Frankincense, one of the gifts bestowed upon the newborn baby Jesus by the biblical Magi (the Three Wise Men), has been used throughout history—not only as a pungent incense for religious rituals and ceremonies but also as a natural remedy for a wide range of ailments. Once considered a priceless ancient substance, frankincense is attracting new attention from medical scientists.

The word “frankincense” comes from an old French word meaning “pure incense.” It is a dried aromatic resin obtained from the Boswellia tree. It has several main species: Boswellia serrata in India, Boswellia carteri in East Africa, Boswellia frereana in Somalia, and Boswellia sacra in the Arabian peninsula, particularly in Oman. Each kind of Boswellia tree produces a slightly different type of resin, depending on the climate and the soil.

Frankincense is extracted from Boswellia trees through superficial markings on its bark that allow a gummy sap to ooze out from the tree trunk.  After a couple of weeks, the resin hardens enough to be scraped off and collected.

Frankincense, once worth its weight in gold, has a multitude of uses beyond fragrant incense. It has been used throughout history for medicinal purposes, especially in treating chronic inflammatory diseases, improving blood circulation, and relieving pain.

Currently, frankincense is attracting significant attention from medical researchers and scientists, due to some of its substances containing several possible health benefits. These are said to include “controlling bleeding, speeding up the wound-healing process, improving oral health, fighting inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, and improving uterine health.”

A 2016 study by the University of Leicester found that AKBA, a chemical compound in frankincense, was effective in the eradication of ovarian cancer cells. Another study, published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2009, concluded that “frankincense oil appears to distinguish cancerous from normal bladder cells and suppress[es] cancer cell viability.” These studies, as promising as they sound, require further clinical testing on humans before they can be considered viable and safe cancer treatments.

Frankincense, a Gift to the Newborn Jesus, Still Does Wonders.

Omani frankincense, collected in Dhofar governorate in southern Oman, is known for its superior quality. The amount of frankincense produced there is estimated at 7,716 tons per year. There are four types of Omani frankincense, each corresponding to the four geographical regions in Dhofar: Hoojri, Najdi, Shathari, and Shaabi.

Oman has traded frankincense with many nations in Asia, Africa, and Europe for thousands of years, so much so that cities and ports were built around the frankincense trail and wealth. Khor Rori near Salalah, Oman, part of the Land of Frankincense, and the ancient Cana Port in Yemen are two examples of Omani World Heritage sites related to the ancient trade of luxurious frankincense.

Frankincense holds a special place in Omani traditions and culture, and Omanis use it in their daily activities. They burn frankincense as incense in their homes and offices to welcome guests, purify the air, freshen their clothes, and repel mosquitoes and flies. Omanis even use frankincense to cool water during summer.

Frankincense smoke is still used to bless children in the Arabian peninsula,  bringing to mind “an ancient custom dating back at least 2,000 years [before] Islam.” Burned as incense, frankincense is a method of purifying and cleansing newborn children in Yemen, as well as warding away evil spirits.

Among Moroccans, frankincense is in high demand. The price of one gram of Omani frankincense in Morocco runs somewhere between MAD 100 and MAD 120 — or about $12. Aside from using it as incense flavoring for Moroccan green tea, Moroccans turn to frankincense to rid themselves of health problems, particularly ones related to the digestive system.

Most Moroccan cities have “medinas,” city centers with souks teeming with cobblers, food, rugs, clothes, and more. It is also where herbalists will sell their frankincense and tell customers about its benefits. Abderrahim, an herbalist in the medina of Rabat (Morocco’s capital), told Inside Arabia:

“Frankincense is [also] an important element in strengthening and improving memory and preventing memory loss as well as enhancing sexual ability and desire.”

“Frankincense is [also] an important element in strengthening and improving memory and preventing memory loss as well as enhancing sexual ability and desire.”

The Omani frankincense tree, which produces the most expensive frankincense in the world, is under threat of extinction. Despite authorities’ efforts to overcome this environmental problem through planting more than 600 trees in the Dhofar region, the number of frankincense trees is in dramatic decline because of overharvesting, unsustainable practices, and consecutive years of drought.

The revival of the ancient Omani frankincense trail is greatly dependent on both the preservation of this natural heritage and modern medicine’s ability to prove and promote its efficacy and health benefits.

Extensive human clinical trials and studies—on both the role of frankincense in curing a wide range of diseases and conditions and its possible side effects—could be a worthwhile approach to start the journey of reviving an ancient source of wealth and health.