One of the three gifts offered to baby Jesus, frankincense is a fragrant resin that is found in some of the world’s harshest places— Oman, Yemen, and Somalia. The spindly trees themselves are actually disappointing to behold. They are lowly, twisted, thorny things with fat prickly branches spreading out into small crinkly leaves.

Yet as soon as an incision is made into the silvery bark, brilliant drops of white resin ooze from the wound. These drops, known as luban, are left on the tree for two weeks to dry. Then the little pearls are gathered in the early morning. From Rome to India, frankincense was deemed one of the most prized substances in the civilized world, worth its weight in gold. It was essential for a host of uses, ranging from religious to cosmetic to medicinal. Besides a lovely fragrance, frankincense is attributed with healing powers, which range from treatment of depression and irritability to physical ailments such as eczema.

Frankincense was also used to embalm corpses. When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened in 1922, one of the sealed flasks still released the scent even after 3,300 years! In fact, ancient records report that embalmers of old did not fall prey to the diseases from which their clients died. Much later, during the time of the Black Death in England, it was also noted that perfumers seemed to be immune to plague. This could be why Arabic doctors made sure that their clothes were strongly scented with frankincense when they visited patients. According to ancient documents, frankincense was used in staggering quantities—the annual consumption of incense in the temple of Baal at Babylon was 2.5 tons!

The frankincense trade peaked in the Roman Empire in the first century. Nero burned it by the ton at religious ceremonies. To supply the copious need, this rare resin had to be carried overland via long and incredibly grueling journeys. Eventually, the incense caravans grew in size to 3,000 camels in one procession! Even today, satellite images still reveal faint traces of these ancient caravan trails carved in the wilderness. The trade was so lucrative that Alexander the Great planned to invade Arabia in an effort to control and tax the roads, a plan thwarted only by his death.

While frankincense is a wonderful fragrance, and appears to have some medical value, it’s great worth was attached more to its religious purposes. You see, the majority of the great civilizations in the ancient world believed that their prayers could only be carried to heaven in the smoke of this sacred incense. No wonder they would pay a king’s ransom for the powder. The Bible also teaches that there is one true vehicle that will transport our prayers to heaven.

Romans 8:26 “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”