"Southern Treasure"
Frankincense <

Frankincense: The centrepiece of Oman's vibrant heritage*


The Boswellia tree — source of the much-prized frankincense — growing  in the Nejd region of Dhofar Governorate — Picture by Khamis al Moharbi

For centuries, frankincense, like its heady fragrance, held sway over the fortunes of kingdoms and entrepots across ancient Arabia, the Mediterranean and the Far East. It vied with gold and precious stones for the hearts of many a king and queen of antiquity. And held pride of place in ancient Greek and Roman religious rituals. History abounds with accounts of this aromatic resin's exalted status in times of yore. Roman fleets and Arabian dhows called regularly at ancient ports in this region to lift huge quantities of this gum resin. 

It was also shipped to distant China and India in a trade that attracted fabulous wealth to countries that produced this much-coveted resin. Today, two millennia later, this fragrance of royalty continues to enchant the hearts and senses of people in this country. Festive events like weddings, Eid celebrations, the birth of a newborn, and so on, are incomplete without the burning of frankincense. Moreover, in Omani homes across the Sultanate, frankincense is indispensable to the ritual of demonstrating one's hospitality to visiting guests. 

Incense burners are passed around so visitors can air themselves in the heady scent of the burning frankincense. Truly, frankincense remains the centrepiece of Oman's vibrant heritage, enriched as it is by exotic versions of the fragrance, notably bokhur, attar and other traditional perfumes. Such is the pivotal place these prized fragrances have in the daily lives of Omanis that it has spawned a flourishing cottage industry in the Dhofar Governorate. 

Entire souqs in Salalah are now dedicated to the sale of these scents, catering to an ever-increasing domestic and overseas demand. Gulf nationals and foreign travellers who visit this southern coastal retreat in their thousands every year cart away sizeable quantities of these fragrances. Despite all the history and romance surrounding the resin, its source — the Boswellia tree — is less spectacular to behold. Bereft of leaves in summer, each tree features a profusion of gnarled branches. 

Hundreds of such trees grow along the fringes of the arid Nejd desert or the dry lower reaches of the jebels in the Dhofar region. A fine collection of these trees can also be found in Wadi Qahshan deep in the jebels beyond Mughsayl. The wadi runs through steep mountains through which traverses the famous Mughsayl-Sarfait road linking Salalah with the Yemen border. A turn-off mid-way up the mountain brings you to a number of frankincense trees growing amid large rocks. Incisions made on the trunk of these trees yield a pearly white liquid that hardens into semi-opaque lumps. 

These are periodically scraped off by local villagers and sold in 40kg sacks to traders in Salalah. The freshly harvested gum resin is sorted into four principal varieties of frankincense, according to its shade. Light pastel shades of frankincense, originating from the Nejd, sell for up to RO5 per kg, while darker shades cost between RO2-3 per kg. Many travellers to Salalah make it a point to visit famous Frankincense Souq, which serves to showcase the region's great incense heritage. 

Built by Dhofar Municipality four years ago, it features shops stocked chockablock with incense, perfumes and traditional goods. Omanis who have been at the forefront of Dhofar's frankincense trade for generations run the stalls. Many among them are expert blenders who produce a bewildering variety of bokhur fragrances, the recipes of which are closely guarded secrets. Bokhur production varies from one blender to another, but the most exotic types include ingredients like oudh (scented wood from India and the Far East), sandalwood, attar, rosewater, myrrh, raw perfume oils and a variety of aromatic resins and extracts. 

These are blended in a certain proportion, cooked together and crushed to form a richly fragranced powder.Fine bokhur varieties, coveted by brides and young girls, cost as much as RO10 per jam-jar size bottle. Other fragrances like Almass, Kothra or Cake, based on different scents and ingredients, also sell at RO10 a container.

* Adapted from Oman Observer. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.