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H - 30 : Gaza - Frankincense's Terminal Port

Fishing Boats in the Gaza Port in 2023 before the most recent war

Can’t believe that in one month time we will set foot on the Dragonfly. Seems it was only days ago that we talked to Captain Mustafa and our agent Solenn. Actually, it was last November. Seven months ago. Time to have a look into our original travel plan.

The 2'400 km long Incense Trail from Yemen to Gaza during Roman Time

Had we been able to stick to our plan drafted in 2022, we would have started one week earlier in Alexandria, then sailed to Gaza, from there to Jaffa and eventually to Caesarea where Apostle Paul’s journey started. His boat though came from Egypt, loaded with grain and other valuable goods from Asia.

Gaza and Petra were the main Trading Hubs on the Incense Trail

There was a good chance, that his ship put in at Gaza, the only natural harbor between Alexandria and Caesarea. Where Gaza is today, there were two independent Hellenistic cities just next to each other: Anthedon and Maiuma. Both using small, natural river creeks from the surrounding hills. Both towns were rich. They were the terminal for the famous incense trail that stretched from Arabia Felix (happy Arabia = today’s Yemen) to the Mediterranean. Maybe some Frankincense or some Myrrh could be bought or the locals desired some pepper from India, silk from Persia or pearls form the Gulf.

Caravan in the Western Sahara - A Camel can carry 150 kg and walk 40 km a day

The size of the incense trade is difficult to imagine today. Apparently, over 3’000 tons of frankincense and myrrh resin were produced each year. The milky white sap from both trees was allowed to dry on the tree for a week and then scraped with knives. It takes 20’000 camels to carry 3’000 tons. The distance from Yemen to Gaza is 2’400 km one way. Or 60 days for a camel assuming no break. They could do max 2 round-trips a year. Thus 10’000 camels were needed. Wow! Luckily, about one third of the annual production was shipped to Mesopotamia and Persia. Thus 6’500 camels would suffice. Still a big number. Am sure some of the production was sold to India but could not find any indication. Always wondered why the incense was not shipped by sea but there was probably not enough wood to build ships. Even the Egyptians had to use papyrii boats in the Red Sea.

The 3 Magi on the Vatican's Christmas Stamps for 2021 bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh

Frankincense and Myrrh were mostly used in religious ceremonies. Their strong and distinctive scent masked “bad” odors and “purified” pagan temples. Everybody loved these fumes - the Persians, the Greek, the Romans.  Remember the nativity story in the bible? The three Magi brought gold, myrrh and frankincense to Jesus’ crib. They were as valuable as gold in antiquity. Today, frankincense and myrrh are still used in the catholic and orthodox church. The main events such as Advent, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost are celebrated with burning them. Some people also recommend these incenses as medical remedy for asthma, cancer and bad skin. It is said that frankincense oil promotes a youthful appearance. Am sure their use for medical purposes was wide spread in antiquity. What was good for the goods cannot be bad for human beings.

Boswellia Sacra, the Frankincense Tree, produces a white Sap that can be harvested

The incense trade made the major trading hubs very rich. People often wonder how the Nabateans could afford their elaborate settlement in the middle of the desert. Its wide network of aqaeducts should count as the eights wonder of the world. Even during the hottest summer it provided the town with fresh and cool water.

Petra is an elabroate Oasis in Western Jordan and was once the Home for 20'000 People

Today thousands of tourists admire the old temples and the noble tombs. But true admiration should go to the engineers who brought the precious water to the town for centuries. With adoption of Christianity in the Middle East, the demand for incense dropped dramatically and eventually Petra was deserted. There was no business left that could pay for the maintenance of the elaborate aqueducts. Luckily, the town is in the middle of “nowhere” and thus well preserved.

The Tomb for King Aretas IV )1st Century AD) is one of Petra's best known Monuments

The two towns in Gaza, Anthedon and Maiuma, were less lucky. Due to their strategic location and wealth, they were fought over again and again. The Pharaohs conquered them several times, followed by the Persians, the Jewish Kings, the Romans, followed by the Persians again, then the Arabs in 637 AD, the crusaders, the Arabs again, then the Mamluks, the Ottomans in 1516, Napoleon in 1799, the British in 1917. Gaza's most recent history is well known. It is a place that experienced periods of incredible wealth and terrible violence. On older paintings from the 19th century, Gaza looks like a peaceful city that finally came to rest. Surrounded by olive orchards, it supplied Istanbul with olive oil and had a peaceful existence. From these paintings it is almost inconceivable what happens today.

Tranquil Gaza surrounded by its Olive Orchard in 1839 by David Roberts

With all the war related violence in its history, not much of Gaza’s glorious past has survived. In the 1990s, after the Oslo agreement, excavations on a few sites started. About 4’000 artifacts were found. For safety reasons, the 260 most precious items were brought to Geneva where they still are. Maybe there will be one day an exhibition on Gaza’s past in Switzerland. Who knows.

A few Remains of the Ancient Port of Athedon - excavated in the 1990

A big threat to the ancient sites\ was the town's new found prosperity which kicked in after 1990. Gaza was not as poor as many people believe who describe it as concentration camp. Its vibrant economy caused a construction boom as never seen before. The once famous olive orchards on the hills surrounding Gaza do not exist any longer. They were swallowed by Gaza’s modern suburbs – I call it the Mediterranean Concrete. The few things that were left like Napoleon’s palace (Al-Basha Palace) was bombed in 2023, many classical buildings were bulldozed and the only local museum burnt down.

Contrary to many Reports, Gaza was not a poor and destiture City prior to the 2023 War

Gaza was once much more than a spot in the Hamas-Israel conflict. Whether it is possible to again show its former glory remains to be seen. The 260 saved artifacts are under wrap far away in Switzerland. I hope one day they will be exhibited. War creates hate and makes people poor. Trade and peace create prosperity. Maybe the artifacts will help people to understand this fundamental lesson in history.

A lot of History is lost forever in the most recent War - Hama's use of civil infrastructure and Israel's aerial bombing are the main culprits.




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