The Roads to Riches

Part of the Petra exhibition.

Decorated incense altar Limestone Khirbet et-Tannur, Jordan1st century ADObtained largely for trade, incense also had a place in Nabataean ritual. Laboratory analysis has shown that this Nabataean shrine contains residue of frankincense, a tree resin burned during worship. This altar was perhaps used to honor the storm god Qaws, depicted with Winged Victories on the altar's sides. An inscription refers to a person called [Alexa]ndros Amrou, a mixture of Greek and Nabataean names, revealing an intermingling of the two cultures in Petra.Khirbet et-Tannur Excavations, 1937, Department of Antiquities, Amman, Jordan and the American School of Oriental Research, Jerusalem, Israel
Photo: © Cincinnati Art Museum; Photographer: Peter John Gates FBIPP, ARPS, Ashwell, UK

The sweet-smelling allure of frankincense and myrrh beckoned traders to haul these fragrant products north from southern Arabia as early as about 700 BC. Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians were among the biggest consumers of these gum resins, burning them as incense for funerals and worship. They also used these substances as medicine. The Nabataeans became rich by acquiring control of the Arabian incense trade by about 100 BC, when a single camel-load of commodities bound for market would bring about $4,000 in profits in today's currency.

Trade with Asia also filled Petra's coffers. China produced silk, and India exported spices, pearls, ivory, gemstones, and fine textiles as well as raw materials and foods such as rice. In addition to trekking overland, the Nabataeans and other traders later traveled by sea to and from Asia. Once again, the profit margin was quite high on the goods they imported.