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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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 mabkharasculpture surrounded by coffee pots stands in Jeddah.|
Thus a fragrant and elegant ritual of the past survives in Saudi Arabia today as a symbol of warm hospitality.