The frankincense tree would be called an imposter elsewhere. But in this land of dust and desert the fact that it exists at all is almost miraculous. Oman is a strange land, perched on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, lapped by the Arabian Sea and cooled by the winds from far out in the Indian Ocean. The onshore monsoon season was the time of the return of the sailing ships from trading in India. It was a time of profit, also a time of rain as the monsoon winds struck the mountains of Oman, the air rose, condensed and rained for months on end. Rivers ran, grass grew, brown turned to green, livestock grew fat. Then it ended.
The monsoon winds reversed and rain became only a pleasant memory. Day after day the sun shone, the land baked, green turned to brown. But the frankincense tree survived. It is more of a shrub or scrubby tree. Surely ranchers in south Texas would cut it down as a nuisance. But, in its time, it was more than miracle – it was profit incarnate. It was transported to and traded at markets all over the known world, sometimes for its weight in gold. It was offered as a gift to the Christ child at his birth by wise men who knew its value.
This brushy tree suffers the death of a thousand cuts. The farmer makes a small cut in the bark of each branch of the tree. The sap is allowed to ooze out onto the branch and harden. The hardened sap, frankincense, is then picked off by the farmer. There are at least three kinds of frankincense, the most valuable kind is the green. It is purported to have special powers of health and healing, not to mention a preferred odor when placed in the frankincense burner.
We stoop low as we step up into the living quarters at Taraq Fort. Centuries ago the sultan established this fort, consigning it to one his most trusted retainers to maintain his hold on this district. The fort is of adobe and three stories high at its citadel. Inside it is dark and cool as the thick adobe walls try to retain the cool from the night against the heat of the relentless sun outside. Couches are festooned with brightly colored pillows and rifles hang by their slings from pegs on the wall – always at the ready. One never knows when the night watch will fall asleep and the thunder of the hill tribes’ horses cannot be heard inside. The rifle is the only thing between slaughter and survival in the constant feuds and fighting – fighting over trade, fighting over water, fighting over power. Those days can still be sensed in the fort and even heard further south in Yemen. Peace is better.
Back in the bus Salim, our guide, now promises us a ‘fantastic’ sight. Winding down a hard topped road we observe the walls of an ancient city sited upon a shallow plateau which looks out on a small river basin leading to the sea. “Samhuram”, he points. A UNESCO World Heritage site. The city’s walls have been repaired and sidewalks constructed around the perimeter. It looks pretty good for being 5,000 years old. Khor Rouri Creek obviously provided the fresh water and link to the sea. From here traders sailed to India, traveled to Greece, bargained in east Africa. Their bargaining point: frankincense. In societies that were transported by horse, camel or donkey, each leaving the usual flotsam behind, or societies which could not afford to waste water on the delicacy of bathing, the smell of burning frankincense was a valued addition to the scene. Priests would swing frankincense burners in their religious rites and physicians would prescribe frankincense for many ills. The trading port of Samhuram was the gate to much of this trade. The inside of the city now is a ruin and reconstruction has barely begun, but the location and its import were apparent to UNESCO, who thought it significant to the world.
We explore the ruin as long as the sun allows us, then slink back to the air conditioned bus. We head back into town to learn more of frankincense in the Museum of the Frankincense Land, the air conditioned museum of frankincense. A modern, well done museum (with cool air) we are told ‘no pictures’ by the wary and attentive museum guards. The museum includes a maritime room, detailing the trading days at sea of the local Omanis. Unfortunately none of this can be documented by camera.
Back on the road Salim directs the driver to pull over at a roadside fruit stand: it is time for a banana break. Wandering down the stalls we have a complete selection of fresh fruit, some imported from India, but much, such as the bananas, raised locally. Behind the stand is a cement irrigation ditch bringing a steady stream of water through a virtual plantation of banana trees. It is an Omani secret, the Falaj.
Two thousand years before Christ people in this area sought to capture the rains of the season with a complex water transport system. The hills, where the monsoon rains had fallen, were replete with springs. Wells were dug near the springs and one of three types of rock lined ditches were constructed. Water flowed downhill under its own pressure, ala a Roman aqueduct, and was diverted to the local need. Water which had to be transported some distance was flowed through a covered canal, ensuring that it could reach flat, dry plains below. The same system is used to water the bananas today, four thousand years later. Clever. A government map depicts hundreds of Falaj systems in the hills above the coast throughout Oman.
With that nature of insight it was surprising the Omanis had stagnated in modern times. Leadership, one supposes, as the old sultans were afraid of opening their country to the world. Now, the modern sultan slaves mightily to play catch up. Instead of only 3 schools, thousands of children now enter colleges each year, both male and female. Instead of only one hospital in the country everyone receives medical care. Here in Salalah Harbor a large container port has been erected. We inspect its empty piers as we drive from the ship. In town large cement plants are busy grinding the local limestones for export; a huge natural gas plant is under construction to export Oman’s LNG. Four star hotels are being erected in town but one wonders who will come here to the beach, virgin and rocky as it is. We are informed one new hotel is full of Polish tourists, as they have been offered great discounts to make the flight. Hmmm. The streets of Salalah are new and clean, the office buildings modern. But Salalah is not overrun with hustle and bustle. Quiet and modest.
This land of Oman has an interesting past. Who knows what the future will bring to the Land of Frankincense.
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