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The scent of the Orient

The myth of frankincense: It is said that the resin of the Boswellia tree was as valuable as gold in ancient times. In our climes, its atmospheric fragrance is found almost exclusively in churches, where the incense is burned during services – as a sign of God's presence. In the Arab world, on the other hand, much greater importance is attached to the olibanum in everyday life. Here, it is used in perfumes and room scents, serves to flavour drinks, is utilised in natural remedies and even applied to clean clothes. But where does the resin come from, how is it produced and what does it make so special? A look into the direction of Oman where the legendary Frankincense Route has its origins.

The southwest of Oman is considered the cradle of frankincense. Most travellers visit the Dhofar region because of its beautiful sandy beaches. However, a look into the back country is also worthwhile: UNESCO has declared the dry valley of Wadi Dawkah, where more than 5,000 specimens of the Arabian frankincense tree grow, a World Heritage Site along with other sites such as ancient ports along the Frankincense Route in Dhofar. At that time, the trade route led from Oman via Yemen and Saudi Arabia along the Red Sea to Petra in Jordan, into the Holy Land and as far as Alexandria in Egypt. Frankincense was also very popular with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and the emperors of the Roman Empire. Its distinctive fragrance is created when the resin burns, bedded on glowing coals. This allows its anti-inflammatory and calming effects to unfold optimally. The frankincense trade brought great prosperity to Dhofar. Today, it is still an important economic sector for the region, along with tourism.

Rising smoke from an incense burner, in the background a woman looks at the smoke.

Frankincense burner on Muttrah Souq in Muscat © Ministry of Heritage & Tourism Sultanate of Oman

Insights into frankincense production
Dhofar's frankincense trees belong to different families, with harvesting rights being passed down from generation to generation to the male descendants. Frankincense trees traditionally grow best in hot, dry areas, as remote as possible to minimise environmental impact. The harvest begins at the end of March and lasts for several months. The bark of the tree is opened at various points with a sharp harvesting knife. This requires sensitivity – because if the cut is too deep, the tree dries out and dies. At first, the white, milky shimmering olibanum is only sparsely visible – but when the bark is cut a few weeks later for a second and third time, the tree "bleeds" the resin in larger quantities. After two to three weeks of ripening, the resin drops can be harvested.

An incense tree in a dry environment, blue sky in the background.

Frankincense tree © Ministry of Heritage & Tourism Sultanate of Oman

The incense resin in a sack with a shovel inside.

The incense is sold in large bags on the frankincense souq in Salalah © Andreas Conrad

Experiencing the incense
Whether cosmetics, soap, perfume, oil, candles, incense sticks or chewing gum – there are many frankincense souvenirs that tourists can take home from their trip to Oman. They can be purchased in Salalah, for example, which is home to the only dedicated frankincense souq in the world.

Various hotels in the region have also integrated the country's incense heritage into their concepts and make it tangible for travellers. For example, Alila Hinu Bay Resort near the fishing village of Mirbat. At the hotel’s restaurant The Orchard, guests embark on a culinary journey along the ancient trade routes of frankincense as part of a multi-course menu featuring a wide variety of oriental dishes.

The Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara in the capital of Dhofar offers a variety of incense-related services in its spa – such as frankincense oil which is used in massages. A frankincense tree adorns the hotel's logo, welcome drinks and cocktails flavoured with frankincense essence are served and the scent of the olibanum welcomes guests upon their entry into the lobby.

In other parts of the country, the incense is also constantly present. For example, a gigantic white incense burner thrones on a rock above the Riyam district in the Omani capital of Muscat. The balsamic, spicy scent of frankincense also fills the air at Muscat airport – here, beautifully shaped electric incense burners set in metal ensure that departing guests keep the scent of the Orient in their nostrils for another while.

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