• 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.

The Three wise men The Three wise men

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.

Freedom Square, Hargeisa, Somaliland Freedom Square, Hargeisa, Somaliland

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.

Hargeisa, Somaliland Hargeisa, 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.

A file photo of sap runs out of a frankincense tree near Mader Moge, Somaliland A file photo of sap runs out of a frankincense tree near Mader Moge, Somaliland

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.

Frankincense harvesting in Somaliland Frankincense harvesting in Somaliland

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.

A file photo of frankincense tree tappers sit in a canyon with their scrapers and baskets near Gudmo, Somaliland. A file photo of frankincense tree tappers sit in a canyon with their scrapers and baskets near Gudmo, Somaliland.

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.

A frankinsence tapper wears cloth wrapped on his feet to keep sticky resin from his skin and shoes near Gudmo, Somaliland. A frankinsence tapper wears cloth wrapped on his feet to keep sticky resin from his skin and shoes near Gudmo, Somaliland.

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.

A file photo of local women sorting raw frankincense gum in Burao, Somaliland. A file photo of local women sorting raw frankincense gum in Burao, Somaliland.

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.

Fish boats at the seaport of Berbera. Fish boats at 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.

Cal Madow, also known as Al Madow, Al Medu or Al Mado, is a narrow coastal mountain range which is located in the northeastern part of the Federal Republic of Somaliland. Cal Madow, also known as Al Madow, Al Medu or Al Mado, is a narrow coastal mountain range which is located in the northeastern part of the Federal Republic of Somaliland.

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.

A file photo of a woman sorts raw frankincense gum in Burao, Somaliland. A file photo of a woman sorts raw frankincense gum in Burao, Somaliland.

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.

Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, president of the Somaliland Biodiversity Foundation (L) with Helen Pickering (R) during the launch of their book 'Introduction to Plants in Central Somaliland' - an accessible photographic guide with plant names in Somali and English. Ahmed Ibrahim Awale, president of the Somaliland Biodiversity Foundation (L) with Helen Pickering (R) during the launch of their book 'Introduction to Plants in Central Somaliland' - an accessible photographic guide with plant names in Somali and English.

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.

A file photo of a frankincense trader holds a handful of raw gum near Gudmo, Somaliland. A file photo of a frankincense trader holds a handful of raw gum near Gudmo, Somaliland.

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,"

A file photo of Mohamed Ahmed Ali wounds a frankincense tree near Mader Moge, Somaliland. A file photo of Mohamed Ahmed Ali wounds a frankincense tree near Mader Moge, Somaliland.

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.