"Frankincense Land"
Luban < OMAN HERITAGE

Exotic scents of Dhofar *

For centuries frankincense was the Key merchandise of ancient trade with Greece, Rome, Egypt, China and India, bringing fabulous wealth to parts of Arabia where the aromatic gum resin was produced.

History is rich with accounts of this trade, and the use of frankincense in ancient Roman and Greek religious rituals. Roman fleets and Arabian dhows shipped annually thousands of tonnes of this most precious of commodities to Rome. Pliny, the pest Known historian of the time, noted that colossal quantities of frankincense was ordered burnt by Emperor Nero at the last rites of his departed wife.

Dhofar—source of some of the finest frankincense in those times—partook of the glory and riches that it brought. It spawned the rise of ancient cities like the fabled Ubar and Sumhuram, which have since been lost to history.

Yet 2,000 years later, frankincense still remains the centrepiece of Dhofar’s vibrant heritage. Gulf national and foreign travellers who visit this southern coastal retreat in their thousands every year cart away sizeable quantities of Dhofar’s exotic fragrances.

 

In Omani homes across Dhofar and elsewhere in the Sultanate, frankincense and other traditional scents are indispensable to the ritual of demonstrating one’s hospitality to visitors can air themselves in the heady scent of the burning frankincense.

Festive events like weddings, Eid celebrations, the birth of a newborn, and so on, are also incomplete without the burning of frankincense or its exotic versions like bokhur.

Such is the pivotal place these prized frankincense have in the daily lives of Omanis that it has spawned a flourishing cottage industry in Dhofar, with specialist blenders each boasting their own secret brand of incense and perfume.

Frankincense—the fragrance of royalty in antiquity—is even today coveted by Dhofar’s tourists and residents. Entire souqs in Salalah are now dedicated to selling this prized of Dhofar’s heritage, and other exotic fragrances like bokhur, attar and traditional perfumes.

For an insightful introduction to the heady world of frankincense and perfumes, a visit to Salalah’s Frankincense Souq in a must. Built by Dhofar Municipality three years ago, it features a block of shops dedicated to exclusively selling incense, perfumes and traditional goods. These are run by Omanis who have been Dhofar’s frankincense trade for generations.
 

Juma bint Saeed Thowaini, one of the souq’s best-Known frankincense dealers, learnt the finer skills of the trade from her mother. Her bokhur products are much in demand, coveted mainly by GCC national who buy up substantial quantities of this prized incense.

 

Bokhur-making 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 from a richly-fragranced powder.

Juma sells five varieties of bokhur—products of her own secret and very distinctive brand, she says. The most prized—recommended for brides and young girls—sells at RO 10 a small jam-jar-sized bottle. Other varieties like Almass, Kothra or Cake, based on different scents and ingredients, also sell at RO 10 a container.

Frankincense dose not figure in Juma’s brands of bokhur. Instead she uses musk, attar and select raw perfumes imported from Switzerland to blend her brands of bokhur. The longer the release of its exotic scents, the more expensive and prized is the bokhur, says the veteran bokhur-maker.

Bokhur-making 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.

Encouraged by the demand for bokhur, Juma now plans to set up a branch in Muttrah souq. She has her own business card that allows her regular customers to call and place large orders for her bokhur products .
 

Juma’s neighbouring stall in run by another long-time frankincense dealer who calls herself Um Yunus. She is the mother of Yunus, one of Oman’s renowned footballers. Her stall is chock-a-block with myriad varieties of frankincense, bokhur, perfumed oils and other traditional bric-a-brac.

 

The frankincense, says Um Yunus, comes in 40-kg sacks, supplied by those who harvest the numerous Boswellia trees that grow on the fringes of the arid Nejd desert or the drier, lower reaches of the jebels.

From incisions made on the trunk of these trees oozes a pearly white liquid that hardens into semi-opaque lumps. These are periodically scraped off by local villagers and sold to traders in Salalah. The freshly-harvested gum resin is sorted into four principal varieties of frankincense, according to its colour. Light pastel shades of frankincense, originating from the Nejd, sell for up to RO 5 per kg, while darker shades cost between RO 2-3 per kilogramme..
 

Um Yunus also sells an extensive variety of bokhur which she markets on behalf of scores of Omani bokhur-makers living in Salalah.Standard jam-jar-size containers of the fragrance sell for RO 10 apiece.

 

The biggest trade in frankincense and traditional fragrances is concentrated at Salalah’s oldest market, the Al Haffah souq. Scores of shops here sell numerous varieties of the gum resin, bokhur and perfumed oils at bargain prices.

However, the biggest trade in frankincense and traditional fragrances is concentrated at Salalah’s oldest market, the Al Haffa souq. Scores of shops here sell numerous varieties of the gum resin, bokhur and perfumed oils at bargain prices. Also available here is the largest range of incense burers.

Awad bin Said Abdi takes a break from his government job for two months every khareef, especially because of the large numbers of tourists in Salalah, he comments.

Abdi sells ten different varieties of bokhur, all of which he produces at home. At RO 5 a container, sales are brisk, but the bigger demand is for frankincense, he adds. Also on offer is a vast selection of perfumed oils which are sold in tiny recycled perfume bottles at RO 1 per tola.

Dofar’s fine heritage of frankincense trees are quite a sight to behold despite their unspectacular shape. A splendid collection of these trees grow in Wadi Qahshan deep in the jebels beyond Mughsayl. 

 

 

 The wadi runs 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. Because of their remote location, they are usually spared damage by grazing goats and camels, allowing them to grow healthily.

In Omani homes across Dhofar and elsewhere in the Sultanate, frankincense and other traditional scents are indispensable to the ritual of demonstrating one’s hospitality to visiting guests. In cense burners are passed around so visitors can air themselves in the heady scent of the burning frankincense.

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