In 1493 BC, the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut organised a major trade mission outfitting five ships to journey to the Land of Punt. Often referred to as ‘the land of the gods’ it’s believed to be southern Arabia, present-day Somalia or Eritrea. As part of the mission, thirty-one frankincense trees were brought to Egypt. It was the first time the trees were successfully transplanted to another country where they grew happily for centuries.
The land where frankincense trees have traditionally flourished and where they abound to this day is in Oman’s southern province, Dhofar. For millennia, this quiet corner of earth supplied the civilised world with a key luxury item.
Frankincense is a resin, harvested from the Boswellia Sacra tree. When the trunk is slashed or wounded, a white resin oozes from the cut to heal the wound.
Since high school, history has always been my passion. The difference now is that I look for history in the every day.
Frankincense was such a valued commodity, (the story of the gifts brought to Jesus by the ‘three wise men’ is an example of its reputation) that its country of origin came to be known as Arabia Felix (Blessed Arabia) and the trade in incense created a series of global trade routes by sea and caravan.
Considering the Roman Emperor Nero once burned an entire year’s harvest of frankincense at the funeral of his favourite mistress Poppaea, the frankincense industry has slowed to a trickle today. But the trees are still grown, maintained and flourish in Dhofar.
I recently took a group of travellers to Oman to see the main historical sites relating to the frankincense production and trade in ancient Arabia. We visited the archeological park of Sumhuram.
Established in the 3rd century BC, the port settlement - perched on a headland with its own natural harbour - existed for at least eight centuries. Apart from homes, kilns, temples, a burial complex and a mint, the city contained warehouses to store frankincense collected from inland regions, until the monsoon winds were favourable to carry the commodity to the markets of India.
In the frankincense alley of Muscat’s Muttrah Souk, I watched as a procession of families came to a halt in front of one stall.
I could see smoke rising from the clay burner in front of a mystical woman her as she mixed her potions. Later I met one of her patrons, Fouad, who explained that he was buying bakhor, a blend of ingredients including wood-chips, fragrant oils, sandalwood, cloves, sugar … and frankincense.
The bakhor-maker, Fatima, had learned her craft from her mother and grandmother who came from the south where the frankincense trees grow. She mixed the ingredients according to Fouad’s direction.
“More of this,” he’d say.
The bakhor’s aroma is released by the heat of the charcoal and this perfumes the entire home. At the stall next door there are pyramid-shaped stands which you can drape laundry over, so clothes too can be perfumed by the bakhor.
Omani men wear a tassle on the right side of their dishdasha (long, collarless dress) so they can keep their favourite scent close by. Whether you enter a hotel, a shop or even a car in Oman, the aroma of frankincense follows you.
After seeing wild frankincense trees at Wadi Dawkah, we watched clumps of dried resin being sorted and graded at Salalah’s Al Husn Souk.
Incense has been burned for millennia to freshen and ‘cleanse’ the environment. In the Omani home it’s as traditional as rose-water sprinklers, cardamon-scented coffee and dates.
One lovely custom from the 18th century, was that incense-burners would be carried through a home after the conclusion of the meal to signal it was time for guests to leave.
“I cannot live without this!” Exclaimed Fouad, the man I met at Muttrah Souk adding that he often swallows a tiny piece of frankincense if he’s feeling unwell.
As I turned to wave goodbye, Fouad was still inhaling bakhor, a look of deep satisfaction on his face.
(Image of frankincense resin "The Drip" courtesy Maxine Brodie)
The tour guide noticed that I applied cream to my psoriasis-affected fingers which were split and painful.
We were in southern Oman, travelling on the road to Yemen, an ancient caravan trade route still used to this day.
“You have a problem with your skin?” queried Quaid solemnly.
At the driving wheel, he was dressed in a turban, pristine Dishdasha and Ray Bans. As he glanced sideways, his expression softened. Within seconds, he was grinning.
“Do you want to try the local treatment?”
