The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxviii.

Concerning the City of Dufar.

Dufar is a great and noble and fine city, and lies 500 miles to the north-west of Esher. The people are Saracens, and have a Count for their chief, who is subject to the Soldan of Aden; for this city still belongs to the Province of Aden. It stands upon the sea and has a very good haven, so that there is a great traffic of shipping between this and India; and the merchants take hence great numbers of Arab horses to that market, making great profits thereby. This city has under it many other towns and villages.1

Much white incense is produced here, and I will tell you how it grows. The trees are like small fir-trees; these are notched with a knife in several places, and from these notches the incense is exuded. Sometimes also it flows from the tree without any notch; this is by reason of the great heat of the sun there.2

NOTE 1. — Dufar. The name [Arabic] is variously pronounced Dhafár, DHOFAR, Zhafár, and survives attached to a well-watered and fertile plain district opening on the sea, nearly 400 miles east of Shehr, though according to Haines there is now no town of the name. Ibn Batuta speaks of the city as situated at the extremity of Yemen (“the province of Aden”), and mentions its horse-trade, its unequalled dirt, stench, and flies, and consequent diseases. (See II. 196 seqq.) What he says of the desert character of the tract round the town is not in accordance with modern descriptions of the plain of Dhafár, nor seemingly with his own statements of the splendid bananas grown there, as well as other Indian products, betel, and coco-nut. His account of the Sultan of Zhafár in his time corroborates Polo’s, for he says that prince was the son of a cousin of the King of Yemen, who had been chief of Zhafár under the suzeraineté of that King and tributary to him. The only ruins mentioned by Haines are extensive ones near Haffer, towards the western part of the plain; and this Fresnel considers to be the site of the former city. A lake which exists here, on the landward side of the ruins, was, he says, formerly a gulf, and formed the port, “the very good haven,” of which our author speaks.

A quotation in the next note however indicates Merbát, which is at the eastern extremity of the plain, as having been the port of Dhafár in the Middle Ages. Professor Sprenger is of opinion that the city itself was in the eastern part of the plain. The matter evidently needs further examination.

This Dhafár, or the bold mountain above it, is supposed to be the Sephar of Genesis (x. 30). But it does not seem to be the Sapphara metropolis of Ptolemy, which is rather an inland city of the same name: “Dhafár was the name of two cities of Yemen, one of which was near Sana’á . . . it was the residence of the Himyarite Princes; some authors allege that it is identical with Sana’á” (Marásid-al-Ittila’, in Reinaud’s Abulfeda, I. p. 124).

Dofar is noted by Camoens for its fragrant incense. It was believed in Malabar that the famous King Cheram Perumal, converted to Islám, died on the pilgrimage to Mecca and was buried at Dhafár, where his tomb was much visited for its sanctity.

The place is mentioned (Tsafarh) in the Ming Annals of China as a Mahomedan country lying, with a fair wind, 10 days N.W. of Kuli (supra, p. 440). Ostriches were found there, and among the products are named drugs which Dr. Bretschneider renders as Olibanum, Storax liquida, Myrrh, Catechu(?), Dragon’s blood. This state sent an embassy (so-called) to China in 1422. (Haines in J.R.G.S. XV. 116 seqq.; Playfair’s Yemen, p. 31; Fresnel in J. As. sér. 3, tom. V. 517 seqq.; Tohfut-ul-Mujahideen, p. 56; Bretschneider, p. 19.)

NOTE 2. — Frankincense presents a remarkable example of the obscurity which so often attends the history of familiar drugs; though in this case the darkness has been, like that of which Marco spoke in his account of the Caraonas (vol. i. p. 98), much of man’s making.

This coast of Hadhramaut is the true and ancient [Greek: chóra libanophóros] or [Greek: libanotophóros], indicated or described under those names by Theophrastus, Ptolemy, Pliny, Pseudo–Arrian, and other classical writers; i.e. the country producing the fragrant gum-resin called by the Hebrews Lebonah, by the Brahmans apparently Kundu and Kunduru, by the Arabs Lubán and Kundur, by the Greeks Libanos, by the Romans Thus, in mediaeval Latin Olibanum, and in English Frankincense, i.e. I apprehend, “Genuine incense,” or “Incense Proper.”1 It is still produced in this region and exported from it: but the larger part of that which enters the markets of the world is exported from the roadsteads of the opposite Sumálí coast. In ancient times also an important quantity was exported from the latter coast, immediately west of Cape Gardafui (Aromatum Prom.), and in the Periplus this frankincense is distinguished by the title Peratic, “from over the water.”

