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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Pleasant and Precious Aroma

Agarwood - Hafizmuar at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

On occasion one comes across a flower or fruit, the scent of which is so captivating that its sensual record is permanently engraved in the mind, shelved away with other potent memories of smells, sounds, tastes, images - until eventually, when reencountered, it floods back into our awareness with all the intensity that it had when we first encountered it. Scents are among the most powerful stimulants, triggering recollections of pleasure or pain. Like everyone else, I carry my subconscious hoard - the tangy scent of small robust pine trees in a plantation, the scent of freesias in a bowl mixed with the medicinal smell of furniture polish, the embracing fragrance of burning eucalyptus leaves and freshly cut grass, the salty breath of the breeze off the sea, the sharp, cutting air before an approaching storm, the heady scent of citrus orchards in flower. Walking along the shore of the Baltic Sea with my wife on an overcast late summer day, we came upon hedges of rugosa rose bushes growing out of the sand and covered with masses of single petalled, burgundy blooms emitting with one of the most ambrosial perfumes I have encountered.

Pleasant smells are identified as cleansing. The incense offering in the Jewish Temple comprised of eleven different spices. According to Maimonides (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon -1138-1205 CE) the pleasant fragrance resulting from the burning of this combination was intended to offset the disagreeable smells of the animal sacrifices in the Temple compound.[1] The intention was not only to overcome the unpleasant physical consequence of sacrificing animals, but to effect a spiritual quelling of evil inclinations. The prayer describing this sacrifice, recited daily in the synagogue, has always fascinated me, partly for the secrecy involved in the preparation of the incense, and the danger, for there was a powerful injunction forbidding its preparation by anyone but the priests and for any purpose other than use in the Temple. The eleven spices and aromatic condiments along with additional ingredients intended to enhance the scent are listed as pistacia lentiscus, operculum (gastropod), galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, cinnamon, saffron, costus, cinnamon bark, Jordan amber, an unknown herb referred to as smoke raiser, Karshinah soap, Cypriot wine and salt of Sodom. Among the ingredients the identity of which are disputed, is cinnamon. Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942 CE) identified the cinnamon with agarwood, also known as aloeswood - al-'ou[d] a[l]ṭayyib, as did Maimonides (who referred to its India origin - al-'oud al-hindi) along with some other Jewish scholars.[2] Other than its possible use in the Temple incense, in Biblical times agarwood was used to perfume garments and beds.[3]

Agarwood is a dark resinous heartwood that forms in the Aquilaria tree (Aquilaria agallocha. var. Aquilaria malaccensis), a tree native to the rainforests of southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, when it becomes infected with a type of mould. In order to combat the mould, the tree produces a dark aromatic resin in the pale wood creating embedded pockets. These are highly valued for their distinctive fragrance and are used in the Far East, South-East Asia, and the Middle East, and today in many other cultures for incense and perfumes. The wood and the resin extracted from it in a distillation process are known in the Arab world as oud or oudh(عود). Agarwood has always been highly valued, and having been overharvested, it is increasingly rare. Today it is often produced by means of intentionally infecting trees with the mould. Agarwood is among the most expensive raw materials in existence, the finest quality costing as much as $100,000 per kilogram.

On the Champs-Élysées a few years ago I passed by an exclusive shop selling Arabian oud-based perfumes, but my curiosity to find out what this remarkable scent was really like was countered by the feeling that I was inappropriately dressed to enter such an exclusive emporium and that in any case I could probably not afford to purchase even the smallest vial of the precious liquid. I consoled myself by the thought that perhaps it isn't really all that it is hyped up to be (though I imagine it probably is).

In the Cairo Genizah there are several references to the trade in and use of agarwood. Arriving from India and the Far East it was exported to other Arab countries, to the Maghreb and to Sicily, although for Europeans the chief introduction to agarwood came with the Portuguese trade of the sixteenth century. The Genizah records its use as an aromatic, and also as an ingredient in medical recipes[4] as well as for the manufacture of items of jewellery. In the Crusader period agarwood was so highly valued that the very mention of it could be used to indicate vast wealth. In the early fourteenth century, when the Cypriot port of Famagusta rose to prominence after the fall of the mainland states and the loss of the great commercial hub of Acre, the German pilgrim Ludolph of Suchem arrived in the city. He gave the following account in which he describes the newly gained wealth of Famagusta, a wealth still to be observed today in the ruins of its great Gothic churches:

This is the richest of all the cities in Cyprus, and its citizens are exceedingly wealthy. Once one of the citizens of Famagusta was bethrothing his daughter, and the French knights who were sailing with us reckoned that the jewels she wore on her head were better than all the jewels of the king of France. There was a merchant of this city who sold a royal golden orb to the sultan for sixty thousand florins... Moreover, the constable of Jerusalem had four pearls which his wife wore as a brooch, which whenever and wherever he pleased he could pawn for three thousand florins. In a warehouse in this city there is more aloeswood than five carts can carry....[5]

1. Maimonides, Moreh Nevuchim 3.45.

2. Saadia Gaon's commentary on Exodus 30:23); Maimonides, Mishnah Kereithoth 1:1; Maimonides' Mishne Torah, Hil. Kelei HaMikdash, 2:4; cf. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra's short commentary on Exodus 30.23, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides [Rabbi Moses' son] on the abovementioned verse [Thanks to my son Amir for checking these sources].

3. Psalms 45:9; Proverbs 7:17; Song of Solomon 4:14.

4. Leigh Chipman and Ephraim Lev, Medical Prescriptions in the Cambridge Genizah Collections, Leiden and Boston, 2012, p. 128.

5. Ludolph of Suchem, Description of the Holy Land, trans., Aubrey Stewart, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, London, 1895, pp. 41-42.

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