Once upon a time it was weighed up in gold. Now frankincense is a sought-after souvenir.
The Three Kings knew the right thing to do. At least Balthazar did. For it was he who brought Baby Jesus a gift of frankincense to his manger in Bethlehem. In Oman the resin continues to play an important role. At the turn of the millennium UNESCO declared Oman the ’Land of Frankincense’ and a World Cultural Heritage Site.
For many centuries frankincense was a sought-after treasure which was literally worth its weight in gold. The frankincense trade made entire nations rich, and the many and far-flung trails of the Incense Trade Route stretched from Oman in southern Arabia to Jordan, Syria and Egypt, to name a few countries, and to Europe as well.
Europeans are familiar with incense from its use in worship by the Roman Catholic Church. However, caravans were already travelling the ancient world 4,000 years ago. The busiest period of the trade lasted from 500 BC to 100 AD. Many cities were built as a result of the frankincense trade. The ruins of the ancient caravan city of Ubar are a much-visited attraction on excursions to the Rub al Khali Desert. It is said that huge caravans with thousands of camels set out from Ubar on the Incense Trade Route.
Discovery with the help of NASA
Ubar was probably inhabited since the Iron Age. According to one theory, the city vanished into the desert following an earthquake in 500 AD. The discovery of the Atlantis of the Sands, as a scientist once called the sunken city, was aided by photos taken by the NASA space shuttle Challenger. 1992 saw initial excavations of its ruins, and in 2014 Italian archaeologists reconstructed the remains: the ruins of a fortress tower, the foundations of several houses and a cave-like structure in the sand. It is possible to imagine what it was like.
The frankincense trees at Wadi Dawkah, 40 kilometres north of Salalah, are a UNESCO-listed site. Formerly known as the Incense Road it was renamed the Land of Frankincense in 2005. Wadis are dry riverbeds, and Wadi Dawkah boasts a sea of frankincense trees. It is said that the booming frankincense trade began here.
Three years of harvest, for three years the trees rest
The annual frankincense harvest in Dhofar Province in the south of Oman amounts to 7,000 tonnes. Every tree yields a maximum of about ten kilos. How much depends on many factors: location, climate, age, size and the condition of the tree. The lime soil on which the frankincense trees grow is responsible for the high quality in Dhofar. High levels of humidity, especially during the south-eastern monsoon (Khareef) from mid-June to mid-September also play an important part. Frankincense trees can be harvested three years in row, after which they rest for three years. The harvest begins in late April to early May and takes place in several stages over a number of months. At first the trunk of the tree and branches are tapped to extract a milky-white gummy liquid which dries naturally to become a resin. It is only during the later stages of harvesting several weeks later that it develops a higher grade.
Frankincense from Oman comes in many colours, glistening in white, green, reddish, brown and honey-like hues. Sometimes the resin particles can be pink. “The lighter the colour, the higher the grade“, explains a trader to his customers in Salalah, the capital of Dhofar. There are four grades. The highest is used in medicine, in particular as an anti-inflammatory agent, the lowest as an aromatic product. The smell of frankincense is everywhere in Oman. Almost every shop and household has a number of vessels burning the resin, spreading a mildly sweet smell that hangs in the air. Frankincense can also be processed into perfume and in certain cases into chewing gum. The ancient Egyptians used frankincense for mummifying the dead. Scientists found proof of this from traces in the Valley of the Kings.
A frankincense burner as a landmark
At the tiny Museum of the Land of Frankincense in Salalah visitors can find out everything about the history of frankincense, how it is harvested, export routes and its significance today. The exhibition at the Frankincense Museum is up to date on the latest information and teaching. A huge incense burning tower at Muttrah Corniche in the capital Muscat shows how important frankincense is in the Sultanate of Oman. Hard to believe! A watchtower that burns incense and is also one of the country’s landmarks.
The rise of tourism in Oman has made frankincense a major export. Nearly everyone who has been on holiday there buys an incense burner to take home. They come in many sizes and price categories and are made of all kinds of materials. Frankincense resin can also be purchased in different quantities at various prices, depending on the grade. Late afternoon is when a souq gets really busy. That is the time of day when Omanis go shopping to make sure the smell of frankincense is noticed everywhere in their homes.
Redaktionsbüro Schwartz, Horst Schwartz and Sabine Neumann