Hand-crafted Mabakhir (incense burners).

More precious than gold is the sandalwood oud (incense) that Saudis burn in hand-crafted mabakhir (incense burners) as a gesture of hospitality and respect for guests in their home. Like the cardamom-flavored coffee served in small cups or the sweet dates offered to guests, incense has long been part of the art of hospitality practiced in Saudi homes.

For centuries, incense derived from sandalwood, musk, jasmine, amber, frankincense and myrrh has been a precious commodity in many parts of the world. Ancient merchants transported their valuable cargo in caravans along the spice routes from the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and from southeast Asia to be sold in the souqs (markets) of Arabia and beyond. Today, little has changed. Incense produced in Oman, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and other countries is still to be found in Saudi souqs.

Incense is burned in hand-crafted mabakhir (incense burners) to welcome guests.

Incense has not become any less precious over the centuries. In ancient days, merchants risked much to travel far along dangerous routes to collect high prices for their goods. While no longer a hazardous occupation, traders still reap significant rewards. Current prices range from 4,546 Saudi riyals (1,212 U.S. dollars) per pound up to 22,727 riyals (6,060 dollars) per pound for the more rare varieties, such as sandalwood, thus truly making incense more precious than gold. Saudi Arabia is the biggest importer of sandalwood in the Gulf, with nearly 500 tons sold annually for more than 2.5 billion riyals (667 million dollars). Other less rare varieties range from 114 riyals (31 dollars) per pound to 6,818 riyals (1,818 dollars).

Traditionally, one of the largest producers of oud was India. In order to conserve a finite resource, however, that country has banned the harvesting of these trees. As the oud tree is not grown anywhere except in limited parts of Asia, the price of the wood and its extracts has remained high.

Vendors sell incense at souqs throughout Saudi Arabia.

Raw oud, which is wood from the oud tree, is used as incense. The oil, called dehn al-oud, is used as perfume. Oud takes 300 years to form in the trunks of trees contaminated by a particular bacteria. The best quality oud breaks easily and contains water. This variety will give off the best fragrance when burned and can be recognized by the bubbles that appear. When burned over hot coal, solid oud releases a stronger, but pleasing fragrance.

The practice of burning incense, also known as bakhour, is almost as old as civilization itself. During pre-Islamic times, oud was used in religious ceremonies to honor deities as well as to ward off evil spirits. This practice was common in the ancient Middle East, North Africa and the Meditteranean world. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and the Pharaohs in Egypt all used the sweet aroma in religious ceremonies and to ensure good fortune.

Mabakhir are part of the decor in traditional homes, as well as modern ones.

Frankincense and myrrh, produced in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, were also widely used in early medicine. The Greeks and Romans used these two extracts as remedies for a variety of ailments including bruises, chest pains, hemorrhages, ulcers, abscesses and toothaches, and in the case of myrrh, as an antidote to certain poisons. Either burned near the patient so he could inhale the healing smoke or applied as an ointment, incense continued to play a role in medicine until the Middle Ages.

Incense is still used today for some of its ancient purposes. Some Eastern religions continue to burn incense as part of their ceremonies. And myrrh, in particular, is still incorporated into some pharmaceutical products such as special mouthwashes and toothpaste.

Oud is also used as part of the celebrations following Ramadan and the Hajj. During Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting), some Saudi families burn oud each night after breaking their fast and washing, and before going to the mosque to perform the evening prayer.

Artisans have incorporated the mabkhara in sculptures. The mabkhara welcomes visitors to the Jenadriyah National Culture and Heritage Festival near Riyadh.

The mabkhara was traditionally made from clay or soft stone. Most incense burners have a square pedestal base with inward sloping sides which support a square cup with outward sloping sides. The wooden base is often carved out to form legs. The cup itself is lined with sheet metal. Older burners were decorated with patterned combinations of soft metal pegs and brass tacks, often with mirrors in the panels of the upper part. The legs were ordinarily covered with sheet metal.

More modern variations of the mabkhara are made of shiny plated sheet metal. While they retain the traditional shape, they tend to be decorated with mirrors, colored metals and come in many sizes, varying from a few inches to a few feet in height. The craft of making mabakhir is practiced today primarily by artisans living in Hail, one of the northern provinces of the Kingdom.

Another mabkhara sculpture surrounded by coffee pots stands in Jeddah.

Architects, sculptors and artists have been inspired by this traditional craft and included it as a decorative landscape element. In Riyadh and Jeddah there are large sculptures in the shape of mabakhir in public areas. Bronze mabakhir ornament the public gardens surrounding the water tower in Riyadh, and a large granite mabkhara stands in the Hamra section of Jeddah.

Thus a fragrant and elegant ritual of the past survives in Saudi Arabia today as a symbol of warm hospitality.



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