Approaching the metropolis of Oman by ship we could see a town like from exotic fairy-tales: low white buildings, narrow minarets of mosques and pink-and-brown silhouettes of the mountain Al-Hadjar with old fortresses and guard towers in the background.
A strange building on one of the hills caught our attention.
It was also white and looked like a flying saucer on a foot or as a baroque sugar bowl. Just lift the lid and see whether lump sugar or small green men will jump out. We did not have any idea what it could be at that moment.
We found the right answer later walking through the capital of Oman. Everywhere it was smelling like in our churches!
In Oman, the olibanum-tree (Boswellia sacra) is native since ancient times. A smelling resin is harvested from its stem. It has been used at different religious ceremonies and meditations since time immemorial. The Roman author Pliny the Younger wrote that the people of Oman became the richest ones in the whole world thanks to the trade with incense in the 1st century. At that time, incense was more expensive than gold. It was used for burning in temples in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and in the Middle East. The resin is lighted up to enable the prayer to rise more easily with the smoke into heaven. It was used both by Christians and Muslims, its significance is shown by the fact that the Queen of Sheba brought it together with gold and precious stones to King Solomon and it was one of the three gifts brought by the Three Wise Men to the newborn Jesus.
In ancient times, incense was carried on ships from ports in Oman to Southern Yemen where the Incense Road started. It continued along the Arabian Peninsula through Saudi Arabia near Mecca and Medina to Petra in Jordan and then to the Holy Land and Alexandria in Egypt. The other route leads to Mesopotamia. The biggest boom was between the 5th century BC and the 1st century AD.
Even today the resin is harvested the same way as 3000 years ago. The bark is slashed on the stem and thick branches with a sharp knife. The tree starts to shed “God’s tears” – the resin (luban) which is first white, later light yellow and transparent like amber. The resin from the first cut is of no value and therefore thrown away. Three weeks later the bark is slashed again. The resin is flowing out. They let it dry for three weeks and only then did they peel it off. The trees are used like that for three years only, after that they need some years to rest. Frankincense is sold on markets but in supermarkets as well – loose by weight or packed already. Lighter grains are of higher quality because they are cleaner.
We felt this aroma everywhere, but especially on the market. They burn the frankincense over embers in special burners – mukhbar – which have different forms and are made from clay or silver. Nowadays you can find also electric burners.
Mukhbars have often a round form – exactly the same as the unknown building over the port. It is an observation tower, a new monument and a symbol of Muscat.
Omani people perfume their houses with the smelling smoke, they use it also for the aromatization of drinking water, disinfection and treatment of respiratory system diseases. They like chewing it instead of chewing gum, it helps them to keep a fresh breath in their mouths and it is said that it also helps with stomach, intestinal and renal problems. They also put a smoking burner over hanging clothing. The fabric will absorb the aroma which lasts for several days and overcomes the bad smell from sweating.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Oman lost its most significant customer for the smelling resin, profits fell rapidly, but the frankincense is still very popular on the Arabian Peninsula, you can find it in every house and every hotel. It became a symbol of Omani hospitality. And as to the profits – they started to move upwards again after Oman discovered some other “gift from Allah” – a black and liquid one… but that is another story already…