities built in the desert, the ambitions of tribes endlessly at war with each other, and the scent of incense were left as a legacy from the fairy-tale kingdom to the modern Hadramians.

“With this smell we come into the world,” says Nadir. “The newborn is fumigated with incense. Smoke drives away diseases and protects from the evil eye. Incense is impregnated with clothes, things, even machine guns. To serve longer. Guests of the house walk around the mabhara with incense, so they announce good intentions. Saying goodbye to the owners, repeat the ritual. So that nothing happens on the way.”

At this point, Nadir stops the car. The road breaks off, buried in a gate wrapped in barbed wire. From the bottom of the wadi we climbed to the very top of the desert plateau.

“No one has ever built housing here, because all the water sources are below,” says Nadir. “But a few years ago, a local businessman built a hotel, because here the views are the most beautiful in Hadhramaut.”

To the room we are escorted by a woman wrapped in traditional black clothes. She carries a heavy stone mabhara. Nadir explains that in Hadhramawt the houses are fumigated at dusk and dawn, when the evil spirits are at their strongest. The smoke of incense scares them away.

Remembering the prices at the market in Sana'a, I wonder if it's not expensive to burn pure incense every day. Nadir replies that incense is available to everyone in Yemen. It's just that the poor will buy poor quality resin. Or myrrh. She's cheaper. It has a stronger smell than incense. “But mosquitoes are better driven!”

Incense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

I leave the room to appreciate the view for which we climbed to the edge of civilization. The only hotel guests came to admire the panorama, comparable in scale to the American Grand Canyon. Large Yemeni family with children. Silhouettes of men and women against the background of the setting sun seem to be cut out of paper. In this theater of shadows, you can immediately recognize Mohammed. According to the clear outline of the machine at the right shoulder.

Flavours of the East

Incense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

Resin from a boswellia tree. The most common type of tree from which frankincense is extracted is Boswéllia sacra. These grow in the south of the Arabian Peninsula, on the island of Socotra and in the mountainous regions of Somalia.

Aromatic resin of some members of the genus Commiphora. In addition to the south of the Arabian Peninsula, Socotra and Somalia, they are common in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and northeastern Kenya. aquilaria wood growing in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The tree releases resin in response to the attack of the fungus Phialophora parasitica.

A waxy substance that forms in the intestinal tract of sperm whales. After the prohibition of commercial whaling, ambergris is obtained randomly: caught in the ocean or found on the shore.

A secret produced by the glands of some animals, such as the musk deer (musk deer) ), African civet, muskrat, muscovy duck.

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Smell of prosperity

The entire stretch from the hotel to the coastal city of El Mukalla, from where I should fly to the homeland of incense trees, Socotra Island, Nadir and Mohammed remain silent. The smell of incense from the car proves to be an effective remedy for trouble. The final leg of the journey through South Hadhramaut, al-Qaeda's home territory (banned in the Russian Federation), runs smoothly. Nadir is happier at the airport. “Whatever happens on the mainland, everything will be calm on Socotra,” he admonishes.

Approximately 20-30 million years ago, the Socotra archipelago broke away from the Arabian Peninsula, preserving, thanks to isolation, unique flora and fauna. The lack of convenient harbors and treacherous currents have protected the island from anthropogenic influence. The status of a natural reserve (2003) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2008) saved the Socotra archipelago from mass tourism. And the remoteness from the mainland – from the direct influence of the protracted war.

Isolation did not affect the friendliness of the islanders. Ahmet, the Socotra guide, greets me with a dazzling smile. In response to a request to buy pills for motion sickness, he gives out several peas of frankincense resin and says that the locals chew it to freshen their breath and for general tone. “Nausea helps too,” he promises.

The tart odorous resin refreshes and relieves discomfort, although we are driving along the “most terrible road on the island”, chosen by Akhmet for the first acquaintance. We rise to the Homkhil plateau, where, according to the guide, you can see the real Socotra. Shepherds and Bedouins live in the mountains, whose ancestors settled on the island in the 6th century. They collect resin from trees and know more about these plants than anyone.

