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Frankincense and Pearls

Frankincense and Pearls

This map of The Near East, circa 1900, provides information  on the various natural resources and manufactures of every country and are shown in their proper positions, together with the means of transport to the nearest ports, and the various steamer routes connecting these ports with other countries. The distance along each of the sea routes is given, together with other information such as consular representation.

Frankincense - ‘Boswelia Sacra’ - is a hardy tree with flowers of white and yellow petals with a red centre, grown in the Arabian Peninsula. The gum resin is collected by tapping/slashing a cut in to the tree bark, causing the sap to ooze out and drip down the tree. The droplets are left to harden on the tree and then harvested after about two weeks. The aromatic resins of Frankincense have been produced for some 5,000 years. In a biblical sense, Frankincense was often burned, the smoke rising symbolising prayer rising to the heavens. Alternatively Myrrh, which was used in burials as an embalming material to cover the odour of the dead body, often symbolises death.

At the time that this map was produced, in the late nineteenth - early twentieth century, the resins of Frankincense and Myrrh were one of the areas most important commodities to the Arabian Peninsula, in high demand from Europe to Asia. From the harvesting area of Hadramaut, it would be transported overland by camels and up river, by boats and barges, as far north as Babylon, Persia and the Silk Road. Upon reaching the Silk Road Frankincense would be traded for silks and spices from the Far East. Ships to India sailed from Aden to Karachi taking up to 6 days, occasionally to places such as ports in Padang, Sumatra, for example, taking as long as 18 days as stated on this map.

Pearls and the Persian Gulf

Natural pearls, occurring in nature without any intervention from man, before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900’s, were a rare commodity and, as such, these gems were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very rich. The oyster beds of the Persian Gulf are renowned for producing high quality pearls and used as symbols of wealth and power, depending on radiance, lustre and size. Pearls are formed in bivalve molluscs - clams, oysters, mussels and scallops for example - a soft bodied invertebrate that is covered in a two-part hinged shell. Large numbers of bivalve molluscs would have to be gathered by hand from the ocean floor - more than a ton would have to be bought to the surface and opened - to find at least 3-4 quality pearls. A 6mm pearl can take 10 years to form. These rare wild pearls occur naturally throughout the Persian Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

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