Incense-burner by Unknown Sabaen artist

Unknown Sabaen artist

Incense-burner, 2nd century BCE–1st century BCE, Limestone, 9.5 x 10 cm, The British Museum, London, 1915,0710.6, Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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Incense and Presence

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This small painted limestone incense burner, measuring roughly 10 cm on each side, comes from Yemen, historically a major centre of incense production and trade. It is of a traditional type widely used from the late fifth century BCE to the first century BCE.

On its top, darkened by use, is a shallow recess for burning, and listed on its sides are Sabaic words for four aromatic substances: rnd dhb ncm qst. These terms describe specific resins, barks, roots, and plants according to their colour and ‘sweetness’. Similar burners name different substances: so far thirteen nouns have been recorded (Robin 1994: 25–30), and whilst their identification is problematic, their variety offers a glimpse into the importance of perfumes in the ancient world. Although we commonly use the word incense (‘that which is burnt’), the term is generic, and was applied to a number of aromatics, often blended together.

In Exodus 30, God gives strict directives for the composition of the sacred anointing-oil and the most holy and exclusive incense to be burnt ‘in the tent of meeting, where I shall meet you’ (v.36 NRSV). The blend specifies stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense, ground to a powder and mixed with salt. Stacte, galbanum and frankincense are botanical resins, whilst the mysterious onycha, much debated, has recently been shown to be derived from the opercula of the shell murex, a by-product of the dye industry for purple and tekhelet (biblical blue). Yarns dyed purple and blue are prescribed in Exodus for the textiles of the Tabernacle (26:36; 27:16) and the high priest’s garments (28:5). Chemical analysis of burnt opercula shows substances essential for fixing the smell of incense and effective for purification purposes.

Thus, God delights in incense that is (in the words of the eucharistic offertory prayer) both ‘fruit of the earth’, and the ‘work of human hands’. In burning it, we offer Him thanks and praise.

But in offering this praise we must also be mindful of the ecological and social stewardship God has entrusted to us. If the ancient trade in aromatics came with an environmental and a human cost, nowadays the very survival of Boswelia sacra (the tree that yields frankincense) is under threat as its habitat suffers the impacts of frequent conflict and environmental damage.



Benkendorff, Kirsten. 2017. ‘Modern Science Tackles a Biblical Secret—The Mystery Ingredient in Holy Incense, 12 December 2017’,, [accessed 21 August 2019]

Robin, Christian. 1994. ‘Les plantes aromatiques que brûlaient les Sabéens’, in Parfums d’Arabie, Saba. Arts—Littérature—Histoire—Arabie méridionale 1 (Aix-en-Provence), pp. 25–30

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