Far from being an arid dustbowl, the Arabian nation of Oman has widely varying landscapes. And at Salalah, in the south, the yearly monsoon ensures that a very valuable tree flourishes.
"I must tell you something," said Musallam Hassan almost as soon I had stepped out of arrivals at Salalah International Airport.
He paused, his black eyes narrowed, fixing me in his gaze. "Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, they will all tell you they have it. But all the world knows, the best frankincense comes from here in Salalah."
That important fact established, Musallam relaxed and explained how oil and natural gas were making Oman’s second city rich and how Mormons regarded Salalah, 1000km south of Muscat, as a significant holy place.
Despite its status as the world’s fifth busiest container port, it is the dry, chunky amber sap and the musky smoke it produces that has put Salalah on the map. And it seems Salalah has been trading on the aroma for at least 4000 years with remnants of distinctive Omani-designed frankincense burners found in East Africa, Egypt, Iran, and India and as far away as China and Korea.
Salalah’s only Bedouin tour guide, Musallam Hassan has travelled almost as widely. Born in a mountain cave — exact date unrecorded — he was raised on camel meat and milk, which he says he still can’t do without, and has blazed an unorthodox trail through his employment with the Ministry of Defence, and adventures in Europe and South America to his current role as a Salalah villa owner and tour guide.
Still close to his roots — the family home is in a desert village north of Salalah — he speaks two ancient Bedouin languages Jiballi and the unwritten Mahri as well as Arabic, English, German and French.
And he can identify a camel by its footprints.
He seemed eminently qualified to show me around the perfume capital of Arabia.
We headed out along the windswept coastal face of the Mughsail mountains to the west of town. Grassy hills spilt into a misty sea where there are also seaweed-coated hazardous rocks. During high tide, the Arabian Sea buffets the porous coast forcing itself through blowholes which channel jets of water 20m high.
Salalah enjoys moderate year round temperatures and is soaked by a steady drizzle which falls almost constantly during the monsoon or khareef between June and September. Musallam lamented the khareef seemed later and shorter each year but there was enough green on the Mughsails to provide a break from the biscuit-dry Omani interior I had become used to.
Just inland, we found a rocky canyon, green with the flat-topped canopies of short, stumpy frankincense trees. Taking a knife, Musallam made downward, stabbing motions, skinning the bark with each strike. He explained that the bark only needed a shallow cut to encourage the sap to bleed.
After a few slashes, white liquid bubbled to the surface, baffling the ants that had made the brown limb their own. Left to dry, the sap would harden over two to three weeks and then be ready to burn.
Trees cut in the warmer months of May and June bleed more sap which becomes gummy quicker and produces better-quality frankincense than those cut later in September. The trees can live for 80 years and prefer rocky soils with those in warm, wet areas providing the best quality sap.
There are four grades of frankincense with the Huggri region, a few hundred kilometres north-east of Salalah, producing the best quality. Low grade frankincense has more oil and the farmers sell it for use in perfume and medicines.
“They have a hard job and they’re not well paid, ” Musallam said later in the Al Haffa Souk as we picked our way through hessian bags filled with walnut sized chunks of frankincense.
The Bible says the three wise men carried frankincense across deserts to the crib of Jesus so it seems ironic that it’s worth so little.
Because the magi were not alone in making treacherous journeys for dried tree sap.
North of Salalah, on the border of the ominous Empty Quarter, the searing desert hides the ruins at Shisr. In the hot sun I wandered along crumbling stone walls. They are all that remains of what archaeologists believe may have been the Lost City of Ubar — a rich frankincense and camel trading centre mentioned in the Koran but long dismissed as legend.
Like a land-based Atlantis, scientists had scoured Arabia for the fabled city for years and during the 1980s pinpointed the site at Shisr using NASA satellites to follow ancient camel train routes.
Ground-penetrating radar revealed cavities in the earth and, as the archaeologists dug, they found 3000-year-old sandstone chess pieces, seventh-century incense burners and the ruins of an extensive fort around an 18m-deep limestone cave.
Further digs exposing flints, arrowheads and axes dating from 7000BC showed the area had been inhabited since Neolithic times.
It is believed the city grew wealthy as a storage centre and market of high-quality frankincense which was harvested near Thumrite to the east. Traders from as far as Egypt and Syria would cross the deserts to reach Shisr which grew richer and more elaborate as the centuries passed. About 500 years ago, the limestone cave used as a water source began to run dry and collapsed, causing the city to tumble into the earth.
Standing at what was probably the gateway to the giant fort, it was obvious there was much more to find. But tools had been downed and all was still with little to bother the ravens and pigeons which live in the overhang of the cave.
As a call to prayer rang out across the dunes, I wondered what else the desert had swallowed.
DisclaimerNiall McIlroy visited Oman as a guest of Tourism Oman, New Horizons Holidays and Emirates Airline.
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