A Brief History of Frankincense

June 15 2022

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.

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Read more at Lapham’s Quarterly

More about: Ancient Near East, Hebrew Bible, Trade

UN Peacekeepers in Lebanon Risk Their Lives, but Still May Do More Harm Than Good

Jan. 27 2023

Last month an Irish member of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was killed by Hizballah guerrillas who opened fire on his vehicle. To David Schenker, it is likely the peacekeeper was “assassinated” to send “a clear message of Hizballah’s growing hostility toward UNIFIL.” The peacekeeping force has had a presence in south Lebanon since 1978, serving first to maintain calm between Israel and the PLO, and later between Israel and Hizballah. But, Schenker explains, it seems to be accomplishing little in that regard:

In its biannual reports to the Security Council, UNIFIL openly concedes its failure to interdict weapons destined for Hizballah. While the contingent acknowledges allegations of “arms transfers to non-state actors” in Lebanon, i.e., Hizballah, UNIFIL says it’s “not in a position to substantiate” them. Given how ubiquitous UN peacekeepers are in the Hizballah heartland, this perennial failure to observe—let alone appropriate—even a single weapons delivery is a fair measure of the utter failure of UNIFIL’s mission. Regardless, Washington continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into this failed enterprise, and its local partner, the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Since 2006, UNIFIL patrols have periodically been subjected to Hizballah roadside bombs in what quickly proved to be a successful effort to discourage the organization proactively from executing its charge. In recent years, though, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been targeted by the terror organization that runs Lebanon, and which tightly controls the region that UNIFIL was set up to secure. The latest UN reports tell a harrowing story of a spike in the pattern of harassment and assaults on the force. . . .

Four decades on, UNIFIL’s mission has clearly become untenable. Not only is the organization ineffective, its deployment serves as a key driver of the economy in south Lebanon, employing and sustaining Hizballah’s supporters and constituents. At $500 million a year—$125 million of which is paid by Washington—the deployment is also expensive. Already, the force is in harm’s way, and during the inevitable next war between Israel and Hizballah, this 10,000-strong contingent will provide the militia with an impressive human shield.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Hizballah, Lebanon, Peacekeepers, U.S. Foreign policy