Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Trade between Arabia and the Empires of Rome and Asia

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  • Frankincense and myrrh, highly prized in antiquity as fragrances, could only be obtained from trees growing in southern Arabia, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Arab merchants brought these goods to Roman markets by means of camel caravans along the Incense Route. The Incense Route originally commenced at Shabwah in Hadhramaut, the easternmost kingdom of South Arabia, and ended at Gaza, a port north of the Sinai Peninsula on the Mediterranean Sea. Both the camel caravan routes across the deserts of Arabia and the ports along the coast of South Arabia were part of a vast trade network covering most of the world then known to Greco-Roman geographers as Arabia Felix. South Arabian merchants utilized the Incense Route to transport not only frankincense and myrrh but also spices, gold, ivory, pearls, precious stones, and textiles—all of which arrived at the local ports from Africa, India, and the Far East. The geographer Strabo compared the immense traffic along the desert routes to that of an army. The Incense Route ran along the western edge of Arabia’s central desert about 100 miles inland from the Red Sea coast; Pliny the Elder stated that the journey consisted of sixty-five stages divided by halts for the camels. Both the Nabataeans and the South Arabians grew tremendously wealthy through the transport of goods destined for lands beyond the Arabian Peninsula.


    Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Lands dominating the incense trade.