Known in Hebrew as l’vonah, frankincense is mentioned 22 times in the Tanakh, mostly in reference to its use in various Temple rituals—primarily the incense offering, which was considered especially sacred. Elise Vernon Pearlstine explains how this fragrant substance, derived from the resin of a rare tree, is produced, and how it gained its importance for many cultures:
Frankincense trees in the genus Boswellia grow in the coastal areas of the Arabian Peninsula and are the most famous members of the Burseraceae, or torchwood, family. Sparse forests of these trees grow among rocks and sand at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula where monsoon-watered mountains meet dry desert habitats, and they make do with very little. The gift of scent these ancient trees return from their stark habitat is highly sought after and held sacred by many. Highly valued throughout history, frankincense as a trade good was tied to domestication of the camel and development of the Incense Road through the Arabian Peninsula, which brought currency, goods, and progress to the region.
The name frankincense reminds us that it is the very definition of incense; it derives from the old French franc encens, which means pure incense or pure lighting. Aromatic compounds in the resin are produced within the plant’s tissues—protective in nature, they help resist infection by fungus, repel attacks by insects, prevent desiccation, and seal injured tissues. The resin of frankincense is generally light colored and leaks as tears that flow for a bit and then harden and solidify around wounds in the bark of the tree.
From their home between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamians could exchange goods with their neighbors by land and sea. We can be fairly sure that by 1500 BCE a series of caravan routes through the hostile Arabian Peninsula brought incense from the south, where frankincense grew, to intersect with routes of traders that passed through the Fertile Crescent and eastern Mediterranean. As time went on, boats plied the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea to exchange goods from China, the Near and Far East, and southern Arabia to Mesopotamia and Egypt.