The endearing frankincense

The place, covered in morning mist, exudes an eerie charm. The land speaks to us in the language of fragrance punctuated by vastness and timelessness. It is The Land of the Frankincense, where for centuries humans and trees, especially the Boswellia species, enjoyed a beautiful and subliminal way of coexistence.
Only very rarely we get to see an image that captures so effortlessly this mutual awe and sense of fulfilment as in Terence Gilbert’s oil on board rendition of frankincense trees in Dhofar. You can’t ignore the deep reverence and intimacy those men in dazzling white dish-dasha display as they go about harvesting the resin from the trees. We can’t say for sure if it’s the humans or the trees that dominate the scene. It’s pure harmony.
Interestingly, across centuries, humans never succeeded in breaking the spell cast by these trees with their enchanting woody scent. Priced higher than gold, frankincense easily started off a bustling trade across the Arabian Peninsula, centuries ago. And Oman features prominently in this historical narrative, as the land where the purest or the best type of frankincense, Boswellia sacra, is grown. Not everywhere in Oman, though, but in the Dhofar mountain ranges located in the Sultanate’s southern part only.
And it’s not just the fragrance that matters. Frankincense has been traditionally used to cure a wide range of diseases such as fever, coughs, indigestion, ulcers and hypertension. It was also used as a health booster by women after childbirth. It also makes an excellent toothpaste and food flavour enhancer. Beyond all this, it is an effective insect-repellent.
The Land of Frankincense in Oman is on the Unesco’s World Heritage List. It includes the frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah, the remains of Wubar’s caravan oasis, and the ports of Khor Rori and Al Baleed. It was recognised on account of multiple aspects including scope for capacity building and regional tourism development, increased job opportunities for locals, and a defined sense of identity for the community.
In this context, it’s quite interesting to note a new development. The launch of an effective Frankincense community outreach programme and tree planting campaign. An initiative of the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), Oman’s premium not-for-profit environmental agency, in partnership with Neal’s Yard Remedies, an acclaimed international natural and organic health and beauty brand.
The long-term project aims to nurture the trade, culture and knowledge associated with Omani frankincense trees (in particular the Boswellia sacra), and revive traditional best practices.
The campaign started off in Sadah, Salalah, with the distribution of over 500 Boswellia sacra seedlings among local farmers, harvesters and others. The next focus has been identified as Mirbat. The project puts great stress on developing an environmentally responsible and sustainable agricultural strategy while respecting tradition.
The project is all the more significant considering the alarming decline in Boswellia sacra tree population mainly due to over-harvesting. Grazing and insect infestations have also played a role. Adding to the concern is the lack of public awareness about how frankincense forms a key link in Oman’s rich culture and heritage, and also local economy. The project envisages a lot of education and participation opportunities for the locals and others.
This is not the first time that ESO is working on Oman’s frankincense, though. Way back in 2010, it successfully commenced a Frankincense Research and Conservation initiative that undertook among others the monitoring of Boswellia sacra trees to determine harmless tapping methods.
While Terence’s art speaks for the trees in its own language and tone, conservation projects like that of ESO, and greater awareness about the cultural significance of the endearing frankincense could make the dialogue — between the trees and humans — easier.