Why do Catholic churches use incense burners

The pharaohs loved its scent. It flowed through Roman temples, and a few centuries ago it made its way to Germany. The gods faded like the scent. The incense stayed. Its roots can be found in West Africa, India and the south of the Arabian Peninsula.

With a small scraping knife, Musalim Al-Haba, incense harvester in the Sultanate of Oman, carefully removes the outer layer of bark from the gnarled tree. The old man with the sparkling brown eyes starts a song. It's about a beautiful girl. His father, grandfather and his forefathers already scraped the bark from this tree in the southern mountainous region of the country.

Small white pearls well up from the palm-sized, green tree wounds. In a good two weeks, the surface will be covered by solid drops of resin. Musalim harvests white, light brown and darker pieces of resin from older wounds. They lie like rock candy in his tin bowl. The bright ones are considered particularly pure. A kilo costs around 40 marks on the market in the nearest port city of Salalah.

As a boy of around ten, Musalim moved to the incense trees. At six o'clock in the morning because the midday heat in southern Arabia always forces you to take a long break. His age today? “Between 70 and 80 years. Write 75 ”, a mischievous smile crosses the tanned face.

Years ago he and his wife harvested the resin from around 25 of the wild incense trees that biologists call Boswellia sacra. The two to five meters high, protruding plants are widely distributed in the stony mountains of the Dhofar province. On average, a tree gives off around half a kilo per harvest. The incense was transported by camels to Salalah in two days. They came back with clothes and food.

A few millennia ago traders weighed the resin with gold. It was and is relatively rare, has medicinal qualities, smells good and burns well - ideal conditions for a career in all cultures. Even in Babylon the white smoke rose to the sky. The gods "swarmed like flies to the altar" as soon as they smelled the lovely scent, as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh says. The resin was considered to be the blood of the tree, it was something living, divine.

Frankincense became an export hit in South Arabia, primarily through the taming of the camel in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. With this idiosyncratic, but desert-compatible means of transport, journeys were made that were previously impossible due to lack of water. One of the most important trade routes of antiquity - the route from southern Arabia via Medina to the Mediterranean Sea - was named the Frankincense Route after the most valuable asset. For thousands of years the 3,500 kilometers were fiercely contested.

Probably the most famous and legendary trade expedition in this area was conducted in the 10th century BC. A woman: the queen of Sheba. "With a very large retinue, with camels carrying balm, a huge amount of gold and precious stones, she entered Solomon", as the Bible (1st book of kings, chap. 10) reports. According to Pliny, the Roman historian, the journey took 65 days. The caravan from southern Arabia to Jerusalem also had large quantities of pure frankincense in its luggage.

However, the queen was not the first famous woman to appreciate the scent of incense. Even the pharaoh Hatshepsut had in the 15th century BC Ships from Egypt sent to the legendary Frankincense Land of Punt. To this day it is not known exactly where it was - was it Somalia, Eritrea, South Arabia? The men came back with fresh incense resin and all kinds of precious woods. They also brought incense trees with them, but they failed to plant. In Egypt, incense was not only sacred, people burned it to improve the air, mixed it with oil to make valuable balm, and chewed the resin against bad breath. Tutankhamun was placed in the grave with incense.

White plumes rose in the temples of Rome too. Hippocrates and other Greco-Roman doctors cleaned wounds with frankincense, treated respiratory diseases and digestive problems - its anti-inflammatory effects are now medically proven.

The early Christians, on the other hand, had a hard time with incense for centuries - for them it was too associated with the worship of Roman gods. The gifts of the three holy kings - gold, frankincense and myrrh - did not help either. This combination of gifts is an indication that the wise men came from southern Arabia. Because the three substances were among the most valuable commercial goods in this area. Some historians also see incense as a symbol of the sonship of Jesus, because the Old Testament already connects this fragrance with the divine.

In the Sultanate of Oman, the land of frankincense par excellence, the resin is primarily used for profane purposes today. A fragrance flows through ministries and houses, much finer and lighter than it flows from the incense curlers of the Catholic churches. The traders in the markets attract customers with the smoke that rises from small clay burners: square or round vessels in which the resin melts next to glowing coal and dissolves in smoke.

