A number of adaptations make camels suited to desert life: their large feet do not sink in the sand, they can close their nostrils during sandstorms and go without water for up to seven days. When thirsty they can drink up to 46 liters and their fatty hump can be metabolized for energy when food is scarce.
Oman – Long Read

Where the deserts go on forever

Photo by John Warburton-Lee

Oman – Long Read Where the deserts go on forever

Hello Oman, where a benign Sultan presides over a country in which Islam and modernity sit side by side. This land is more than 80 per cent desert, roamed by wandering Bedouin tribes, yet still has craggy Norwegian-style fjords and is where one of the gifts from the three Magi to the infant Jesus almost certainly originated.

John Malathronas
John Malathronas Travel Writer

The stall-holder’s eyes smile behind her niqab as she picks up a handful of what look like small, amber colored rocks and places them around a glowing charcoal. One by one, they begin to smolder, taking on a reddish gleam. A light smoke starts to rise and the air fills with a long forgotten odor: a mix of slightly charred pine with a hint of lemon that takes me back to the church services of my youth. It is the heady aroma of frankincense.

Readers of the scriptures may be puzzled by the gifts brought to the Infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men. While gold still has obvious currency, the importance and value added to myrrh and frankincense some 2,000 years ago are less familiar to us now. Both are spices made from tree sap that hardens into a resin, both are used as perfumes and both were said to have medicinal uses. According to some texts, either alone or mixed together, they could be used to cure all manner of ailments, including leprosy, the plague, worms and even baldness.

Their value as an ancient panacea made them so highly sought after that they created a booming business in the Middle East for hundreds of years – but they also had deep, symbolic meanings in religious ceremonies. Myrrh was often used for burials and represented death (it was also given again to – and refused by – Jesus while on the cross) but frankincense was the giver of life. When burned, its smoke rose to the heavens in prayer. And nowhere on earth did it give more life than to where I am standing – the entrance to the now-defunct port of Sumhuram, near the town of Salalah in southern Oman.

“This place may now be in ruins, but for 800 years, from the 3rd century BC, it was a port teeming with activity,” says Abdul, my Omani guide. “Frankincense was tapped from boswellia sacra trees in the Arabian peninsula for at least 5,000 years and nowhere was the quality better than here in the Dhofar region. This port, also called Khor Rori, traded with the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Chinese and Jews – all of them in thrall of the mystical virtues of frankincense .”

A model for the Middle East

Oman is considered to be a model for the Middle East: the Sultan, Qaboos bin Sair al Said is considered a benign monarch and is guided by a council which contains prominent female members. Islam and modernity sit comfortably side by side and there is freedom for other religious groups. In late 2010, the UN declared Oman the most improved nation over the last 40 years. Even so, you don’t really come to this part of the country – near the badlands border with Yemen – without a guide, a fixer with a deep understanding of the area, and Adbul is one of the best.

Dressed in an Omani mussar, a black turban with its tassels gathered carefully at the back of the neck, a light brown ankle-length robe, the dishdasha, and loose, open-heel sandals, his well-groomed beard hides a mouth that is full of good humor and an honorable soul who can’t help but tell things as they really are. The oft-quoted “fact” that Sumhuram was also the summer palace of the Queen of Sheba, for instance, gets short shrift. “That is just embarrassing,” he says. “The Kingdom of Sheba was much further west in today’s Yemen and Sumhuram was founded many centuries later.”

Whether the Queen holidayed here or not may still be a moot point among scholars but one undeniable fact is that this ancient emporium is considered such a significant pre-Islamic trading site that is has, along with the Wadi Dawkah conservation area and the oasis town of Shisr, been declared the Unesco World Heritage Frankincense Trail. The ruins of the town stand on a dusty hillock, around 25 meters above the Arabian Sea – part of the Indian Ocean – which glistens in the afternoon sun, and surrounded by massive two-meter thick and five-meter high walls. The mouth of a river lagoon cut off from the ocean by a sandbank, and now the Kohr Rohri wetlands reserve, it is home to spoonbills, herons and stilts that wade in its waters.

The overwhelming color around us is rust-like, befitting of the area’s fallen grandeur: the boulders that make up the walls, the distant limestone mountains lining the coast and the soil that surrounds us all take on the distinct yellow-orange hue. It feels otherworldly, with only the waters of the lagoon and the flashes of plumage breaking the monotony. I close my eyes and imagine how it might have been 2,500 years ago. The chatter of birds is replaced by the throaty calls of traders, the deep “nuuur” of camels and the creaking wood of boats being laden with bounty, my imagined noises given life by the precious life-affirming resin, so desired around the region.

