The origin of incense: a perfumed travel

The origin of the incense dates back thousands of years: a raw material from the East, incense is also an ancient ritual where perfume was burned

When we talk about incense in perfumery, our imagination often takes us to a sacred temple or church, or to an oriental market with powerful and enveloping smells. Used as an ingredient for body fragrances as a scented ritual to perfume your home, incense is full of mysteries and symbols… To understand the origin of incense and its secrets, we must begin a millennial journey. Let’s return to the roots of this gods’ perfume, which became a scented gesture that crossed ages and borders.

Raw material or home fragrance?

Both actually! Originally, incense is a raw material used in perfumery. True incense comes from tree resin found in parts of Africa, the Middle East or India. Since the dawn of time, people have burned this resin to enjoy its warm and amber fragrance. From the Latin word incendere (burning), incense also defines more generally all the woods, the gums and the plants which release a smell while being burned. That is why we commonly say today to burn incense. This incense can then take different shapes and dress up with multiple fragrances.

Incense, origin of a sacred fragrance

An history as old as the hills

The history of incense begins more than 6000 years ago. It matches with the appearance of the first great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Since its origin, incense is considered as one of the first fragrant materials to have been used by humans. It was found especially in the ingredients of balms that were used for the mummification of Egyptians. It was also burned in the temples to communicate with the deities.

Sacred or secular rites, the fumigation of incense continues in the Roman and Greek worlds, until modern times. It is still used in censers during religious ceremonies. This is why the smell of incense is often associated with churches. In the West, these are places where it is still used as the only scented raw material. Incense is also mentioned more than twenty times in the Bible as well as in the Koran, and it was one of the gifts (with gold and myrrh) offered by the Magi to the baby Jesus.

Legends and origins of incense

According to an old legend, a queen lost her kingdom following the attack of her enemies. In her escape, crying her eyes out, she asked god for a gift to console her for the loss of her children and her lands. So everywhere her tears flowed, trees with fragrant gums began to grow. This legend would explain the appearance of incense trees. The oliban, the other name of the incense, corresponds to the resins of the boswellia tree family. They grow only in the mountainous and arid regions of Africa, as in Ethiopia. They are also found in the southern Arabian Peninsula in Yemen or Oman.

Arabia Felix: happy Arabia. That is how the Romans nicknamed the South of the peninsula, rich and fertile region and land of origin of the precious boswellia. There are various varieties of this tree, whose extracted resin does not offer the same olfactory properties.

A perfume of Orient

Let’s start our trip to Oman on the Arabian Peninsula. In the city of Salalah, it is easy to lose yourself in the narrow and bursting aisles of the old souk of Al-Husn. Look where you are walking not to stumble on the bags filled with incense stones scattering on the floor and in the stalls. Look up and admire the great range of colors before your eyes: red, white, amber or bluish green gums pile up on all sides. Now, it is the turn of your nostrils to be titillated. The smoke that emanates from the burners in clay or copper creates a balsamic, resinous and terpene scent.

Welcome to the paradise of incense trade! You will find various varieties of resins whose prices change completely according to their origin and quality. Nearby, the essences are extracted to make fragrant preparations. The essential oil that comes from the incense resin at the origin, allows to create bewitching scented mixtures. We add oud wood, sandalwood or other plants to perfume the skin and the house. Your senses in turmoil, you leave the souk. But this scent will escort you everywhere. You can smell it on your clothes and on your hair to better envelop you with its warmth.

The warm and amber notes of incense are at the heart of our mysterious and enchanting eau de parfum 555. A tender and virile fragrance that will take you to far-off scented landscapes…

The art of harvesting: an ancestral method

Do not be surprised to smell this perfume throughout the Dhofar region, in the hammams or at the entrance of the houses to welcome visitors. For thousands of years, South of Oman has been one of the cradles of incense. A few kilometers from the shores of the Arabian Sea and the Yemen border, sacred trees grow everywhere. At first glance, they could make us think of olive trees… But this is the boswellia sacra, the incense tree.

The whitish trunk of the tree hides a real goldmine. To get it, you have to make an incision in the bark. The liquid that flows out slowly turns into “tears” under the influence of air, heat and sun. The sap is then collected and left to rest for a few days. This operation is repeated three times a year. The tree is then “resting” for the next 3 years. This savoir-faire known for millennia is handed down from generation to generation. The best trees can provide between 3 and 10 kilos of incense resin depending on the crop.

