Magazine article Geographical

Scent of a Nation: For Millennia, Frankincense Was One of the World's Most Valuable Trade Goods, and Oman's Dhofar Region Was Renowned as the Source of Some of the Finest Frankincense around. Even Today, This Aromatic Resin Plays a Central Role in Omani Culture, and It's Now Proving to Be a Valuable Asset for Its Tourism Industry

Magazine article Geographical

Scent of a Nation: For Millennia, Frankincense Was One of the World's Most Valuable Trade Goods, and Oman's Dhofar Region Was Renowned as the Source of Some of the Finest Frankincense around. Even Today, This Aromatic Resin Plays a Central Role in Omani Culture, and It's Now Proving to Be a Valuable Asset for Its Tourism Industry

Article excerpt

My guide takes his knife and draws it sharply across the bark of a frankincense tree. Within seconds, a rather toxic-looking white substance has bubbled to the surface, like beads of blood surging up along a paper cut.

'Taste it, taste it,' says guide Abdullah Subah. I'm not sure that I want to. It looks pretty noxious, but Subah insists it's perfectly harmless, so I scoop up a little with my finger. It feels a bit like the white glue children use at playgroups. And tastes a bit like it, too, but with an added tinge of tongue-numbing antiseptic and a smell like concentrated pine oil.

We're standing in a wadi (valley) in the Dhofar region in Oman's southwestern corner. Whereas most of Oman is subject to the sand-baking heat of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, a small part of Dhofar is lush and green, moistened annually by the monsoon rains that rise up of out the Arabian Sea. Some frankincense grows down there by the sea, but the best grows just over the hills where the rains don't quite make it.

Here, where we are, the jade vegetation and duvet of grey mist are replaced by fierce winds, persistent camels and groves of thick-skinned frankincense trees, spritzed by the early-morning mists that spill over the dusty hilltops. The locals have been harvesting the wild Boswellia sacra's precious resin here for centuries, these days mostly for its incense-like odour, but also to make the most of its various health benefits. Talk to nearly any Omani and they'll reel off a long list of them: fly repeller, stomach soother, cough remover, blood thinner, cold drier, wound cleaner, joint oiler.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Further up the empty valley, we meet a small group of Bedouin who've brought their camels down from the mountains to protect them from the monsoon. The contemplative beasts are corralled in rusty-iron-fenced enclosures, shaded from the sun by garish Arabian carpets. Inside a nearby tent, an uncle, his nephew and their Pakistani helper wait out the noonday heat with lounging mats and large bottles of mineral water.

'We used to use frankincense as an antiseptic when the camels cut themselves,' says the uncle, a handsome septuagenarian with pure-white hair, creamy walnut-coloured skin, sea-blue eyes and teeth that would be the envy of a Hollywood A-lister. 'We would dissolve the frankincense in hot water and smooth it over the animal's skin. We don't now of course--we have medicine. But we used it up until the 1980s.' I ask if he misses those times, and riding his camels across the desert. 'No,' he says with a smile as he points at the 4x4 parked outside the tent.

NATIONAL SMELL

The traditional aroma of frankincense pervades almost every part of Omani life; if the country had a national smell, this would surely be it. Since ousting his father in a coup in 1970, Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman, has endeavoured to tie the country's national identity with frankincense, and Oman's tourism industry has also been working to exploit this ancient association.

We visit Salalah's old souk in the evening and find that they're doing a brisk trade. Amid stalls selling kufiya the head scarves favoured by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Ararat--reems of bold floral-print material and stuffed birds of prey stuck in awkward, embarrassed poses are apothecary-like shops filled with jars and jars of different types of frankincense.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A group of young men rushes into one of the most popular shops, where they order different types of frankincense mixed with other aromatic ingredients, such as rosewater, sandalwood or cardamom. 'They're from the capital, Muscat,' explains the shopkeeper as he seals each medley in a small metal fin. 'Fulfilling perfume requests for friends and wives and sisters and mothers.'

Away from the fluorescent lights, in the souk's quieter areas, older women with traditional gold rings in their noses sort lumps of recently harvested frankincense into different baskets depending on their quality. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.