Five thousand years ago Oman was the centre of the world’s frankincense trade. Frankincense was traditionally burned at funerals and to repel malaria-bearing mosquitoes in the coastal regions. Other uses included the treatment of wounds, nausea, blood pressure, fever and inflammation. It was in great demand by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Israelites for their religious ceremonies. A whole year’s supply was burned at the funeral of Nero’s wife. As one of the gifts to the Christ child, frankincense was considered more valuable than gold. To transport frankincense across the desert, camels were domesticated in southern Arabia. At least one of the Magi is said to have started his journey to Bethlehem from southern Oman.
The Frankincense Souk in Salalah is reputed to be the best place to buy frankincense in the whole of Arabia. The Souk was our first stop on the frankincense trail when we lived in Oman in 2004. White smoke spiralled from little clay burners on the stalls of the Souk, mingling with the scent of jasmine and sandalwood. I was transported in a second to The Arabian Nights of my childhood imagination.
The climate, hot and dry for most of the year, but lush with rain during the monsoon season from June to September, provides the ideal growing conditions for the little twisted trees known as olibanuin, which grow on the desert side of the Dhofar mountains. Here, our guide, Abdullah, headed towards a grove of trees. He made an incision in one to show us how the sap runs out and hardens into crystals. These are collected after two weeks and sold in the markets. Omanis buy them for traditional medicinal purposes and also to perfume their clothes by draping them over wicker frames inside which frankincense smoulders.
Kawr Rori is a natural harbour on the coast where camels swim and flamingos rest in the inlet. An archaeological dig in nearby Sumharum uncovered the ruins of a palace, thought to have been built by the Queen of Sheba. Nicholas Clapp writes in his book, Sheba, that archaeological evidence indicates the queen lived in the Yemen and came to Sumharum for the frankincense trade. Abdullah found a tiny piece on the ground. “Maybe the Queen of Sheba held this,” he laughed. Was it from here, I wondered, that she set out on her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem with her gifts of frankincense? In the Song of Songs, Solomon asks, “What is this coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, breathing of myrrh and frankincense?”
Our next stop was Job’s tomb, forty kilometres from Salalah on Jabal Lyttin. A simple white building with a gold-painted dome, it lies at the end of a road lined with flame trees, almond, jasmine and bougainvillea. Near the entrance an enormous footprint, reputed to be Job’s, can be seen in the stone. According to legend Job was a giant, but as excavation of the three-metre-long tomb is forbidden this can’t be verified. An old man handed me a green headscarf and signalled to remove our shoes before entering. Smoke from frankincense burners wafted up to the ceiling. “There are many pilgrims to this tomb,” explained Abdullah:
We believe the smoke of frankincense is sacred. It carries our prayers to Heaven.”
Finally, we headed to Shisr to the lost city of Ubar. There is a story about the city in The Arabian Nights. It was mentioned in 200 AD by Arabian geographers and was marked on a map drawn by Ptolemy. Ubar was described in those documents as a major market town at the crossroads of the frankincense trade. According to the Koran, God punished Ubar’s inhabitants for their wicked ways by making the city vanish into the earth.
Western explorers failed to find the city until in 1990 American satellite pictures taken over the desert showed traces of ancient caravan routes converging on the area. These pictures, together with help from local Bedouins, enabled Nicholas Clapp and a team of archaeologists to locate the ruins. In his book, The Road to Ubar, Clapp describes how their excavations revealed that an underground stream had eroded a limestone cavern under the city creating a huge sinkhole into which most of the city had fallen. Over the years, the desert crept over the once verdant land. Today, all that remains above ground are a few stones from the towers that stored the frankincense before it was transported across the desert by camel trains.
The frankincense trade, which brought enormous wealth to southern Arabia, died with the rise of Christianity. Christians were urged to bury their dead therefore the vast quantities of frankincense previously used at cremations were no longer needed. The economy remained at subsistence level for many centuries until the discovery of oil in the 1960s brought a new cycle of prosperity. “What frankincense was to ancient times, oil is today,” said Abdullah. Schools, hospitals and houses have sprung up on the edge of the desert. Pick-up trucks and four-wheel-drives have replaced the camel as the mode of transport.
On the return journey to Salalah I thought of the civilisations that had risen and fallen over the millennia, all erased by the desert winds until modern technology found a way to uncover some traces. Abdullah swerved around a camel lying in the middle of the road. He pointed to the camel and the desert on each side of the motorway and said:
The Bedouins say that at the end of life there is only the sound of the desert wind and the tinkling of the camel’s bell.”
Sandra Arnold is the author of two novels and a book on parental bereavement. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. Sandra’s website is www.sandraarnold.co.nz.
Images by Sandra Arnold.
Read other articles by Sandra on Corpus here.