Land of Frankincense
Frankincense has been one of Oman’s most famous and highly prized natural products since antiquity, and its heady aroma is never far away, wafting out of everything from homes, mosques and souks through to modern office blocks and hotel lobbies, providing the country with an instantly recognizable olfactory signature. The majority of the world’s supply is now harvested in Somalia, while Yemen is also a major producer, although Omani frankincense – particularly that from Dhofar – is generally considered the finest.
Frankincense (in Arabic, luban) is a type of resin obtained from one of four trees of the Boswellia genus, particularly the Boswellia sacra, which thrives in the semi-arid mountainous regions around Salalah, often surviving in the most inhospitable conditions and sometimes appearing to grow straight out of solid rock. These distinctive trees are short and rugged, rarely exceeding 5m in height (and frequently shorter), often with a shrub-like cluster of branches rising straight from the ground, rather than a single trunk, and with a peeling, papery bark.
Frankincense is collected by making – or “tapping” – small incisions into the bark, causing the tree to secrete a resin, which is allowed to dry and harden into so-called “tears”. Tapping and collection is a skilled but often arduous profession, now mostly done by expat Somalis. Trees start producing resin when they are around ten years old, after which they are tapped two or three times a year. Virtually all frankincense is taken from trees growing in the wild – the difficulty of cultivating the trees means that they’re not generally farmed on a commercial scale, in the manner of, say, dates, adding to the resin’s mystique.
There are many varieties of frankincense, sorted by hand and graded according to colour, purity and aroma. “Silver” (also known as Hojari) frankincense is generally considered the highest grade. The whiter and purer the colour, the better the grade. More yellowish varieties are less highly valued, while at the bottom of the scale come the rather blackish Somali varieties. The resin is then mixed with coals and burnt in afrankincense burner, ranging from simple clay pots to the colourfully painted examples favoured in Dhofar.
Frankincense is a key element in traditional Omani life; a frankincense burner is traditionally passed from hand to hand after a meal in order to perfume clothes, hair and beards; it is also used as an ingredient in numerous perfumes, as well as in Omani bukhoor. Besides its aromatic properties, frankincense has many practical uses. Its smoke repels mosquitoes, while certain types of frankincense resin are also edible, and are widely used in traditional Arabian and Asian medicines to promote healthy digestion and skin. Even more cutting-edge medical uses for the resin are currently being investigated, including its use as a treatment for Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis and even cancer.
The collective name (The Frankincense Trail) of these sites was only given to them at the suggestion of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) at the time of inscription in 2000 – their original nomination merely listed their individual names. Indeed no real “trail” exists – this WHS consists of 4 disparate sites in and around the southern Omani town of Salalah connected over the centuries by the trade in Frankincense.
Frankincense is one of those things which everyone will have heard of (The “Gifts of the 3 Kings” etc) but few will have seen, let alone seen the trees from which it is obtained actually growing and being harvested. The tree (Boswellia) grows in S Arabia and the Horn of Africa. The trade lasted for thousands of years and the substance had great value (more than gold at times). The word oozes mystery and historical connections – from that point of view the sites have considerable potential interest. The reality is somewhat less however and visitors will have to use a lot of imagination to conjure up the past!
3 of the sites are ruined cities :- The first, Shisr, (originally Wubar) lies in the desert where Frankincense was transported north by camel train and the other 2, Khor Rori (originally Sumhuram) and Al-Balid (originally Zafar) were trading ports on the coast. The history of the cities spans a period from Bronze Age to the 12th century Islamic States but generally their respective cultural “peaks” were in the sequence listed. The final site is the “Wadi Dawkah Frankincense Park” an area of desert where many of the trees fuelling the trade grew.
If you want to see them you will have to face either a flight from Muscat down to Salalah and then arranging transport there, or making the 1050kms drive across the desert. We did the latter (allow 9-10 hours for the journey) which has the advantage of gaining a feel for the distance and the fact that in the south you have moved into a different climatic zone as well as meaning you have the transport you will need when you get there (Avis provides a rental deal with the free kms you will need if you make the journey).