We walk up a steep slope to the city’s monumental gate. Inscriptions commemorate the foundation of Sumhuram in the rare South Arabian, an extinct tongue rendered obsolete by Muslim expansion and the spread of North Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. As befits a hub of the frankincense trade, magnificent limestone burners have been discovered, carved with lions, ibex and eagles and can be seen in a museum nearby. As we walk around the site, I can easily distinguish residential areas, store rooms that lead to a sea gate, a town square and a temple to the Mesopotamian moon-god Sin, whose emblem was the crescent moon. Abdul tells me that veneration of Sin today would be considered demon worship and, as a result, many consider the ruins here to be be devilish and terrifying. “People say that evil spirits assemble here at night led by a witch who you must not look at directly,” he says. I am not sure whether he believes this or not. Do I?

Iinhospitable country permanently encased in thick fog

A sudden sea breeze makes me shudder; southern Oman is anything but a sun-parched desert. The ancient Greek description of Dhofar as a “mountainous, inhospitable country permanently encased in thick fog” may come as a surprise to those who view the Arabian peninsula as an arid wasteland. Not to the locals though, who are used to a summer monsoon season, the time when the ancient Greek boats passed by to trade. The region has two high tourist seasons: winter when wealthy Europeans come to embrace the sun and escape the rain and cold of the north, and summer when wealthy Arabs come to enjoy the rain and relative cold compared to other regions in the Gulf.

While this rainy port may have been the commercial hub of the frankincense trade, the plant itself does not like rain, meaning it only really thrives inland in the wadis (dried riverbeds) of the interior – one of which, Wadi Dawkah, has been chosen as the site of the Frankincense Natural Park. Some 20km inland from the Arabian Sea and beyond the moisture-catching al-Qara mountain range, the park forms a living link with that legendary past of caravans and djinns (genies). We pass neither with our four-wheel-drive. Abdul gives the driver an instruction in Arabic and explains to me with some ambiguity: “The wadi is difficult to find. So I told him to turn left when he sees no sign.”

I have an overwhelming feeling of loneliness as we continue our search for the park. Abdul is silent, lost in his own thoughts, and any evidence of civilization, let alone traffic signs, ceases to exist an hour after we cross the mountains. At least there are people in the mountains, or proof of their existence anyway. Remote farmhouses and cattle kraals built with hard branches may stand in the middle of a field with no occupants in sight, but they still suggest a human presence.

In the flat, featureless Martian landscape, full of dirty yellows and brown pinks, where no stone is bigger than a fist, the empty tarmac road is the only evidence I have seen for the last half an hour been that any humans pass this way. The driver eventually turns “where there are no signs” following, it seems, an inner compass and to my surprise we reach the wadi’s entrance soon after. Not that we need an all-terrain vehicle for this. The bone-dry soil is as easily drivable as the asphalted road, bar the dust devils that we set off behind us.

Scientists have warned of potential extinction

It is in this barren landscape that I finally come face to face with the boswellia sacra. The frankincense tree is a strange one: it has almost no trunk and its long, thick branches spring out of the roots directly, like a scraggy bouquet. Sap is gained by tapping – making cuts in the bark and collecting the resin in containers – but continuous tapping reduces the germination of seeds and some scientists have even warned of potential extinction if the process is not slowed.

In true Omani tradition, Adbul wears a khanjar, a symbolic dagger carried by men here when they reach puberty and such a symbol of the country that is appears on the national flag. He slowly withdraws it from its silver sheath and makes a single cut on the bark of one tree. “It’s a difficult tree to cultivate,” he says. “They need eight to nine years to grow up properly and, after five years of tapping, they really need a five-year rest.” Pearly spots have sprung from the cut on the bark and he gives me the khanjar to smell. Though not frankincense proper – that comes only when the sap hardens – the odor is unmistakable.

In the wild, trees fall into the domain of local tribes. “They are owned communally and may be tapped or used for firewood,” says Abdul. “Members of a tribe will come to eat by one of the trees, make cuts and return a week later to harvest the resin.” I touch the thick drops of sap that have emerged and my fingers stick together; Abdul gives me some of the bark to wipe my hand. Only the tree itself has the natural chemicals to dissolve its own secretions.

While Omani frankincense is highly regarded as the best in the world, it is not the whole story. There are actually four different grades. “The cheapest is Ashabi, which comes from the southern slopes and plateaus of the coastal mountains,” says Abdul. “The third grade is Ashazri, extracted from trees growing in western Dhofar about where we are now. Higher still, connoisseurs rate Annajdi that grows in the plateau of Najd, on the Dhofar mountains. But the best kind of resin is the church-grade Hojari, dubbed ‘The Smell Of Heaven’ and tapped in the wadis of eastern Dhofar.”