The Marásid-al-Ittila’, a Geog. Dictionary of the end of the 14th century, in a passage of which we have quoted the commencement in the preceding note, proceeds as follows: “The other Dhafár, which still subsists, is on the shore of the Indian Sea, distant 5 parasangs from Mérbáth in the province of Shehr. Merbath lies below Dhafár, and serves as its port. Olibanum is found nowhere except in the mountains of Dhafár, in the territory of Shehr; in a tract which extends 3 days in length and the same in breadth. The natives make incisions in the trees with a knife, and the incense flows down. This incense is carefully watched, and can be taken only to Dhafár, where the Sultan keeps the best part for himself; the rest is made over to the people. But any one who should carry it elsewhere than to Dhafár would be put to death.”

The elder Niebuhr seems to have been the first to disparage the Arabian produce of olibanum. He recognises indeed its ancient celebrity, and the fact that it was still to some extent exported from Dhafár and other places on this coast, but he says that the Arabs preferred foreign kinds of incense, especially benzoin; and also repeatedly speaks of the superiority of that from India (des Indes and de l’Inde), by which it is probable that he meant the same thing — viz., benzoin from the Indian Archipelago. Niebuhr did not himself visit Hadhramaut.

Thus the fame of Arabian olibanum was dying away, and so was our knowledge of that and the opposite African coast, when Colebrooke (1807) published his Essay on Olibanum, in which he showed that a gum-resin, identical as he considered with frankincense, and so named (Kundur), was used in India, and was the produce of an indigenous tree, Boswellia serrata of Roxburgh, but thereafter known as B. thurifera. This discovery, connecting itself, it may be supposed, with Niebuhr’s statements about Indian olibanum (though probably misunderstood), and with the older tradition coming down from Dioscorides of a so-called Indian libanos (supra p. 396), seems to have induced a hasty and general assumption that the Indian resin was the olibanum of commerce; insomuch that the very existence of Arabian olibanum came to be treated as a matter of doubt in some respectable books, and that down to a very recent date.

In the Atlas to Bruce’s Travels is figured a plant under the name of Angoua, which the Abyssinians believed to produce true olibanum, and which Bruce says did really produce a gum resembling it.

In 1837 Lieut. Cruttenden of the Indian Navy saw the frankincense tree of Arabia on a journey inland from Merbát, and during the ensuing year the trees of the Sumálí country were seen, and partially described by Kempthorne, and Vaughan of the same service, and by Cruttenden himself. Captain Haines also in his report of the Survey of the Hadhramaut coast in 1843–18442 speaks, apparently as an eyewitness, of the frankincense trees about Dhafár as extremely numerous, and adds that from 3000 to 10,000 maunds were annually exported “from Merbát and Dhafár.” “3 to 10” is vague enough; but as the kind of maund is not specified it is vaguer still. Maunds differ as much as livres Français and livres sterling. In 1844 and 1846 Dr. Carter also had opportunities of examining olibanum trees on this coast, which he turned to good account, sending to Government cuttings, specimens, and drawings, and publishing a paper on the subject in the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the R. As. Society (1847).