Incense Harvester Musalim now has a comfortable house in the town of Thumrait in the mountains of Dhofar. A tarred road leads to Salalah. And Musalim drives to the incense harvest in a jeep - mostly only when tourists want it.

The couple has six sons, a daughter and at least 15 grandchildren. But nobody wants to get their hands dirty with the resin anymore. "You'd rather sit at your desk." Who will harvest the incense in the future? "Maybe Somalis," says Musalim. In Somalia, as in the times of the pharaohs, the resin is still extracted from similar trees. But a Somali guest worker does not know the Omani plants, says Musalim. "Many trees will die because the Somalis don't know how to handle them."

Women from Somalia are already selling the incense at the souk in Salalah. Tourists take small bags with them to their home countries - to Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands. As the most important export item, crude oil has long since replaced the resin that was once so coveted. It no longer has any direct economic significance, says Hamed Al-Rashdi, State Secretary in Oman's Ministry of Information. "Its value lies in the fact that it attracts tourists." In contrast to Ethiopian and Somali incense, the resin from Oman hardly plays a role on the world market in terms of quantity, but is still considered to be of particularly high quality. The Omanis buy the largest quantities themselves. They love fragrances, and they also burn sandalwood and myrrh.

Even in some taxis, the smell of incense rises up in the nose. The drivers use the cigarette lighter in their cars to dissolve the resin into smoke. In the houses, clothes lie over a pyramid-like frame, underneath an incense burner. Some men stand directly above the small clay pot so that the smoke flows through their robes, the dishdasha, and emerges from their necks and sleeves like a chimney.

Frankincense can also be used to neutralize kitchen odors. "Frankincense has no mystical meaning for people," emphasizes Ahmed Muscati, former head of the German-Omani Society. "Frankincense doesn't chase away devils." Some families dissolve a special resin in water overnight and make a drink for stomach ache.

It is said again and again that frankincense contains THC, the substance that makes hemp a drug. But scientists were unable to detect THC in smoke, or only in tiny amounts. What is certain is that the boswellic acids, together with other ingredients in the resin, help against inflammation. Prof. Herrmann Ammon from the University of Tübingen also demonstrated an antibiotic substance. According to Ammon, there is also evidence that frankincense extract helps fight arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn's disease, and asthma. However, the doctor warns against the uncontrolled ingestion of frankincense, as other substances in it can aggravate the diseases.

In Germany, the Harz ends up in large shipping containers in the port of Hamburg. The 50-kilo sacks are piled up to the roof of the eight-meter-high warehouse in the southeast of the Hanseatic city - next to guar gum, a natural thickener for bread, and dried algae preparations. The natural products trade C. E. Roeper imports 600 tons of the tree resin annually, mainly from Ethiopia and Somalia, but also India, Eritrea and very little from Oman. “Frankincense from the sultanate is so expensive that it is hardly widespread in Europe, says sales manager Rüdiger Dreyer. He sells the majority to South America and the Balkans, where Christians burn the resin, and to North Africa. "The traders in North Africa prefer to buy goods in Germany than from neighboring African countries."

Only a few tons a year go to the Catholic Church in Germany - often colored black with food coloring because some pastors prefer black grains to natural colored ones. Roeper also has a colorful mixture of red, green and yellow resin chips on offer. The natural products trade also mixes myrrh and other resins, as well as sandalwood or lavender, depending on the clergy's preference.

The esoteric and natural food trade sells even smaller quantities. The incense cones popular at Christmas usually contain little real incense. Incense sticks consist mainly of wood flour to which fragrances are added. Frankincense is banned from Protestant churches today. Luther did not expressly forbid incense, but neither did he regard it as a necessary accessory for worship. Up until the 19th century it was still customary to smoke incense at high festivals in a few Protestant churches.

In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, incense is an integral part of a particularly festive festival production, even if some churchgoers tend to feel fogged by the heavy smoke. The candles are burning, the organ is sounding, hands are held out to greet the peace, there is bread and wine, and acolytes swing the censer. On high feast days - in some Bavarian churches also every Sunday - the Catholic Church appeals to all the senses, even the little noticed but so important sense of smell for the emotional world. Perhaps this is why incense unconsciously reminds many people of festive hours of childhood. And maybe there is a mystery in why this fragrance survived so many gods.