Above, a Sufi worshipper wreathed in incense (bakhūr) at zikr celebrations, Hamid Al-Nil.
Incense in Sudan
Shop Floor Sweepings – Burnt Ink – Opening the Tin Box
Setting the Scene – Censing Body and Spirit
Setting the Scene
Above, a Friday evening worshipper at Hamid Al-Nil anoints himself with incense, as a young girl gazes intently on.
Incense permeates the cool stillness of the pre-dawn air. It mingles with wisps of steam rising from the early morning tea sellers’ kettles and the tang of roasting coffee beans. At the close of day, its warm, cinnamon breath seeps into the dusty twilight as in a million homes, incense burners are lit and charcoals glow.
Sudanese life is rounded by incense. Pregnant women bathe in its protective smoke; the newborn and the newly wed are anointed in its sandalwood fumes. Its soot and ashes enrich perfumes, tattoo inks and kohl and its scent infuses both the skirts of brides and the shrouds of the dead. Incense is burnt to heal the sick and summon and subdue wayward spirits.
This week’s post opens a window on to the vast aromatic heritage of Sudan and describes how moments and milestones in Sudanese lives are marked by the lighting of incense. It draws on fascinating colonial and post-colonial eye-witness stories and touches on the complexities of Zār healing rituals. I would very much like to hear from readers with any accounts of contemporary incense use.
Learn more about Sudanese aromatics and watch a video showing the making of Sudanese incense in
If you are interested in Sudanese Sufi traditions, you might enjoy
“The incense trade catalyzed the birth of Islam, whose military, spiritual and commercial impact transformed medieval Asia, Europe and Africa. Riding on a rising tide of global trade along the land and sea routes of Asia, Islam came to dominate the continent’s spiritual as well as its commercial life.”
Willian J.Bernstein, A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today
Censing Body and Spirit
Below I reproduce two accounts of the spiritual and healing symbolism of incense. A colonial description of censing wedding rituals on the banks of the Nile is followed by an 1990s description of a healer called to relieve the physical and psychological distress of a hospital patient as part of the Zār healing rites.
More on Zār in coming posts.
In 1945, Sofie Zenkovsky, writing on Marriage Customs in Omdurman, recounts that the newly weds – “must go the river, in company with an old woman (haboba) and some relations, to make the customary offering to the Nile. They carry with them an incense burner with live coals on which are put sunt seeds (qaraD), lubaan and sandalwood, and also a dish on which there are sweets, dates and grain. The grain has been specially prepared a few days previously by watering it, so that it has sprouted. When they reach the river, the haboba takes some of the sprouting grain and puts it on the incense burner. Under the cover of the smoke, she throws some more of the sprouting grain into the river, and then sweets and dates.” The bride and groom go on to bathe their hands and feet in the Nile waters. (Sudan Notes and Records, Volume 26, 1945)
See more about Nile rituals in The River of Life
Above, bathing the face and hands in Nile water; stills from Joanna Lumley’s Nile
“The umiyya needed only a few minutes to unpack her paraphernalia and take charge. A labourer found idling outside was sent to find some charcoal, returning quickly with an enamel bowl of burning coals which were then placed in the umiyya’s special incense pot. At the bedside she laid several small tins on the table which had been cleared for her, and extracted from them pinches of various incenses which were dropped slowly and carefully into the incense pot. Inhaling deeply from this, she then passed it thoroughly about the sick woman’s clothes. As the smoke infused Fatima’s clothing and body, the umiyya, with closed eyes, began chanting audibly. The other women clung to each other, whispering anxiously “What do you want?” as they waited for some response from the patient. Fatima wearily lifted her head and began to sob. “Don’t cry,” the umiya was muttering as she continued to wave the incense in front of the patient.”
Zar as Modernization in Contemporary Sudan, Susan M. Kenyon (Anthropological Quarterly, April 1995, Vol 68 Issue 2)
Above, drums and incense burners, prepared for a Zār ceremony. Plate from Women of Omdurman, Anne Cloudsley, p69 Ethnographica 1985. Below, a worshipper at Hamid Al-Nil bearing a mubkhar, mirroring the gesture of a fellow worshipper acknowledging that God is One.
Shop Floor Sweepings Burnt Ink Opening the Tin Box
Shop Floor Sweepings
“Bukhūr Taiman Incense is a blend of aromatic herbs, garadh (acacia plant), gum arabic and a coloured pea, known as the bride’s pea, imported from India and believed to drive the evil eye away.”
