Botany, Incense, and Myrrh

by Hélène Barthey
(Energies, Vol. 27, Spring, 1996, pp.37-39)

Yemen Update 39(1997):52-53

"Africa is a continent fascinating enough to fill a lifetime", says Théodore Monod, who has indeed devoted his life's work to exploring the deserts of Africa and their "border zone" which, until the relatively recent intrusion of the Red Sea,included the Yemen as well. On his return from a first expedition to the Yemen in 1977, Théodore Monod put together an herbarium containing about a thousand plants, which is housed in the Paris Museum of Natural History. But with only 2,500 species identified so far, the study of Yemen's flora is still a long way from completion. The Yemen is a vast country with a very diverse topography that is home to a wide variety of plant species. And as yet no botanist has ever ventured into the desert regions of the high plateaux&emdash;where the temperature can top 60° C&emdash;to study the flora.

Despite his age, 93-year-old Professor Monod was keen to set out again to explore this untrammelled zone which is home to numerous plant species that are threatened with extinction."I had two reasons for going to the Yemen. Firstly, I wanted to make sure the existing herbaria were complete, and secondly, I wanted to make people more aware of the need to preserve plant species that are fast becoming extinct."

After several delays, the botanical project finally got under way last year [1995], with the expedition spending three weeks in the Yemen in April-May, at the end of the rainy season when most species are in full flower. The expedition explored the Aden volcano and then continued out to the desert regions of the southern Joll Seban plateau, the Wadi Hadramout, the northern Joll, into the Rub' Al-Khali and the area around Shabwa.

A "Fascinating but Gruelling" Journey

But the going was not always easy... It took the team all of five hours just to clamber up Mount Shamsan. "It was a gruelling but fascinating climb, followed by an overnight bivouac in the cold wind", comments Professor Monod's companion Jose-MarieBel, without whom Monod's trip would have been quite impossible. "My young friend Jose-Marie was my hands, my legs and my eyes", smiles Monod. "It was he who scrambled up the jagged rocks like a mountain goat in search of plant specimens."

Despite an age-gap of two generations, the two men became fast friends. Both are fascinated by rocks and plants,and they share a love of the desert and a commitment to the conservation of nature.

During their botanical quest, the two men gathered specimens from a total of 34 different sites, and their"harvest" of 850 plants is now preserved in two herbaria, one of which is in the Paris Museum of Natural History. When gathering specimens, they tried to bring back only native species like the euphorbia (Euphorbia adenis), which is extremely rare, or myrrh, khat and coffee. And of course the fabled incense tree, which is in danger of becoming extinct in the Yemen. The Natural History Museum did not possess a single specimen of incense.

Incense and myrrh are resins produced by trees and bushes that are almost "as old as the hills." Man has been using them for some 5,000 years, but they have probably existed for about 8,000 years. Incense and myrrh were gathered for export to Egypt from across the Hadramout region of South Yemen, in the Dhofarand throughout the Horn of Africa. But the incense tree that grows in the Yemen belongs to a specific family called Boswelia sacrathat is only found in that country.

Caravan Traders

According to the evidence turned up by archeologists, the spice and incense trade goes back about 3,000years. The Arabs living throughout the area acted as middlemen in trading spices brought from Asia (pepper, ginger, cloves, etc.) and highly-prized by the great civilisations of the Mediterranean basin. Then the cargoes of spices and incense were carried by camel train to Egypt, Greece and then Rome. Later on, the spice trade was carried on by sea as well. Then, early in the 16th century, this age-old commerce was interrupted by the arrival of the Portuguese.

Unfortunately, the Boswelia sacra is now dying out, and this is partly the fault of man. Up on the high plateaux, at altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000 metres, the local inhabitants practise very intensive terrace-farming, and this has destroyed much of the flora. We know absolutely nothing about the plants that grew there in earlier times. The local people also run herds of goats, and these can devastate the vegetation, eating even the young seedlings, so the Boswelia is finding it hard to reproduce. Then the weeds take over, making the landscape even more arid. Down in the better-watered areas of the Horn of Africa, other families ofincense tree still grow. But unless an effort is made to stem the damaged caused by farmers and their animals, and to stimulate the trees by regularly harvesting the resin, Yemeni incense trees will soon be a thing of the past. And competition from manufactured incense, like the incense-sticks exported by India, has further hastened the demise of incense and myrrh found in Yemen.

Mythical Plants under Threat

Other legendary plants found in the Yemen have fared slightly better. Myrrh comes from a little shrub called Commiflora, and specimens of this plant can still be found around Bir Ali. In Biblical times, myrrh was traded through the thriving port of Qana, which is where Melchior began his journey.

Coffee, which originally came from Ethiopia and Abyssinia, is doing much better, with 25,000 hectares under cultivation today. The Yemenis grew coffee up in the mountains from the 14th century onwards, but they did not drink much of it themselves&emdash;coffee was reserved for nobles and holy men, and for export. The Yemen kept a monopoly on coffee until the 18thcentury when intrepid Dutch explorers took coffee plants to Java to see if they would grow there. Then French traders where sent by King Louis XIV to set up a trade with Mokha. Coffee trees were soon traveling further afield to Senegal, the Caribbean and even Brazil. But Arabian coffee is still a favorite, especially with manufacturers of fine chocolate.

Another age-old plant, the qat tree,is going strong too, with some 70,000 hectares under cultivation. Chewing qat leaves&emdash;a mild stimulant&emdash;is a social pastime increasingly enjoyed by both men and women, with villagers gathering in the afternoon to chew qat and swap stories in the shade.

Preserving the Yemen's Plant Heritage

The first Yemeni herbarium was put together by the Danish botanist Forskal back in 1763. Over the years, numerous expeditions followed, with interest gathering momentum in the 19thcentury. The recent expedition undertaken by Théodore Monod and Jose-Marie Bel has carried his work further. By adding information provided by expeditions to other countries, this voyage has provided insights into the origins and migration of various plants, which was often caused by climatic changes. It has also cast new light on how plants evolve, how they adapt in order to ensure their own survival. The latest study also tells us a lot about the damaged caused by man&emdash;one striking example here is the effect of acid rain on vegetation. This combined data paint a vivid picture of just how man's various activities have affected our Mother Earth,and stresses the urgent need to preserve all remaining species while they do indeed still exist.

This is the purpose of the very active Yemen Architectural and Cultural Heritage Association (APAY), of which Théodore Monod is Honorary President and Jose-Marie Bel President. Both men are striving to make the Yemenis more aware of the need to preserve their botanical heritage, just as the Yemen is doing with its architectural tradition. The association is encouraging the Yemen to set up a conservatory where plants will be protected from both man and animals (goats, dromedaries...), like the ones already set up in the other regions, like Djibouti.

Hopefully, this expedition and the accompanying book by Théodore Monod and Jose-Marie Bel will provide that extra stimulus.

Search Site

Search Library Collection