Frankincense from where we now stand will be driven by car or camel to Salalah, the regional capital on the coast and the modern-day equivalent of Sumhuram. Here it is graded grain by grain and is so ubiquitous that American entrepreneur Trygve Harris has combined it with full-cream milk sold by the Sultan’s Dhofar dairy farm to create an ice cream. It has gone down a storm thanks to its flavorful mix of pine, mint and a touch of the church altar. In the past though, the tappers put the incense in sacks to be sold to merchants in the town of Shisr, 70-kilometers inland, a small oasis before the desert of Ar Rub al Khali, The Empty Quarter, and where we are now heading.

Poisonous Sodom apples are left in peace

Today, the last outpost before the desert is a small settlement at Thumrayt. It effectively consists of a service station, a grocery store, a mosque and a bank: the essentials. Beyond that lies a flat orange expanse, boulder-strewn and camel-dotted. Even in this far-flung locale, there are signs of life. Springing bolt upright from the desert are stunted succulent bushes, about two meters high, called Sodom apples. As life in the desert is harsh and they need to survive in the face of browsing camels and thirsty humans, they are poisonous. Their fruit – ripening all around us – contains a milky, bitter and toxic sap which appears all over the Old Testament in purely negative terms. Not that the plants care about their bad PR. Unlike the useful but nearly extinct frankincense trees, poisonous Sodom apples are left in peace to multiply under the sand dunes.

It is among these dunes, just before the vastness of the Empty Quarter, that we stop at a small caravanserai, or desert inn. Two week’s camel ride by moonlight ahead lies Mecca, where some of the caravans would unload their cargo. It is strangely comforting to think that, if we wanted to cross that same desert, we’d still have to do it on camelback since a car would be useless. Some things ought to be as forbidding today as they have always been. The caravanserai is still a work in progress, manned by a pair of camera-shy Bedouin brothers who are trying to lure tourists to this final earthly frontier. “Only when you spend a night by the dunes under the stars can you fully comprehend the Arabian soul,” one tells me. I may not fully understand the Arabian soul under the light of the stars that used to guide the caravans across the shifting sands, but I can certainly understand why the moon-god Sin was worshipped here in pre-Islamic times. After the harsh daylight that made me squint even behind my sunglasses, the first soft light of the moon feels benign, almost caring.

Abdul and the driver stand talking to the innkeepers, one of whom picks up a round boulder and offers it to Abdul who smashes it with another stone until it breaks in half. Inside are sharp, sparkling crystals of white quartz, sticking out like stalactites and stalagmites in a 360-degree cave. They glitter as they catch the light of the early morning sun. “It’s called a geode stone,” he says. “Take it as a gift from us all.” I accept and thank him. It is a generous gift: I have seen smaller examples sold in souvenir shops for $100 or more.

While the very rocks here sparkle, the jewel of the Frankincense Trail could well have been Shisr – the oasis town that some claim to be lost city of Ubar, the “Atlantis of the Sands”. The final refueling stop for caravans heading into the Empty Quarter, Ubar is best known from a passage of the Arabian Nights that claims “anyone who tries to find Ubar will go mad” and another in the Qur’an that describes it as a city of lofty pillars whose citizens were punished by Allah because of their corruption.

Sandstorms have wiped away most of the old fort

Debate rages of course; I would expect nothing less if the mystery is to be sustained. Some scholars who have studied satellite photos have identified city contours; others counter that Shisr has never been bigger than an extended family settlement. It is difficult to tell on the ground. Unlike Sumhuram, the whipping of the sandstorms has wiped away most of the old fort. I can recognize only a small broken tower and a long exterior wall. That is, until we walk around the tower and Abdul shows me the remains of a collapsed spring in a cave 30 meters below.

I look at the abundance of water and empathize with those caravan riders from a long time ago; after the parched Empty Quarter, this is truly a wondrous sight. “This water is what made Shisr a major transit point between the Empty Quarter and the sea ports,” say Abdul. “When the ceiling of the spring collapsed, the town collapsed too.”

The Roman-Parthian wars in the third century AD were the first nail in the coffin of the frankincense trade and the spread of Islam three centuries later the final one. Indeed, in the East, priests still shake their frankincense-burning thuribles, furiously blessing their congregations during Orthodox worship, while their Catholic brothers have learned to employ the resin sparingly, because of its past rarity. Limited business with Western Europe only resumed with the Crusades, which is where the precursor “Frank” comes from. The only vestiges of its wider ancient use remain in our language when we are “incensed” – our angry eyes burning bright like incense.

While the frankincense trade may have crashed, the people here are far too entrepreneurial to have died with it. “We simply took another aromatic plant introduced from Ethiopia and started to grow that instead,” Abdul says, eyes twinkling. “It was planted in Mokha and it is called coffee.”

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