Oman for all of the senses: On the frankincense trail
Come Christmas later this year, children around the world will hear the story of the gifts the three wise men took to Bethlehem to meet baby Jesus. At the time, frankincense was used to worship kings. From Hebrew scriptures to the New Testament, frankincense (commonly referred to as olibanum) has been revered for almost five millennia.
It’s 4 pm on a windy day, and I nearly lose my footing while trying to scale down the craggy cliffs that hug the ocean at Taqah. I’d never imagined I’d capture such a spectacular panorama in Oman when I first signed up for the trip. I’d heard of the landscape around Salalah, Oman’s second city and how holiday makers from around the Middle East descend upon this city during the ‘kharif’ season.
But despite all that prep, I was still amazed when I drove out of the Salalah airport. I could have sworn I was in Kerala. Coconut palms, banana plantations – the banana chips are almost as good as in Kerala, and lush greenery. It’s everything you don’t expect to find in this corner of the world.
The surprises didn’t end there. I quickly discovered that my luxury oasis – the Anantara Al Baleed Resort, was smack in the middle of a UNESCO world heritage zone. This was once an important pit-stop along the fabled Incense Road at a time when frankincense was a coveted commodity. It was on the drive back from Wadi Dawkah that Ahmed, my chauffeur and companion from the Anantara suggested a detour to Taqah. Wadi (Valley) Dawkah is one of the areas around Salalah where Frankincense thrives.
Dhofar, so good
Somalia, Kenya and Yemen are among the regions where frankincense trees dot the landscape, but Oman’s Dhofar region has long been the centre for the finest quality frankincense. Today, brands like Tom Ford and Prada vie for olibanum (the extract from the tree) for their premium fragrances (like Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute). The resins from under the bark yield the finest quality frankincense essential oil and is usually harvested during spring and fall in the region. You can watch experts during this season as they work their way with a specially engineered knife. They either scape portions of the bark or slash at the outer bark for the resins to ooze out and harden as these tears (hardened resins) make contact with the air. These resin crystals are then processed for their different applications from fragrances to food flavouring agents to medicines.
The diversion to Taqah was one of Ahmed’s many bright suggestions during my day trip from the resort. We drove up the cliff and the view of the azure blue ocean with the rows of quaint houses in the village in the background came together for the perfect panorama. Agreed, it wasn’t like those gorgeous images of the Greek coast-line with white-washed houses that adhere to a pre-designated colour scheme. And yet that’s what made the view from the cliffs near Taqah more special. Ahmed tells me not to judge Taqah by its size. The town is the final resting place of Mazoon al-Mashi, the mother of Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s popular monarch.
Taqah to the limit
Taqah might not have been a bustling town during the Roman era but our earlier stop during the day was one of Middle East’s most significant trading posts. My ride to Khor Rori (it was known as Sumurham
centuries ago) in a temperature controlled SUV was probably less eventful than James Theodore Blunt’s risk-fraught journey in the 1890s. It was this British explorer and archaeologist who first unearthed this strategic outpost of the Hadhramaut Kingdom. Ancient inscriptions suggest that Sumurham was founded in the 1st Century BC. The town was abandoned during the 7th Century AD, and around the same time, the incense road ceased to be major trading route owing to the political upheaevals in the region.
On a hot afternoon with the cool breeze providing some relief, I had the ruins of Khor Rori all to myself. A complete contrast from Sumurham in its heyday when large consignments of frankincense would pass this port. There are numerous inscriptions around the site that helped me paint a picture of Sumurham with its imposing gate and fortifications, during the pre-Islamic era.
In many ways, this town was the key bridge between the Mediterranean and India at a time when frankincense was one of the most widely traded global commodities. The ruins and the spectacular ocean views from Khor Rori make it a must-do stop in the 21st century version of the frankincense trail.
The private beach and secluded villas at the Anantara Al Baleed were the perfect detox after a long day playing modern explorer. I doubt even the kings of the Hadhramaut Kingdom had such luxurious palaces during their time. My finest meal at the resort was at Mekong, which showcases Asian specialties; an Asian fine dining restaurant in the heart of the incense road trail might seem an odd choice, but back in the day, frankincense from the Dhofar region was a prized possession among Chinese nobility.
The Anantara Al Baleed Resort shares its walls with the Frankincense Museum and the dramatic ruins of Al Baleed. The museum is compact and yet gives you a perspective of Oman’s seafaring traditions and the region’s frankincense connection.
The ruins almost lead into the ocean and are a dramatic sight especially towards sunset. You don’t need to be fascinated by frankincense to make the trip to Salalah; I wasn’t. It was the lure of the white sand beaches and the Omani coastline that brought me to Salalah.
But gradually, I got sucked into the incense road; one story at a time and one experience after the other. The towering cliffs with sweeping ocean views, the quaint local markets where (not surprisingly) frankincense is always in the mix and the warm Omani hospitality that never ceases to surprise.
As Ahmed drove me back to the Anantara for one last time he spoke about the historic ties between Oman and India and how he’s no stranger to Chennai. Medical tourism is one more in a long list of trading links between our two nations.
I’m greeted once again by the resort’s evening ritual. The air in the lobby fills with frankincense that gently burns from a decorative incense burner; the incense road still smells the same after 5,000 years.