The incense road

Used for over 6 millennia in all civilizations, incense has long been transported by caravan from the Queen of Sheba’s land. By the way, this one had offered a large amount of precious incense to King Solomon. At the origin, the incense road linked the production areas, of which the Sultanate of Oman is still a part, to various places where the resin was consumed: in Egypt, in Jerusalem and among Mediterranean civilizations. This path was in fact a network of trade routes covering more than 2000 kilometers to facilitate the passage of caravans carrying incense and myrrh. This trade has flourished for more than a century and paved the way for many other exchanges. We brought back all kinds of perfumed spices, ebony and silk from India. And from East Africa, trade was also made with gold, rare woods and animal feathers.

Flourishing, the incense trade still leaves a trail today. Only twenty years ago, the vestige of the city of Ubar in North of Salalah were found. At the gates of the desert, the archaeological site still shows the wealth of its inhabitants and the ingenuity of the irrigation systems of the time. Nicknamed Atlantis of the Sands by Lawrence of Arabia, the commercial city probably had to see leaving many caravans of incense through the dunes.

But this road was not fixed. To avoid paying heavy taxes, the paths have often changed. The Romans used the sea route. They passed through the Red Sea not to give the Bedouins gold and silver for spices or incense.

The origin of the incense comes from the south of the Arabian Peninsula in particular where we find the incense tree, the boswellia sacra
On the left is the “final material”, the incense resin that was collected by making an incision in the boswellia bark in the center, which flowed to form “tears” on the right.

Burn incense, an ancient ritual

As we have seen above, the origin of incense also refers to the practice of burning or heating a material that will give off a pleasant smell. This act of fumigation is certainly the first form of perfume that man has known. Indeed, since always, on all the continents, the people proceeded to fumigations to communicate with their gods, to treat themselves and to heighten their level of consciousness.

Shapes and fragrances, as many diversities as cultures

There are as many shapes and fragrances to burn as there are countries and cultures. Indeed, the preparation of the incense can vary from one country to another and have different functions and virtues according to the beliefs. There are two main categories of forms: those that are shaped by the man and the second that remains in the raw state. Among them, we burn resins like oliban, our real incense, which will produce a perfumed steam oil. We also think of wood splinters or some spices. These scents to burn are simply reduced to powder and sometimes added essential oils. These are the simplest and oldest forms used for fumigation, which is usually done using a burning coal.

On the other side there are more recent versions of incense with stem or cones. There are even incense balls, made from the perfumed product mixed with honey, molasses or confit of fruit. In Japan, incense is used to develop the art of smell in the Kôdô and they “listen” incense according to the season. It has an aesthetic aspect of course, but it also associates with spirituality in agreement with the spirit of Zen. Unlike Indian incense, it emits few smokes. For Tibetan monks, incense is an integral part of the practice of meditation. In Nepal, incense is enclosed in a rice paste that is shaped like a cord to ignite its ends.

The smoke that heals

Sacred rite originally, the incense has also been associated with various therapeutic virtues. In ancient Egypt, Greece or China, the oliban resin was used to treat liver and lung diseases or to facilitate healing. It even seems that some incense have an anti-bacterial action. In India, even beggars in the street have their stems of incense to heal and devote themselves to their deities. Everyone uses incense according to their own beliefs and experiences. To purify the house, to sleep better, to give oneself energy or, on the contrary to calm down… Just as many rituals to practice with the perfume of your choice to feel in harmony.

From India to your sofa

The origin of the incense is also found in Indian culture and spirituality. And it is not surprising that Indian incense is certainly the most common in the world. They usually have the shape of a stem. There are several techniques for making this stick, which depend on the properties and scents that we want to give them.

At Carrément Belle, we have our heart and nose set on perfuming for over 30 years. Always listening to your inspired ideas, we heard your wish to find at home the perfume that sticks to your skin. Ten years ago, we get a foot on the home fragrances ladder by creating our scented incenses. In their colorful cases that form a real olfactory and decorative bouquet, our incense is the witness to a real know-how. The perfume is first made in Grasse. It will then begin its journey to India where it will be manually filled and blown on the home-produced rattan stems, without glue or dye, a guarantee of natural.

To conclude this trip all over the world, all you need to do is to light your stem, wait a few seconds and blow gently on the flame. Now it is time to sit comfortably, to inspire and let the fragrance take you to sweet scented dreams…

Did you know the origin of the incense and the difference between the raw material and the perfume to burn? Do you usually perfume your home with these precious stems?

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