To the Omanis, frankincense is a basic necessity of life – an essential purchase along with food and fuel. Its musky scent fills the air wherever you go, wisps of soft grey smoke curling upwards from chunky pottery burners.
When we talked with our guide Hussain about its rising cost he bemoaned this as we would an increase in the price of bread or milk. There was no question that he would cease to buy it, just regret that he needed to pay more. And when we left he gave us a gift of frankincense, a burner (another Omani household essential) and a book about its history.
Every Omani home burns this fragrant resin daily. It perfumes their home; keeps flying insects such as mosquitoes at bay; and has perceived medicinal qualities – inhaling the smoke is said to be good for asthma, for instance. The best quality frankincense is steeped overnight in water, which is then drunk at breakfast time to treat a number of ailments.
And trade in this ‘white gold’ has shaped the history of the country’s southern region, Dhofar, in particular.
The frankincense trees of Dhofar
The climate of the Dhofar region is different to that of the rest of Oman, with monsoon rains during the summer months when the mountains are cloaked in green. Frankincense trees (Latin name Boswellia sacra) grow throughout the region. But the best frankincense is said to come from trees grown in a narrow climate band just beyond the reach of the summer monsoon but still under the influence of coastal winds.
The story of this region 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?
A special tool known as a managaf is used to shave the bark and release the precious resin. The scarred trees have to be left for a week or more while the sap oozes out. This is a labour-intensive process, which explains in part the high value placed on the end product. 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 fortified town of Sumhuram in Dhofar was built to guard the port which lies just below on a natural inlet from the sea. This archaeological site is also known as Khawr Rhori or Khor Rori. It, and two other archaeological sites in Dhofar plus the reserve of Wadi Dawkah, are jointly listed by UNESCO under the title of ‘Land of Frankincense’ for their outstanding universal value. The listing states that,
‘The four components of the Land of Frankincense dramatically illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries. They constitute outstanding testimony to the civilizations in south Arabia since the Neolithic.’
There has been a port here since the 3rd century BC. From the 1st century BC onwards it became especially significant in the export of frankincense from Oman. This was ‘a global trade hub’, a significant link in the network that linked the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Mediterranean. It was at that time the heart of the world’s frankincense trade, shipping thousands of tons of the precious resin to Europe, China, India and Africa.
The city had a small gate which led down to the port, and a much larger main gate which faced inland. This had several right-angled turns to make it easier to defend. Inscriptions have been found on this gate which have helped historians piece together the story of the city and its importance to the frankincense trade.
There was a vast store house complex composed of long chambers. This was where the frankincense was stored before being loaded on to the ships. Incense burners have been excavated in the area. They are made from limestone, with images of eagles, goats and lions engraved on them.
Down below the city is the break in the sea wall. Here a wadi flows into the sea; this provided the natural harbour and fresh water for the city.
Shopping for frankincense
Although it is grown only in the south of Oman, you can buy this ‘white gold’ everywhere in the country.
In addition to be an essential commodity for all Omani homes, it is a popular souvenir for visitors. Indeed, Muscat souk is said to be one of the few markets in the world where it’s possible to buy gold, frankincense and myrrh all under a single roof. Did the Three Magi shop there perhaps?
If you too decide to buy frankincense to burn at home, remember to also buy the charcoal that provides the flame and one of the traditional burners. Then you can create a little piece of Oman in your home.
I travelled to Oman in 2019