|Frankincense tree, Dhofar, southern Oman|
The journey from what is now Oman to ancient Egypt must have been made millions of times by ancient caravanserai. Then it travelled from Egypt to Europe but also from Arabia to Persia, India and China. The trade by land declined after my ancestors, the Portuguese traders, changed the routes for commercial exploration, circumnavigating Africa. The Indian and Pacific oceans were then mastered by seafarers and camel routes started to fade away... Frankincense is grown in green valleys, on the other side of the Dhofar Mountains that catch India's summer monsoons, making this a paradise in the Arabian Peninsula. Boswellia sacra was produced here as far back as 7000 BCE, locals say. The first cut releases impurities, and then, after some weeks, the good resin is extracted. The spectrum of resin colours varies from yellow, green, brown, or black. Frankincense was used in antiquity to treat throat and larynx infections that bleed, phlegm, asthma, and calming down vomit also. The inhalation of the melted stem relieves both bronchitis and laryngitis.
The kohl, with which the Egyptians painted their eyes, and also effective on eye treatments, is made of melted frankincense (the charred remains of the burnt frankincense was ground into a black powder), and other resins, also used as depilation agent, and from frankincense a paste is made with other herbs to perfume the hands. In colder weather times, Egyptians warmed their bedrooms with a fire where they burned frankincense and aloe wood also.
The word incense means originally the aroma given by the smoke of any odourific substance when burned. There is a variant which is terebinth resin, from the Pistacia terebinthus, some authors refer to this one as frankincense.
|Khol tube, Brooklyn Museum, NY|
On the Ebers Papyrus several prescriptions use resins as ingredients for treatments. On the ‘Treatise of Tumours’, object of my work Oncology and InfectiousDiseases in ancient Egypt: The Ebers Papyrus? Treatise on Tumours 857-877 andthe cases found in ancient Egyptian human material, incense is prescribed in prescription number 861, and on the section about liver diseases, in prescriptions 477, 478, 479, 480.
The Embalming Ritual, described in two Papyri, dating from the Greco-Roman period, and housed in Cairo: Papyrus Bulaq 3, and at the Louvre, Papyrus 5158, also refers this substance frequently used in mummification procedures.
A new study of both the embalming papyri, by my dear colleague Susanne Töpfer at Heidelberg, is underway.
They used incense oil and fragranced resins; Boswellia africana and arabica was used in the embalmment, as well as the Sudanese Boswellia papyrifera. The used resin worked as glue, so it should be sticky to make the linen bandages to adhere well enough.
|Nakht TT52, Luxor West Bank|
Galen preserves a medical poem where he includes kyphi, translated from Damocrates, and referring to mithridatium or mithridaticum, a prescription semi-mystical with, at least, 65 ingredients, used as an antidote for poisonings. In Isis and Osiris, Plutarch comments about Egyptian priests burning incense three times a day: incense (pure) at dawn, myrrh at noon, and kyphi at sunset. He relates about kyphi’s ingredients, sixteen, «These are composed, not at random, but, while sacred writings are read to perfume holders as they stir the ingredients.» Plutarch adds that the mixture was used as a potion.
All kyphi prescriptions mention wine, honey and raisins. Other ingredients include cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), cassia (Cinnamomum cassia), aromatic rhizomes from cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), cedar, juniper berries, incense resins, myrrh, benzoin resin, extracted mainly from Styrax benzoides and Styrax benzoin, is native to Asia, so it would have been imported to Egypt, and mastic gum (Pistacia lentiscus), mastic or lentisc resin was found in residues inside Egyptian amphorae. Even though, in Egyptian prescriptions there are still unknown ingredients. The result of this mixture was displayed in balls and burnt in hot coal to exhale its’ perfume.
Now, immunologist Mahmoud Suhail from Iraq (Boswellia sacra essential oil induces tumor cell-specific apoptosis and suppresses tumor aggressiveness in cultured human breast cancer cells), is teaming up with more scientists to find out how some agent within frankincense stops cancer spreading, and which induces cancerous cells to close themselves down. "Cancer starts when the DNA code within the cell's nucleus becomes corrupted," he says. "It seems frankincense has a re-set function. It can tell the cell what the right DNA code should be". In his laboratory in Salalah, he extracts the essential oil from locally produced frankincense, then he separates the oil into its constituent agents, such as Boswellic acid.
What was used yesterday with so many applications related to the general well-being of people can now be researched as a probable ingredient for a cure for cancerigenous cells in the people of today and tomorrow.