Frankincense is closely associated with the history of Oman. So much so that the place was known as Land of Frankincense and there are plenty of evidences available to support this nomenclature. Every aspect of life was associated with frankincense and it is not surprising that it still rules every Omani household, the fragrance of which is known in many parts of the world despite the fact that its commercial potential has not yet been fully tapped.
Frankincense is the gum extracted from the boswellia sacra (biological name) tree and known as luban locally. It is being commercially transported to countries like Italy, Spain, USA and Britain. Besides the Gulf countries, frankincense is in good demand in Holland and France.
The most precious commodity of ancient Arabia dates back to nearly 6,000 years. Its appeal was so strong that the Frankincense Trail in Oman’s Dhofar Governorate was purportedly visited by the notable explorers Marco Polo and Lawrence of Arabia.
The existing tree regeneration and the historical habitat of boswellia sacra were found to be from sea level to the top of the hills at an altitude of 1,800m. The boswellia sacra tree morphology and physiology is designed by nature to tolerate drought. The tree stem is composed of pale brown bark with some outer flaking papery layers and a thick reddish brown inner resin-producing layer. The tree can survive for long periods without leaves, and photosynthesis happens through the bark as a backup system in the absence of leaves.
Now there has been an attempt to do plan farming and a successful experiment has been conducted in Wadi Dawka, a very old and original site of frankincense that has been registered on the Unesco list of World Heritage Monuments.
There is an exclusive market for frankincense in old Hafa area, which is also known as Hafa Souq or Souq al Husn, due to its proximity to Al Husn Palace in Salalah.
The market has been a good platform for SMEs and women entrepreneurs. Of course, there are big shops who cater to the needs of all kind of tourists, business people and local visitors.
Among other frankincense products, its oil has evoked good demand internally and externally. Driven by the idea of keeping the ancient knowledge of frankincense, young researcher Dr Mohammed bin Mahad Ali al Mashani has been involved in this field for the last 17 years. Al Mashani got inclined towards frankincense at an early age of 18.
He has been progressing nicely in his research and has come out with not less than 15 products for which he has opened a shop and sells them to continue with his research and promote frankincense as a natural health, aromatic and beauty product. The products, according to him, “are in good demand particularly from those who have used them earlier”.
He is convinced about the health benefits of the aromatic resin but doing his research to prove his point. He has been extracting frankincense essential oil and making products like hydrosol, perfume, natural soaps, shampoo, black eyeliner, lotion and cream. All his products are hand-made and the basis for them is frankincense.
By putting up a shop of his own, Mohammed wants to convey the message among the people about the genuineness of frankincense and its commercial importance among the local people. “Frankincense holds huge commercial potential provided its commercialisation is kept sustainable and proper awareness is spread among the local people.” He also emphasised on maximum involvement of local people in this trade.
Like other researchers, he too emphasised on proper tapping of the trees to get the resin as there have been cases when people tap the frankincense trees wrongly which damages the trees.
Mohammed claims to have the best quality of frankincense at his shop in Salalah Gardens Mall. He called for some kind of branding of Omani frankincense to save it from adulteration and maintaining purity. “There are some qualities that are used as chewing gum and they are far better than many chewing gums being sold in the market,” said Mohammed.
Boswellia Sacra, according to Mohammed, is so rich in property that many researches have been conducted on it and many more are in progress. “We keep on sharing knowledge on luban among researchers. By the time we finish something, we learn many new facts about it. It is interesting to compile knowledge on frankincense,” he said.
One of the best methods being adopted by Mohammed to learn about frankincense is compiling statements of elderly people in the family, friends and relatives about it and the stories associated with aromatic resin. “It seems our forefathers were using luban for everything, be it for celebration or any issue related to health.”
“Today researches are on to establish the benefits of frankincense on a disease such as cancer. It is our responsibility to keep the originality of frankincense intact and retain the glory attached to it in ancient times,” he said.
It is interesting to know about frankincense, which happened to be the main trade of Oman along with agriculture in ancient times. The aroma of Omani frankincense crossed the boundaries of Oman during ancient times and attracted traders from many parts of the world.
Though the trade volume has come down substantially, the frankincense souq in Salalah’s Hafa area keeps the tradition alive with rows of big and small shops dealing in the gum of Boswellia Sacra.
The frankincense extracted from the Dhofar Governorate is considered to be the best with prices of the best quality frankincense ranging from RO 35 to RO 100 per kg.
According to Laila, who has a family shop in the souq for the past 22 years, “The market was not as organised as it is today. The place is familiar to me from my childhood and it reminds me of my days when I was a little girl coming here sometimes along with my mother and grandmother.”
Started initially only with frankincense, her shop today is a mixture of aroma items ranging from perfumes made of frankincense, sandalwood, bakhour and frankincense burner.
“The best quality of frankincense ranges from RO 35 to RO 100; there are varieties available for RO 15, 10, 5 and even 4 per kg,” says Laila when asked why some frankincense qualities were so costly.
“There are good qualities that can be used as medicines. They can be chewed as gum and in Omani society the gum is used to treat many diseases, from stomach ailments to ailments of the skin,” she said.
All the frankincense items in her shop are not from Oman. Many have come from Somalia and Yemen. “The Omani qualities, particularly from Salalah, are the best and are great in demand from visitors who come to Salalah from the GCC countries.”
Khareef is the season when frankincense shop owners at Hafa do brisk business. “The reason being less supply of frankincense due to rains in mountains and big demand due to arrival of visitors from many countries,” says Laila.
Khareef is such a busy season for Laila that she does not get time to eat and sleep. Other family members also chip in. This is the time they make maximum money out of their business.
Her shop has good quality jafran and sandalwood perfumes as well as wood oil made only for women.
There are four main varieties of frankincense in Salalah. Houzry is found in Jabal Saham (Hasik) and sells at RO 25 per kg. Sizry, found in Hasik, sells at RO 2.5 per kg. Negdi is found in and around Thumrait and sells between RO 2.5 and RO 3. The fourth quality is Shabia, which is available for RO 3 per kg, and found in Mughsayl.
A popular incense ingredient, olibanum is a balsamic resin, also known as frankincense. The extract is produced by Boswellia trees. Used in homoeopathic medicine, olibanum is also an ingredient in pharmaceutical drugs and in several varieties of perfumes. The origin of olibanum lies in the Arabic word alban or ‘milk’.
In modern times, olibanum is burnt as incense during religious ceremonies for creating a fragrant atmosphere. Olibanum oil is also an important base ingredient in perfumes, pharmaceuticals (anti-inflammation) and cosmetics. Olibanum is very important for Dhofari society as it is the main source of income for many in the region.
Frankincense to this day, remains as an integral part of Omani heritage and culture.