Illustration: The Harvest of Frankincense in Arabia. Facsimile of an engraving in Thevet’s Cosmographie Universelle (1575), reproduced from the Bible Educator.3

But neither Dr. Carter’s paper and specimens, nor the previous looser notices of the naval officers, seemed to attract any attention, and men of no small repute went on repeating in their manuals the old story about Indian olibanum. Dr. G. Birdwood however, at Bombay, in the years following 1859, took up the subject with great zeal and intelligence, procuring numerous specimens of the Sumálí trees and products; and his monograph of the genus Boswellia in the Linnaean Transactions (read April 1869), to which this note is very greatly indebted, is a most interesting paper, and may be looked on, I believe, as embodying the most correct knowledge as yet attainable. The species as ranked in his table are the following:

Illustration: Boswellia Frereana (Birdw.). 1. Boswellia Carterii (Birdw.), including the Arabian tree of Dhafár, and the larger variety called Mohr Madau by the Sumálís. 2. B. Bhau-dajiana (Birdw.), Mohr A’d of the Sumálís. 3. B. papyrifera (Richard). Abyssinian species. 4. B. thurifera (Colebr.), see p. 396 supra. 5. B. Frereana (Birdw.), Yegár of the Sumálís — named after Mr. William Frere, Member of Council at Bombay. No. 2 was named from Bhau Dáji, a very eminent Hindu scholar and physician at Bombay (Birdw.).

No. 1 produces the Arabian olibanum, and Nos. 1 and 2 together the bulk of the olibanum exported from the Sumálí coast under the name Lubán-Shehri. Both are said to give an inferior kind besides, called L. Bedawi. No. 3 is, according to Birdwood, the same as Bruce’s Angoua. No. 5 is distinctly a new species, and affords a highly fragrant resin sold under the name of Lubán Méti.

Bombay is now the great mart of frankincense. The quantity exported thence in 1872–1873 was 25,000 cwt., of which nearly one quarter went to China.

Frankincense when it first exudes is milky white; whence the name “White Incense” by which Polo speaks of it. And the Arabic name lúbán apparently refers to milk. The Chinese have so translated, calling Ju-siang or Milk-perfume.

Polo, we see, says the tree was like a fir tree; and it is remarkable that a Chinese Pharmacology quoted by Bretschneider says the like, which looks as if their information came from a common source. And yet I think Polo’s must have been oral. One of the meanings of Lubán, from the Kámús, is Pinus (Freytag). This may have to do with the error. Dr. Birdwood, in a paper Cassells’ Bible Educator, has given a copy of a remarkable wood engraving from Thevet’s Cosmographie Universelle (1575), representing the collection of Arabian olibanum, and this through his kind intervention I am able to reproduce here. The text (probably after Polo) speaks of the tree as resembling a fir, but in the cut the firs are in the background; the incense trees have some real suggestion of Boswellia, and the whole design has singular spirit and verisimilitude.

Dr. Birdwood thus speaks of the B. Frereana, the only species that he has seen in flower: “As I saw the plant in Playfair’s garden at Aden . . . in young leaf and covered with bloom, I was much struck by its elegant singularity. The long racemes of green star-like flowers, tipped with the red anthers of the stamens (like aigrettes of little stars of emerald set with minute rubies), droop gracefully over the clusters of glossy, glaucous leaves; and every part of the plant (bark, leaves, and flowers) gives out the most refreshing lemon-like fragrance.” (Birdwood in Linnaean Transactions for 1869, pp. 109 seqq.; Hanbury and Flückiger’s Pharmacographia, pp. 120 seqq.; Ritter, xii. 356 seqq.; Niebuhr, Desc. de l’Arabie, I. p. 202, II. pp. 125–132.)

1Drogue franche:— Qui a les qualités requises sans mélange” (Littré). “Franc . . . Vrai, véritable” (Raynouard).

The mediaeval Olibanum was probably the Arabic Al-lubán, but was popularly interpreted as Oleum Libani. Dr. Birdwood saw at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 samples of frankincense solemnly labelled as the produce of Mount Lebanon!

“Professor Dümichen, of Strasburg, has discovered at the Temple of Daïr-el-Báhri, in Upper Egypt, paintings illustrating the traffic carried on between Egypt and Arabia, as early as the 17th century B.C. In these paintings there are representations, not only of bags of olibanum, but also of olibanum-trees planted in tubs or boxes, being conveyed by ship from Arabia to Egypt.” (Hanbury and Flückiger, Pharmacographia, p. 121.)

2 Published in J.R.G.S., vol. XV. (for 1845).

3 By courtesy of the publishers, Messrs. Cassell, Petter, & Galpin.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/polo/marco/travels/book3.38.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24