Wisps of frankincense smoke wafted through the bazaar as I plunged through the crowded, labyrinthine passageways of Muscat’s Mutrah Souq. This alluringly musky scent permeates Omani cities and culture, and I was never far from the distinct, earthen aroma floating through the air.
I was lured by the hypnotic perfume curling up from frankincense smouldering in pots outside stores dripping with gold jewellery and silver censers. Tiny open-air shops teemed with spices, mounds of myrrh and piles of dates. Women in full-length black abaya cloaks perused colourful-as-Crayola silk scarves and shawls, while men in white ankle-length dishdasha robes and beautifully embroidered kuma caps inspected heaps of pebble-sized amber-, caramel- and cream-coloured frankincense nuggets.
This was Muscat at its most magical, conjuring images from the Bible. The Mutrah Souq was also, surely, one of few places in the world where I could buy gold, myrrh and frankincense – the three gifts presented to baby Jesus by the Three Magi in Christian tradition – under one roof. These were among the most precious gifts imaginable two millennia ago, when frankincense was worth its weight in gold.
Used for 6,000 years as a perfume and panacea, frankincense (from the Old French ‘franc encens’, meaning ‘pure incense’) is an aromatic resin harvested from trees of the rugged Boswellia genus, which grows exclusively in a narrow climate belt from the Horn of Africa to India and parts of southern China. Most of the world’s supply comes from Somalia, Eritrea and Yemen – countries plagued by conflict in recent years, which has negatively affected their frankincense production. But peaceful Oman produces the world’s finest – and most expensive – frankincense, a substance ancient Egyptians called the ‘Sweat of the Gods’.
The hardy Boswellia sacra tree thrives in the inhospitable terrain of Oman’s southern province of Dhofar. The value of frankincense resin is determined by its colour, clump size and oil concentration. The most valuable grade, known as hojari, comes from a narrow, dry microclimate belt of the Dhofar Mountains just beyond reach of the summer monsoon that blankets the tip of the Arabian Peninsula in mist.
Today, the frankincense trees studding this region, and a number of caravan routes and ports dating from the 4th Century BC, are part of Oman’s Unesco-inscribed Land of Frankincense World Heritage site. According to Unesco’s description, “the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries [was] one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world.”