The incense that permeates the sunset air, that wraps tea and coffee stalls in fragrant clouds of welcoming, fly-repelling scents; the incense burnt to dispel demons on the last of Ramadan and ward off the evil eye in so many Sudanese homes, has humble beginnings. Mansur Osman Rahmah, the grandson of the famous “twins'” incense shop in Omdurman explains that the incense scattered as customers were served was swept up and burnt as waste outside the shop at the end of the day. “Persuaded by the refreshing scent of this “garbage”, people began to order it and they began to believe that it was a tranquilizer and a remedy and mothers began to cense children with it against any illness”.Incense; Charm, Ritual and Brisk Trade
The use of bukhūr taiman for ritual-incensing is known as takhriga and according to Dr Ahmed Al-Safi, the serendipitous blend “includes various minerals and aromatic herbs such as shebb, ‘irq al-‘alali, qarad (sunt pods) ‘ain al- ‘arus (Abrus precatorius), kasbara (coriander), cumin, lubān (Commiphora pedunculata), ghasoul (Salicornia sp.), and fakook. A well-known incantation is loudly recited while dusting the ingredients over the fire.”
Below, frankincense (aromatic gum), known as lubān, with aromatic woods.
Below, a description by Dr Ahmed Al-Safi of bakhra, another form of ritual incensing for healing and warding off the evil eye; “The bakhra (pictured right) is a sheet of white paper on which the faki writes some astrological formulas, magical seals, and numerical squares, with holy verses from the Quran. The paper is then folded; a few such papers are made and given to the patient. One bakhra at a time is burnt in a mubkhar (incense burner), alone or with frankincense and ambergris. The patient bends over the incense burner, enveloped in a tobe (cloth). He then inhales the fumes. The process is usually accompanied by incantations.” See Traditional Sudanese Medicine for other types of incense used in Sudan. Right, a sketch based on a photo of bakhra from Sand in My Eyes by Enikō Nagy, p667.
“To identify a sahhar, (malevolent person bearing the evil eye) a piece of shebb (alum) salt, some acacia pods, and cumin are placed together in an incense burner and the suspect is fumigated with it. Then water is sprinkled on the incense and it clots into a mass, the shape of which decides the issue. (Al-Safi, p91, as above)
Below, a Zār sheikha (leader) dressed as a man. Her shield is a food cover of cane and palm, her spear an ebony stick. Plate from Women of Omdurman, p71. Colonial accounts of Zār ceremonies note that “when a shaikha died the corpse was conducted to the cemetery with seven incense burners, some in front, some behind.”(S.Zenvovsky)
Opening the Tin Box
Setting the Scene
Below, the smoke-distorted liquid forms of Zār participants swathed in rings of incense burning in the mubkhar at the heart of the painting, The Seat, Zar Ceremony, 1916 by Kamal Ishaq.
Learn more about this fascinating artist in
Zār is a complex healing rite where spiritual and supernatural beliefs coalesce with psychological and sociological realities in stunningly dramatic and cathartic ways. A sufferer of physical or psychological distress (usually a woman) seeks healing through the summoning and appeasing of spirits, known collectively as rih ahmar (red wind) or dustur, through a human intermediary – often a respected local woman (addressed as sheikha or umiyya), who draws on a long family tradition in Zār leadership.
Zār ceremonies are fluid, organic spaces where women explore and subvert concepts of identity, authority, autonomy and power. They reference, re-interpret and challenge local and broader colonial history. Incense burning informs every stage of Zār rituals. Guests are welcomed, purified and anointed with incense smoke and ashes. Susan Kenyon notes that the everyday incense pots are used over many years, taking on mystical significance and the accidental breaking of the pots is viewed with alarm. Poor women pool their resources to ensure the best incense is plentiful during the ceremony.
