More valuable than gold, frankincense trees had helped to create a booming trade
“So this is where it all comes from”,
We stood on the viewing platform and looked out over row after row of frankincense trees. Apart from the one struggling to make a home in my garden in Muscat, these were the first frankincense trees Mrs J had ever laid eyes on. The kind of tree surrounded by legends and adoration, a humble tree to look at, but which literally gave its blood to put Oman on the map. Kings and queens, sultans and emperors, mosques and churches had once favoured the little droplets of sap from the Dhofari frankincense trees above everything. More valuable than gold, they had helped to create a booming trade and made Oman a country forever associated with these little golden nuggets of fragrant resin.
Standing here, looking out over the orderly rows of young trees still trying hard to set roots despite the strong wind and pretty barren pre-desert area, it was difficult to imagine how these conditions had proven to be ideal for growing frankincense trees. The wadi Dawkah had for hundreds of years been a natural ‘land of frankincense’ with thousands of trees. The old wild trees, gnarled and scruffy looking, were all leaning in the same direction, shaped by the relentless wind. Mrs J pulled her fleece jacket tighter around herself and took a deep breath.
“You can almost smell the luban in the air”, she claimed. She should know, of course. When visiting Muttrah Souq she would follow the fragrant white smoke of smouldering luban, like a sailor hearing a siren’s call, unable to resist.
She would wander from shop to shop merely to breathe in and linger in front of incense burners and their aromatic clouds, until her white linen shirt would be permeated by the sweet smell of incense. It truly was a magical smell, fitting for 1001 nights.
On this occasion though, I couldn’t smell anything but a dry, dusty, papery smell and someone’s leftover biryani in the bin next to me.
The trees in the Wadi Dawkah National Park were part of a government project to protect the natural treasure of the Dhofari frankincense trees and to raise awareness by learning how best to safeguard them from extinction in the future. As always, humans were the greatest threat. The trees had suffered from over-grazing by herds of camels and goats being allowed to munch the soft green leaves, or simply being cut down and used as firewood, until Unesco in 2000 listed the wadi with its more than 1200 old trees, as one of Oman’s heritage sites.
The Wadi Dawkah National Park had produced hundreds of saplings to replace and add to the existing grove. The old trees stood patiently and watched how the next generation took root.
When the Omani frankincense trade had its heydays, these areas were guarded fiercely and scary tales of flying red snakes were deliberately spread to keep outsiders away. Perhaps that was what was needed.
Fire spewing blood-red serpents whizzing about, scattering goat herds in panic and terrifying would-be frankincense thieves to flee for their lives. But in lieu of that, metal fencing would have to do.
It was time to leave. Just like the incense burner offered to guests at the end of a good meal, the old Omani proverb: ‘After the incense there shall be no more sitting’, would politely remind them that it was time to go. We were close, so close to Salalah that we could almost touch it.
After several days on the road, it felt real now. Soon we would have showers, and real beds. And showers. I guess burning of incense had always been a great way to cover over unpleasant smells, but no amount of luban would have been able to mask the fact that Mrs J and I had been camping for days. It was definitely time.