Having just told us a joke about desert camels being black because they don’t use sunscreen, I wasn't sure how to take his offer.
“It will hurt the first few times,” he said. “But it will fix any skin issue. And it’s free.”
"Is it a tonic?" I asked, naively.
"Sort of. You can even mix it in milk and drink it.”
He assured me he wasn’t joking. And when you’ve tried pretty much every cure for split fingers, you tend to be up for the next miracle potion.
The cure, according to Quaid, is to use the urine of a virgin camel aged around 4 years old, applied to the affected area twice a day for at least three days.
I was game to try it, although I preferred application to the consumption method. But as he added more detail, it transpired that the urine wasn't to be found in a small, clean bottle from a pharmacy or anything like that. You source it from a Bedouin farmer. I could see a problem continuing this treatment in the medium term, although as Quaid helpfully reminded me, we have camels in Australia too.
Thousands of camels roam the Southern Omani province of Dhofar. Despite appearances, they are not wild and have the right of way on highways.
Sometimes camels are passengers too.
Desert camels are either dark or light in colour, small with a small single hump (dromedaries rather than bactrian). They are farmed for milk, meat and their hides.
“It’s good for everyone to keep a few camels,” Quaid said. “Even in my family we have around ten or twenty camels.”
For his wedding recently, Quaid bought four camels for the buffet feast to feed 1,500 guests. It wasn't enough. The meat ran out at 12.30 pm, which, for an all day event, was not ideal. Men don’t need invitations to turn up to a wedding, so estimating guest numbers are tricky. There is a separate event for men and women. To attend a woman’s wedding you need an invitation. In the past, the families spent days preparing for a wedding feast, but in modern times there are caterers. All the groom has to do is to provide the meat.
Our discussion took place in the Najid Desert, on the highway towards Yemen and our destination, the fabled sands of the Empty Quarter. This unforgiving terrain drew the great explorers of the past from Bertram Thomas, Wilfred Thesiger (AKA Mubarak Bin London) to Freya Stark.
While the desert can conjur up images of romance, there is nothing romantic about travelling on a camel. My witty co-travellers pointed out that Nicole Kidman (playing the role of Gertrude Bell in the film 'Queen of the Desert') sat in front of the camel hump and appeared dignified and commanding, whereas I was instructed to sit behind the hump which was neither dignified nor commanding.
From two trips into the desert in the past ten days, my greatest fear was our 4WD slipping sideways down a dune. But our guide Quaid was right. The desert needs a kind of ’no surrender’ attitude.
“The secret of the desert is not to show fear.” he says
For travellers of the past, surrender meant certain death. Quaid has a point. Indecision combined with fine, ochre sand is a poor partnership.
But such thoughts were banished as a herd of camels came into view as we observed from the top of the dune. It was like being on the set of the remake of ’Lawrence of Arabia’, only the desert in front of us was not brown and oppressive. It was very green. Two cyclones in southern Oman last year saw parts of the Empty Quarter flooded. The desert hasn’t been this verdant in sixty years.
Later that day, we saw another herd of camels feeding between clumps of wild Frankincense trees. Southern Oman is one of the few places in the world where this special tree grows (more in another post). I wondered if I should approach the Bedouin farmer accompanying the camels about obtaining some medicinal camel urine. But Quaid had other ideas. At the foot of the Frankincense tree (which was not in a protected area, I hasten to add) someone who'd come before us had cut the bark and white sap was oozing onto the ground. the resin was still moist and pliant.
Quaid suggested I put a bit of the sticky resin on my split fingers.
“Maybe this will be simpler than the other cure. It’s like nature’s band-aid.”
I later discovered that camel urine (not necessarily from virgin camels) is widely believed to have healing powers. However scams have surfaced where unscrupulous vendors have used a urine source closer to home.
I still have split fingers. But they seem to work okay as I reminisce about those wonderful desert creatures that filled the imagination and delight of my fellow travellers on our Oman to Zanzibar adeventure. Now if I can just work out how to sit in front of the hump….