Flame-coloured are his wings, and coloured like flame is his body. His lips are sweet as honey, and his breath is like frankincense.Oscar Wilde, The Nightingale and the Rose
You can’t travel far in Oman without hearing the word frankincense. Every Omani home burns this fragrant resin daily, it is an intrinsic part of Omani life. Not only does it make the home smell nice, it also keeps flying insects such as mosquitoes at bay. The best quality frankincense is steeped overnight in water which is then drunk at breakfast time to treat a variety of ailments. And inhaling the smoke is said to be good for asthma.
It is not to be confused with the cheaper incense, which traditionally is used by women to fragrance their clothing. They burn it and drape their clothes on a wooden framework directly above.
In Salalah our guide Hussain had told us how frankincense has become more expensive in recent years as people around the world are discovering (or should that be re-discovering?) its value. But he talked of it as you would of a basic necessity for which you now had to pay more these days; not as a luxury you might have to give up.
Frankincense in Dhofar
The story of the Dhofar region in particular is inextricably linked to this one tree and the wealth that flowed from trading its resin; a historical precursor to the more recent history of oil in this part of the world perhaps? The story of frankincense here is so important that UNESCO has designated four sites under the umbrella of the Land of Frankincense. The listing states that:
‘The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah and the remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr/Wubar and the affiliated ports of Khor Rori and Al-Baleed vividly illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries, as one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world.’
To visit these sites is to appreciate the deep relationship between frankincense and the lives of the people of this region that dates back for centuries. Let me take you there …
It is from this Dhofar region in southern Oman that the best frankincense of all is said to come; growing in a narrow climate band just beyond the reach of the summer monsoon but still under the influence of coastal winds.
On a flat low-lying plain north of Salalah an area has been planted with the young trees. This is part of a project to replace those being lost through over-exploitation. Their yield is reduced if the bark is cut while still too young, or if the tree is not rested every five or six years. It is also affected by animal grazing and climate change. The site is one of the four listed by UNESCO as the ‘Land of Frankincense’.
Our guide demonstrated the tool, known as a managaf that is used to shave the bark. This releases the precious resin. This is a labour-intensive process, which explains in part the high value placed on the end product. The scarred trees have to be left for a week or more while the sap oozes out. After the little drops of resin are scraped off, the same spot is re-cut. The process is repeated several times until the final harvest which yields the palest and most valuable resin.
The small archaeological site of Wubar, also known as Ubar or Shisr, was a former resting point on the frankincense trade routes. These ruins were only discovered in 1992 when they were picked up by satellite imagery. The satellite images also reveal ancient trade routes converging on the site, apparently made by the passage of hundreds of thousands of camels.
Looking into the history of this place it is hard sometimes to separate fact from fiction. The original discoverers of the site were Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Nicholas Clapp. They suggested it was Ubar, the so-called ‘Atlantis of the Sands’; a legendary city said to have sunk beneath the dunes of the Empty Quarter, much as the other Atlantis sank beneath the sea. But even if such a city exists, some historians dispute Wubar’s claim to be it. They argue that its role was more that of a caravanserai than a complete city, a trading post where caravans of camels laden with frankincense would load up on water and other supplies before heading into the daunting Empty Quarter on their way to the ports of the Mediterranean.
Archaeological evidence is inconclusive. From the ruins it appears that there was a fort here surrounded by an eight-sided wall, with a tower at each corner; a description which matches that of the legendary Ubar in ancient documents. It seems that part of this fort collapsed when a sinkhole formed underneath it; several feet of sand eventually covered all the ruins, so it did sink into the desert sands as the legend describes. While some say that it appears far too small to have ever been described as a city, others argue that people quite likely lived in tents at that time, and it would not have been uncommon for a fort to be the only permanent structure in a city.
So far however excavations at the site have revealed nothing old enough to verify the claims; and some of the items found indicate a much later period of habitation.
Sumhuram lies on the coast east of Salalah. There has been a port here, known as Khor Rori, since the 3rd century BC. From the 1st century BC onwards it became especially significant in the export of frankincense from Oman. The fortified town of Sumhuram was built to guard the port, which lies just below on a natural inlet from the sea. Today that inlet is separated from the sea by a sand bar; it is home to flamingos and many migratory birds.
When we visited we saw archaeologists were at work inside the old walls, led by a team from Pisa. Only last week, we were told, one of them had found an old coin here.
We saw the small gate which led down to the port, and the much larger main gate which faced inland. This had several right-angled turns to make it easier to defend. Inscriptions have been found on the gate which have helped historians piece together the story of the city and its importance to the frankincense trade. It was, as the leaflet we were given describes it, ‘a global trade hub’; a significant link in the network that linked the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean.
We walked through this gate to the former residential area. Only the foundations of the houses remain, but they would once have stood two stories high. The museum on the site displays various finds from the site are exhibited, and a video helps to bring the place to life.
Al Baleed archaeological site and the Museum of the Frankincense Land
But to really understand the significance of the trade in frankincense to this region, a visit to the Museum of the Frankincense Land is a must. This is located just outside Salalah, next to the archaeological site of Al Baleed, the remains of a medieval trading port. The frankincense trade flourished here between the 8th to 16th centuries AD; so the port is much more recent than that of Khor Rori at Sumhuram. The most significant building on the site is a large mosque. It had 148 pillars surrounding a courtyard, of which only a few stumps were preserved. There is also a citadel and residential houses.
We spent most of our visit in the museum howeve. It covers much more than the story of frankincense. There are artefacts dating back thousands of years right through to recent Omani history, including the coming to power of Sultan Qaboos (the ruler at the time of our visit, who died in 2020). He oversaw the modernisation of Oman, building roads, schools and hospitals. But in this modern society frankincense still retains its significance and is highly prized, as I hope I have shown.
I visited Oman in 2019