Incense in the Arab and Somali culture
By Silvia Adiutori
Incense plays a vital role in the life of Arab and Somali communities across the globe.
Inebriating and often strong in smell, Somali and Arab incense gives every home that exotic je ne sais quoi often admired by locals and foreigners alike.
Popular in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Middle East and Islamic cultures as a whole, this type of incense is called by the Arabs Bakhoor or Bukhoor (بخور).What makes Bakhoor interesting is its material and appearance, which differ from the aromatic incense sticks commonly found in Asia and Western countries.
The origins or Bakhoor date back to the late Middle Ages, when the Queen of Yemen used to send it as a gift to the Muslims in Arabia and Egypt, who adopted this incense on religious occasions and to make homes and shops appealing to visitors. In ancient Egypt, incense served as part of the embalming process to preserve the body after death. Not long after, Bakhoor went as far as the Indian subcontinent and the Roman and Greek territories, where it was primarily used in religious celebrations. Christians also enjoyed using incense during festive holidays and Sunday masses.
Bakhoor is mainly sold in the form of woodchips and small bricks. It consists of a mixture of ingredients commonly found in nature, specifically essential oils of sandalwood and musk blended with natural herbs, frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are resinous substances which are typical of the Arabian Peninsula. The highest quality of Frankincense used in traditional incense bricks and woodchips originates from the Boswelia sacra tree, a plant which grows extensively in Oman but it is also typical of Yemen. Myrrh derives from the Commiphora myrrha tree, which grows in wild, mountainous regions.
The traditional Arabian burner used for Bakhoor is called Majmor or Mabkhara. In recent times people have started using electrical burners as a more practical alternative to traditional Mabkhara.
Arabian incense is also common in Somalia, another region widely influenced by Islamic customs. In the East African nation, frankincense and myrrh have been harvested for thousands of years, making Somalia one of the world’s main exporters of incense. Somali incense is almost exclusively produced in the autonomous region of Somaliland, which borders with Yemen and consists of mountainous areas where frankincense and myrrh are cultivated.
In Somalia and East Africa, incense is commonly burned in the dabqaad, a traditional fire burner made of stone. The Somali version of Bukhoor is called uunsi.
In Arab and Somali households, incense serves various purposes. Frankincense is not just known for its inebriating smell, but also for its deep healing properties. Dissolved in water, it is widely used as a malaria repellent and as a cure for indigestion, nausea, hypertension as well as a post-partum medicine.
Myrrh is known for being a natural remedy against sore throat, inflammation and gastrointestinal conditions.
Despite their renowned medical properties, bakhoor and uunsi are still mainly used to perfume Arabian and Somali homes, especially the living room. It is very common to see Somalis using uunsi when visitors enter the house for the first time.
On a more romantic note, Somali and Arab women often choose incense to create an exotic atmosphere in the bedroom for intimate moments between the couple. On the other hand, people in Oman prefer to use incense directly on themselves and their clothes on a daily basis as part of their grooming routine.