How a small predominantly Muslim nation may have played a role in the birth of Jesus Christ

A girl participates in a street parade in Hargeisa to celebrate Somaliland's self-declared independence.
  • The Bible story of the Three Wise Men, also known as the biblical Magi or the Three Kings is a fascinating tale.
  • The Biblical story tells of a group of scholarly foreigners who traveled long distance to visit Jesus after he was born, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
  • However, even before the Wise Men gave frankincense as a gift to baby Jesus, Somaliland had long made a mark for itself and might have played a crucial role in the birth of Jesus.

The Bible story of the Three Wise Men, also known as the biblical Magi or the Three Kings is a fascinating tale.

The Biblical story tells of a group of scholarly foreigners who traveled long distance to visit Jesus after he was born, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The three gifts were carefully chosen and came packed with deep meaning.

Frankincense, is occasionally utilized in worship in Churches and represented that people would worship and praise Jesus.

Gold which has long been affiliated with Kings and Christians believe that Jesus is the King of Kings.

Myrrh, a fragrance that is embedded on dead bodies to make them smell pleasant and represented that Jesus would endure persecution resulting in his death.

However, even before the Wise Men gave frankincense as a gift to baby Jesus, Somaliland had long made a mark for itself and might have played a crucial role in the birth of Jesus.

Somaliland has for centuries exported the rare product harvested from frankincense tree sap and people were climbing the rugged Somaliland mountains in search of the precious resin long before the three wisemen even met baby Jesus.

“Some 500 tons of myrrh and frankincense are exported annually from Somaliland” says Guelle Osman Guelle of Neobotanika, the largest exporter of the gums from Somaliland.

Once found in in remote areas of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and across the Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula, Somaliland now has world’s last wild grove of frankincense trees.

The rocky Cal Madow Mountains of Somaliland in Somalia's northwest, are one of the few homes internationally to wild frankincense trees. One of the species located in the area is endemic and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Harvesting these trees is the second main livelihood for the local people in Somaliland, who are now risking their lives to meet the rising global demand.

Myrrh harvesting happens twice a year and is signalled by the trees leaves which turn brown and fall off.

Then harvesters cut a circular hole in their trees with a specially shaped tool called the “mingaf” and leave it for 10-15 days, waiting for the resin to harden, which is then collected and dried again.

This process is repeated several times in one season, the hole growing a bit bigger each time. In a good year a tree may yield 300 – 500g.

Harvesting myrrh is no child play and many hours go into this undertaking, the trees often growing in remote areas accessible only on foot further making an already hard task even more tasking.

After harvesting, the dried resin is delivered to a central warehouse where it is cleaned from bits of bark or stones by the local women.

During this time, Frankincense is also graded into differently coloured pieces – the price being determined by the colour and purity.

Once this has been done, it is packaged and exported from the seaport of Berbera.

Myrrh, having been used since ancient times for embalming, has many benefits among them being burnt as incense in religious ceremonies, added to cosmetics as perfume and, increasingly so, it is employed more and more in medicine.

It may also be chewed for oral hygiene.

Frankincense trees are abundant in the coastal areas in Somaliland and are only harvested in the summer months of June to August. The gum resin is prepared in much the same way as myrrh and similarly used for religious purposes.

However, just like Christianity is slowly dying out in an increasingly modern world, the supply of Frankincense is also sharply dwindling at an alarming rate in the face of rising global demand.

Interest in the natural product is rising at such a rate that the trees cannot regenerate fast enough.

While once inherently related to the holy paradise, frankincense might end up representing a real hell for local people in Somaliland.

"It will be a disaster not only for the people of Somaliland, but for the whole world,” Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, president of the Somaliland Biodiversity Foundation, told DW.

While Frankincense is still very much used in religious ceremonies, it is no longer only reserved for honoring deities. Multimillionaire markets such as the French perfume business now count the tree fragrance among their top components and have spiked the ‘unholy’ demand.

"It will be the end of unique species and of a millenarian heritage," adds Awale.

Local people in Somaliland have sustainably harvested frankincense for millenniums, but the current rhythm to meet the global appetite for essential oils leaves little room for sustainability.

Somaliland ancestral forests cannot replenish fast enough to survive the current overharvesting.

"Frankincense has been harvested in a sustainable manner for millions of years,” Awale said.

"But the rise in the global demand has completely changed it,"

Harvesting in an unsustainable way means making a higher number of cuts per tree to extract as much sap as possible and tapping the trees year-round rather than seasonally.

These practices not only weaken the trees, impede them from recovering and, ultimately, means they end up dying and with it the story of the three wise men, which may soon become nothing more than just a myth covered by Myrrh.

JOIN OUR PULSE COMMUNITY!

Eyewitness? Submit your stories now via social or:

Email: news@pulselive.co.ke