Al-Balid is the easiest to see. It lies next to the Crowne Plaza resort hotel in the eastern suburbs of Salalah! A visitor centre is being built and may yet provide improved “interpretation” of the Frankincense Trail – at the moment the only place to obtain this (very limited) is in the Salalah Museum. The accompanying photo provides an indication of the remains
Khor Rori is perhaps the most dramatic and potentially evocative site. “Khors” are lagoons between the sea and the Dhofar mountains where wadis have broken through the coastal mountains. They provide fine bird watching. The remains Khor Rori stand on a hill high above the lagoon and consist mainly of the cut stones of a single fort-like building. However, with imagination one can see the boats coming and going through the gap in the cliffs to the open sea beyond carrying the frankincense to the waiting world! Or perhaps you can’t!
The “Wadi Dawkah Frankincense Park” lies approximately half way between Thumrayt, the last desert oasis going south before reaching the Dhofar mountains, and Salalah. If you reach the police checkpoint just before the escarpment summit you have gone too far! All you will notice will be the metal signs used in Oman to signify an archaeological ruin (they contain the site name in English) and fences on both sides of the road. The fences are breached by openings and, with a 4×4 you could enter the wadi on the west to look for Frankincense trees. We did not and the easiest place in our experience to see Frankincense trees growing is much closer to Salalah. Go west from the Hilton Hotel on the west side of the city and pass 2 roundabouts. After about 2 kms you will see a red “Omani Army” sign and a dirt road going right. This leads to a firing range (don’t worry it is fenced off!) and after about 2 more kms to a wadi containing around 20 trees. You will see the resin oozing from cuts and smell the scent.
The Frankincense Park of Wadi Dawkahb
The Neolithic inhabitants of southern Arabia were, on the basis of archaeological evidence, engaged in long-distance trade with the Arabian coastal littoral and from there into Mesopotamia. Excavations have revealed that shells and obsidian were being traded, and there are documentary and epigraphic sources relating to trade in frankincense by the later 3rd millennium BCE, when it was certainly flourishing, not only with Mesopotamia but also with Egypt.
The sources of frankincense are clearly described by Ptolemy, and can be identified with the three areas in the Dhofar region in which the frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) is still to be found. This trade continued throughout the Iron Age and into the Islamic Period. The other main export from southern Arabia at this time was that of horses.
BEFORE YOU GO: The main Web site of the Socotra Archipelago Conservation and Development Programme (www.socotraisland.org ) has good background information. Visas are required for American travelers; visit www.cdc.gov for information on recommended vaccinations and medications. Although the U.S. State Department currently maintains a travel warning for Yemen, most experts agree that travelers need not have safety concerns about Socotra. Organizing travel to Socotra is challenging, so a travel agent can be very helpful: try the excellent Poe Travel (800-727-1960;www.poetravel.com.
WHEN TO GO October through April is best — especially March and April, when the sea is flat and ideal for snorkeling and diving. Avoid the windy monsoon season from May to September.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND: There are only two flights a week to the island, operated by Yemen Airways (www.yemenia.com ); seats sell out well in advance. On the island, you need to hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as well as an English-speaking driver and guide. Expect to pay $250 to $350 for four days; be sure to negotiate in advance. These arrangements, as well as hotel reservations, can be made through the Socotra Ecotourism Society (firstname.lastname@example.org ).
HOTELS: The island’s few hotels are basic. Some have rooms with private bathrooms and flush toilets; all are inexpensive (about $10 a night). The Taj Socotra (no relation to the India -based chain) in Hadibu is simple and clean and has a popular outdoor restaurant; there’s also the newer Al Mohet and, outside of town near the airport, the Chalet Socotra. Camping is an ideal way to sleep, since the island’s main ecological sites are one or more hours’ drive away from Hadibu; you can arrange to rent gear on the island.