Incense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

We approach a village -a dozen houses, somehow built of volcanic stones. Children are the first to run out into the road. Behind them, accompanied by four skinny goats, an elderly Socotran man in a striped foot and a wool sweater appears. Ahmet says it's Ali and he will lead us to the frankincense trees.

Barefoot Ali walks on the ground strewn with sharp stones, with the light step of a shepherd. Goats and children follow him. Bloated barrels of bottle and cucumber trees stick out among the stones. In whimsy, dragon trees argue with them, like giant umbrellas turned inside out in the wind.

Ali knows all the recipes. Resin of dragon trees heals wounds and inflammations. From the bark of myrrh, an infusion is made for children and kids, so that they eat well and do not get sick. Dry branches of incense trees are collected and burned in the evenings near the barn. The smoke calms the animals and they sleep better.

At the edge of a gorge that cuts the plateau in half, Ali points to a tree, its roots clinging to the edge of a rocky ledge: “Zifa”. So the Socotrians call the incense growing on the slopes of the mountains. If only one type of frankincense is common in mainland Yemen – Boswellia sacra, then there are eight of them in Socotra.

Ali shows traces of past notches on the trunk. With gestures, he explains how he makes cuts with a knife, bends back the bark of a tree to form a “pocket” where the resin will flow. Ali keeps the tree until the harvest season. Resin is harvested in Socotra during the summer months.

From the folds of the foot the old man takes out a handful of light, almost white pebbles. Ahmet says that this is not an ordinary incense, but a top quality resin. Sellers on the mainland appreciate it especially.

Ali refuses to set it on fire. Incense resin is burned only by mekoli, shamans. They are called in case of great trouble, when ordinary means do not help. “Incense is magic,” Ali says.Ali yells at the goats trying to gnaw on the bark of the tree. Goat bark is bad. But the stems and leaves of incense are good. Goats then give a lot of milk. These animals appeared on Socotra along with the first settlers, and over the past two thousand years, goat's milk has become the basis of the diet for the islanders. They drink it in its pure form, add it to tea, cook rice on it, make curdled milk and ghee from it.

Returning to the house, Ali asks us to give his son a lift to the village on the shore. The teenager climbs into the back seat and, in gratitude, holds out a bowl of fresh cottage cheese. I taste the sweet-tasting cottage cheese and try to figure out if it really smells like frankincense and myrrh or if it's just a fantasy. Is there any similarity between the legendary goat Amalthea, who nursed Zeus, and the Socotra goats, on whose milk the local boys grow up? It is possible that the ancient myths about a distant island, whose people know the secret of eternal and happy life, are not a fairy tale, but a reality that, in the case of Socotra, does not even need to be embellished.


Incense for the people: how incense is changing life in Yemen for the better

Area527,968 km² (49th in world)
Population ~ 30,984,000 people (48th)
Population density 56.5 persons/km²
HDI 0.463 (177th), one of the lowest in the world< /p>

ATTRACTIONSThe old town in Sanaa, the city of clay skyscrapers Shibam, the village of Haid al-Jazil, the most picturesque village in Hadhramawt, the palace on the rock of Dar al-Hajar.
TRADITIONAL DISHES marak (rich spicy meat broth) , salta (meat stew with fenugreek), mandi (meat cooked in a tandoor type oven), arika (spicy dessert with dates).
SOUVENIRS silverware, handmade carpets and bedspreads, baskets, honey from wild bees from Hadhramaut.

DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Sany ~ 4520 km (from 6 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIME coincides with Moscow
VISA issued at the embassy
CURRENCY < /strong>Yemeni rial (1000 YER ~ 4 USD)


Material published in Vokrug Sveta magazine No. 8, October 2020, partially updated in March 2023

Marina Mironova

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