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Culture & Society | Global Arab Network
The Myth and Magic of Omans Incens
Global Arab Network - Hussein Shehadeh

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And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary, his mother, and falling down they adored him: and opening their treasures,they offered him gifts; gold frankincense and myrrh.

Incense is found in many forms, but the baby Jesus was given the most treasured of al, so-called frankincense. Once it was literally worth its weight in gold, making the Omanis extremely rich. It is only in Oman that the climate is right for Arabian incense (Boswellia sacra) to thrive.
Frankincense demands a very special climate and only grows in a small section of the country, in Dhofar, the only part of the Arabian peninsular within the monsoon belt. Here it rains all the time from late June to the end of September, while the sun shines for the rest of the year. It is only in this climate that the incense trees flourish, in river beds created by the monsoon which for the rest of the year are bone-dry depressions called wadis.
Reference is frequently made to incense in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament. The temples of the ancient Hebrews always smelled of incense, as it was considered to be an intermediary between God and man. This perception was shared by other religions at that time. So one can say, that gold symbolised the royal dignity of the newborn child, myrrh was one of the constituents of the embalming of the resurrection and frankincense, Jesus’ role as intermediary between god and mankind.
The earliest known reference to frankincense was found in the grave of the Egyptian queen Hatseput in the form of an inscription dating from 1500 BC. Sizeable chunks of the incense were also found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The Egyptians burned incense in their temples. The charred remains were ground and used as dye in the familiar kohl, used as eye make-up by women as well as men. Frankincense was used in the Oracle of Delphi, by priests and wealthy families in their religious ceremonies. The Roman senators swore their allegiance to the Emperor in air thick with incense.
It is told that Alexander the Great once was reprimanded by his teacher for using too much of this costly commodity in sacrifice. “That is the sort of thing you can only permit yourself if you are the ruler of the land of its origin,” the teacher reportedly said. Alexander did not succeed in this, although he did achieve the next best thing: control of the incense trade. “Now we can invoke the gods without having to be mean“, he wrote home triumphantly. With the letter arrived tonnes of incense, of the purest quality, of course.
Transporting the incense from remote Oman to the lucrative markets around the Mediterranean was not easy. It was originally sailed by ship to the Red Sea, but about 1000 BC the Arabs began to transport their trade over land. This marked the opening of the fabled caravan routes across the large desert, Al Rub Al-Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter. The route exacted steep duties of the carriers and these were, of course, added to the price. So when the much sought-after commodity finally arrived, its weight in gold was demanded in payment.
Some people had gold a plenty. The Roman author Pliny the Elder relates how at his wife Poppea’s funeral, Emperor Nero burned more than one year’s production of the Arabian incense. He mentions a figure of 2500 tonnes, but according to Dhofar’s own sources, production could reach as much as 6500 tonnes a year. A good deal of this was, however shipped to India and China, countries about which the Romans had only vague notions, but with which the Omanis, a nation of seafarers had trading links. Sinbad the sailor was, of course, an Omani.
Gathering the resin has always been considered to be a sacred occupation. Production lasts only four months, the trees resting until next harvest. The tribes which have a right to the trees select the men who are to do the job. When they have carried out an ancient cleansing ritual and said their prayers, they approach the trees. Using a special tool, known as a manghaf, they cut grooves into the bark and a thick fluid dribbles out. This is allowed to run for a few weeks, after which the dried resin is broken off and sorted. There are both male and female trees, the male producing the most resin.
The resin is sorted according to colour, which relates to the amount of rain during the monsoon season. The more rain the redder the resin becomes and the poorer the quality. The blue-white Alhoraj is regarded to be the finest, after which come Alnajdi, Alsharzi and Ashabi.
The resin has other qualities than the perfume alone. It contains mildly antiseptic phenols and is still used to treat wounds as well as tightening ageing skin. The resin is also used to cure stomach pains and indigestion, drunk in a water solution.
The incense trade has been important and lucrative for thousands of years. King Solomon’s ship docked every year in Oman. The Queen of Sheba, who ruled Oman at that time, also travelled to visit Solomon to sign a contract for the supply of incense. Later both the catholic and the orthodox churches perpetuated the link between incense and religion and it was burned in cathedrals for centuries.
However, towards the end of the Second World War, times changed for Oman’s incense farmers. India imposed extortionate import duties on the incense and in the West this invaluable resin was copied in laboratories as a cheap replacement to the true frankincense. Large-scale production ceased and the plantations fell into decay. But the Arabian resin trees still grow in the wild in Dhofar and frankincense is still much in demand. It is used in complementary medicine and he perfume industry buys part of the annual production, although much less than previously.
Incense vessels burn merrily throughout Oman. The cheapest of it being used to keep away insects in the evenings – but even the smell of this is considerably better than our insect-repellent spirals.
Museum of the Land of Frankincense, comprising a History Hall and a Maritime Hall, officially opened on 23rd July 2007. The contents include finds from different sites, models, maps, photographs, manuscripts and examples of traditional Omani ships. Offices and storage facilities are also housed in the compound. Visitors can tour the site in electrical cars. There are also a number of curio and handicraft shops in the Park which have been set up by the Public Authority for Craft and Industries. The Park’s other features include a viewing tower, a viewing platform for watching birds in Khor al Baleed lagoon and the neighbouring khors (lagoons), small boats for children and trips on the khor, a pedestrian walkway along the Khor’s northern bank and a nursery for frankincense seedlings. A botanical garden currently being established will contain examples of the trees and plants of the mountains of Dhofar. Two bridges have been built over Khor al Baleed to provide access to the archaeological site.
The ancient city of Sumhuram in the Khor Rori area dates from between the fourth century BC and the fifth century AD and is the most significant settlement from the Governorate of Dhofar’s pre-Islamic period. Situated in the middle of the frankincense-producing area, Sumhuram lies on the coastal strip between Taqah and Mirbat, about forty kilometres east of Salalah. The khor is at the end of a wadi which decends steeply from the Dhofar Mountains and the Darbat waterfalls that are situated to the north of the site. Excavations show that Sumhuram was a prosperous, well-defended town. Finds include earthenware cooking pots and preservation jars, some in roman style as well as female cosmetic items.

Muscat: Dr. Hussein Shehadeh

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