As any visitor to the Middle East can tell you, this is a region intent on bringing some of its traditional practices as it rockets along its chosen path to modernisation. Take the Middle East’s long love affair with incense as a key part of any local celebrations in the Middle East.
Incense is a slow-burning combination of plant-based materials, which includes fragrant woods, hardened plant sap, and a heady mix of essential oils. When lit, this combination of incense ingredients emits a distinctive fragrant smoke.
Once the incense “catches” the initial flame quickly dies. In its wake, a smouldering ember catalyzes the incense in a delicate slow burn, teasing the senses with its fragrant smoky plumes.
IGNITING PASSIONS & EMOTIONS
Local celebrations in the Middle East employs incense to evoke deep emotional states and sentiment. This transcends the mere physical manifestation of its scent. As any visitor strolling through an ancient spice souq from Muscat to Dubai can attest, incense here is an almost mystical experience.
Even today, incense is used in meditation as an active agent to bring alertness of mind and help cleanse practitioners of distracting thoughts. Thus, incense has become a revered staple in religious and spiritual practices in the Middle East as both a means of cleansing the body and sanctifying a physical space.
THE IMPORTANCE OF INCENSE IN LOCAL CELEBRATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST:
INCENSE’S PLACE IN HISTORY
This subtle combination of biotic materials unlocks a complex array of scents. The word “incense” itself is derived from the Latin word “incendere”, which translates as “to burn”. Incense is also closely tied to the Latin word “incensus”, which means, “to cause a passion or emotion to become aroused”.
In Islam, the act of cleansing the body is a precursor to prayer, while sanctifying a prayer room is equally as essential, even if that prayer room is to be found inside Dubai’s ultra-modern Mall of the Emirates.
Incense also expresses a sense of reverence and helps devotees connect with the sublimely divine. Fragrant smoke from incense enjoys the remarkable property of creating a spiritual atmosphere, which spans a range of uses, from priming a personal or religious space to preparing a pious practitioner for prayer.
Moreover, in the Middle East, the lingering presence of incense is seen as imbuing one’s household celebration with a sense of transcendent joy and happiness.
INCENSE: AN ESSENTIAL ADORNMENT
Today, incense is integral to family and local celebrations in the Middle East. Respected guests visiting a local home will usually find a metal incense burner trailing its plumes of sweetly scented smoke.
Travelers seeking their own supply of this exotic incense need only venture as far as their local souq to encounter a host of small stands selling incense. Each vendor inevitably promotes their wares through a metal incense burner emitting its own trademark fingers of delicate smoke wafting gracefully into the air.
INCENSE IN PRAYER AND RITUAL
Incense has a long and evocative history in prayer and cultural rituals. From its deep roots in China, India, and Japan, incense made its way across the winding Silk Road to the Middle East, where it is a mainstay of religious practices and celebrations.
In the Middle East, incense is frequently burned prior to prayer as a means to purify the air and create the right conditions associated with Islam’s venerable practices.
Who when visiting a mosque could ever forget the distinctive scent of burning incense? What could be a more vivid connection between the consciousness of the faithful and their daily prayers?
During the holy month of Ramadan, a staggering amount of incense sticks is sold across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest importers of incense and oud, a traditional Arabian scent.
Much of this imported incense comes from Southeast Asia, particularly India and Cambodia. Trading in incense in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, and Kuwait are active all year round, but for Ramadan and the two Eid festivals, there is a significant spike in incense imports.
Aside from Ramadan celebration, incense is used extensively during traditional Arabian family events such as elaborate local weddings. Even today, oud and other blends of incense represent an unbroken link between history and tradition and a very powerful and contemporary present for Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, and Omanis.
RAMADAN AND EID TAKE INCENSE TO NEW HEIGHTS
For many Gulf citizens, and to a lesser degree other Arab communities, incense is a “must have” on their shopping lists for Ramadan and the two Eid celebrations.
The best quality incense comes from trees often hundreds of years old mostly found in large forests in India, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Collecting the raw ingredients for traditional incense from these forests can be dangerous as they are home to poisonous snakes such as cobras, adders, and vipers. This makes tree felling in the name of incense a very dangerous and fraught occupation.
FRANKINCENSE, MYRRH, AND OUD CONNECT DOWN THE CENTURIES
Closer to home, Oman produces locally sourced frankincense and myrrh. Both frankincense and myrrh are derived from tree sap and are popular ingredients in incense used in most typical local celebrations in the Middle East.
Sharing tea with a stand owner in a souq, a visitor will quickly learn that the distinctive fragrance of frankincense comes from a milky white resin extracted from a species of the “Boswellia”tree. This tree thrives in the arid, cool areas of the Arabian Peninsula.
That same vendor will point with pride to their display of myrrh a reddish resin that comes from the “Commiphora myrrha” tree which has jostled with frankincense since biblical times for a dominant place in traditional incense blends.
However, no journey through an Arabian incense market is complete without a detour to understand oud’s place in Middle East’s incense cosmos. Oud is one of the most expensive incense ingredients in the world. Naturally, it is one of the most endearingly popular in the Middle East.
Oud gives off an intoxicating musky scent that exerts its presence even in synthetic form misted out in the gleaming, futuristic Mall of the Emirates. Oud’s warm sweetness is often mixed with woody elements and balsam creating a distinctive scent. This scent lingers in the air and forms an essential part of any local celebration in the Middle East.