Jeffrey Black | Middle East Diaries

In Frankincense Country: Sanaa, 3rd March 2008
March 3, 2008, 4:42 pm
Filed under: Yemen


In a Middle East full of clamour, brash money and noisy politics, there is always the temptation to write Yemen off. It’s the back of beyond, the end of the world, a nowhere, a semi-failed state. Nothing really happens here, or so people told me before my departure. If you could name one world-famous Yemeni, you’d be doing well, others said. Through the diplomatic niceties, even other Arabs look down Yemen, it seems. Apparently, it is the embarrassing cousin of the Arab family, who has an unfortunate habit of showing up for parties blasted on Qat and waving a knife everywhere. If that’s the case, oh dear. Perhaps I oughtn’t to have bothered.

A moment’s pause though. Where are we talking about? What sort of place? There must be other sources other than hearsay. A rustle through the archives, a delve into the files, retrieves some startling descriptions of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula:

From Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s gloss on the second Surah of the Quran, al-Baqarah,

“there was another people called the Sabaeans, who played an important part in the history of early Arabia, and who are known through their inscriptions in an alphabet allied to the Phoenician and Babylonian. They had a flourishing kingdom in the Yemen tract of south Arabia about 800-700 B.C. They worshipped the planets and the stars, the sun, the moon and Venus. Probably the Queen of Sheba is connected with them..they had beautiful stone buildings, in which the pointed arch is noticeable.”

In other words, in a time when the lode-star of Western Civilisation, 5th Century Athens, had yet to appear in the sky, the Sabaeans were refining their built environment and elaborating metaphysical systems based on the movements of the heavens. Indeed, although the meaning of al-Baqarah 62 is not entirely unambiguous, there is reason to believe that the Yemenis were once a chosen people:

“Those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish scriptures, and the Christians, and the Sabians – any who believe in Allah and the last day and work righteousness, shall have their reward.”

Much later than the Sabaeans, the Greeks, in whose wisdom we place so much faith, “discovered” the kingdoms of Yemen for themselves. In the first century AD, the Greeks were pushing out from the omphalos, driven by an impetus that we now find familiar: trade. The wonderfully named Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is one of the original documents that allowed the inhabitants of the west to know what lay beyond the Mediterranean, as it catalogued with fair accuracy the sea conditions, anchorages and characteristics of the lands and peoples found on the sea route between Ptolemaic Egypt and India.

The language of the two thousand-year-old Periplus conveys the same mixture of fear and envy that so much written today about the Arabian peninsula contains: Fear and mistrust of the inhabitants; envy of the natural riches abundant in their land.


“The country inland is peopled by rascally men speaking two languages, who live in villages and nomadic camps, by whom those sailing off the middle course are plundered, and those surviving shipwrecks are taken for slaves. And so they too are continually taken prisoners by the chiefs and kings of Arabia.”

And a rather begrudging description of what makes Arabia worth noting, (to the Greeks), in the first place:

[Here is] “the Frankincense Country, mountainous and forbidding, wrapped in thick clouds and fog, and yielding frankincense from the trees. These incense-bearing trees are not of great height or thickness; they bear the frankincense sticking in drops on the bark, just as the trees among us in Egypt weep their gum.

“The frankincense is gathered by the King’s slaves and those who are sent to this service for punishment. For these places are very unhealthy, and pestilential even to those sailing along the coast; but almost always fatal to those working there, who also perish often from want of food.”

The ‘Frankish Incense’, or lubban as it is known in Arabic, was perhaps the petroleum of the late classical and early middle ages, and the commodity upon which the Sabaean, Himaryite and later Yemeni kingdoms built their wealth and power. Theirs was an early form of resource nationalism, eagerly guarding the secret of frankincense production so that it could be sold at high prices in Europe, where demand was insatiable.

From these two early discoveries, I am beginning to disregard what I have been told about Yemen. It may not be the centre of modern Middle Eastern politics and trade, but evidently, it wasn’t always that way.


3 Comments so far
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You sneaky devil you, you’ve been at this for a while! Well, glad that you got around to sending us all a personalized invite to come on over and see what you’re getting up to here. That’s a lovely pic at the top, by the way – where did you get it from?

Comment by MC

[…] to be found in his first post from […]

Pingback by Yemen: The Frankincense Country

Yemen is a very interesting country. And there is a lot going on there that is relevant to the region and the world.

Comment by jane

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