The cautionary tale, recorded by Sophie Zenkovsky below reminds us just how important the authority of the sheikha and incense are:
“A tailor was known to have such a rih ahmar and for many years he absolutely declined to waste his money on the ceremony with the result that his health went from bad to worse. At last, his mother-in-law, alarmed at his declining condition of health, decided that at all costs he must have a zar; she therefore borrowed money and his wife sold her gold ornaments. They engaged a a shaikha or gudya to perform the pacifying ceremony (darab al zar); this ceremony was performed and the man quickly regained his health and strength…..now the shaikha is considered as a blood mother to that person, intermediator between it and the rih ahmar…”
“Soon afterwards the tailor went to Gedaref. On the eve of the departure the same shaikha came to the house and offered to burn some incense as required by the dustur. The man rejected her offer not too politely and even went as far as to abuse the name of the dustur and departed the next day……One day his shaikha came to his mother-in-law very much alarmed and said during the night the dustur had informed her that because the man abused its name and refused to burn the bukhur when asked, he was to die. The next day a telegram arrived informing the family of the man’s death.”
Zar and Tambura as Practised by the Women of Omdurman, S. Zenkovsky, Sudan Notes and Records, Volume 31, 1950
Watch a Zār ceremony in Zar Short Film Institut Français
Opening the Tin Box
“Coffee with Dasholay, ilba (the tin box used by sheikhas in Zār rituals) in the background” Above, plate from Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar, Susan M. Kenyon, 2012.
“The tin box or ilba symbolises the Sheikha’s power and is her means of communication with the spirit world. It is given to her upon her initiation as leader and contains all the different incenses that call and provoke spirits. When she burns any incense, she’s invoking the appearance of the specific spirit that has possessed the person.”
“A typical Zar incense or bakhur Al-Zar generally contains ‘udiya (Aquilaria agallocha roxb Agarwood, luban jawi (Frankincense of Java -Benzoin), frankincense, commiphora pedunculata, sandalwood, mastika (mastic gum), ghasoul (salicornia sp) murr higazi (commiphora abyssinica), blended with traditional Sudanese perfumes.”
Below, I reproduce an extract from Susan Kenyon’s fascinating research work on the Zār, conducted over several years. This account of the sheikha’s tin box and its central status in Zār comes from Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar 2012, p33-4.
“She derives her powers and knowledge from her Box, which she has inherited from an older relative or acquired by apprenticeship from another umiyya. Each Box has its own history, elaborated contents, and intangible assets, many of which are known only to the leader...”
“Both literally and figuratively, the Box (al-ʿilba) encapsulates a set of beliefs. A sturdy, utilitarian, and very familiar object, it is cheap to buy, found in any market, and used for a variety of purposes in Sudanese homes, where it is particularly associated with women’s possessions, al-ʿidda. Firm and waterproof, solid and reliable, it can be locked and easily stored away. We had several in our house, used for holding camping materials, veterinary equipment, and children’s toys. The zar Box of the umiyya is outwardly no different, but stored inside are vital paraphernalia (also known as al-ʿidda): the incenses by which the zar spirits are summoned, together with incense pots and other valuable pieces of zar equipment. The Box contains the means to contact and control zar spirits and symbolizes the identity, power, and knowledge associated with a particular leader. When the Box is ritually opened—and this can be done only by the leader who “owns” it—then zar spirits are released or summoned. The image is not unlike that of the genie and bottle, but in the case of the zar Box, the objects of the summons are contained physically in a very secure container.”
“No two Boxes are alike …..This allows for great variation in terms of zar belief and ritual, some due to the Box and much encouraged by individual interpretation of the Box.
Looking at zar from the perspective of the Box highlights several important features ……without the Box there is no zar organization. The Box epitomizes the group, spirits and humans, who are attached to its owner and thus to the Box itself. This is not to say that the Box is zar, but rather that the Box provides the definition of zar in a particular context. Zar spirits may afflict an individual, but until she has been examined by an umiyya through the ceremony known as Opening the Box, (fatH al-ʿilba) those spirits have no explanation, no definition, and no means of communication. People who work closely with an umiyya and are beginning to build up their own powers in zar do so by acquiring their own Box. This is smaller and less impressive than that of the leader: just a couple of jars of incense at first, perhaps stored in a cardboard box. As more knowledge is acquired, the contents and type of container become more secure to accommodate all the ʿidda she acquires, accessories for the spirits. After completing all the ritual training necessary to become a leader, a woman further acquires, by natural or supernatural means, the large Box, ʿilba kabira, necessary to exhibit and safeguard her power and authority. In addition, the Box embodies the history of her particular zar group.
Music also plays a central role in zar rituals. See more in The Sudanese Tambour
Below, the incensing of the rababa or tambour during Zār. as recorded by Sophie Zenkovsky in 1950.