Omani Frankincense

In Oman's south, a unique climate enables the rare frankincense to thrive, placing the region at the centre of this aromatic trade

There is a riddle that has resided in the south of Oman for over 5000 years. ‘Injure it to bring healing.’ The clue to this puzzling statement can be found in Dhofar, the southernmost province of Oman. Separated from the north by the vast and dry desert, Dhofar sees a yearly – and eagerly anticipated – monsoon between late June and September, known as the Khareef. During this rainy season, a floral renaissance occurs, transforming brown-coloured mountains and plains into fields of neon greens and dark emeralds. 

But while Dhofar’s population, living mainly in coastal cities such as Salalah and Mirbat, enjoy the Khareef for its liveliness, there is one inhabitant that gets a time of well-deserved rest, having been hard at work between the months of November and May. It’s the Boswellia sacra tree – which also holds the answer to the land’s ancient riddle.

The tree is short and stubby, growing close to the hot and arid ground. It shares the features with other plants that thrive in the desert, designed in a clever way to sustain long periods of heat and inescapable drought. Its sturdy branches have layers of bark. It’s only once the outer layers have been scraped off that you find the hidden treasure of the tree: drops of sap that, when hardened, turn into frankincense.  

 

 

A blue sky is a common sight in Dhofar, except during the rainy season known as Khareef

Resin oozes from a fresh cut made to the frankincense tree’s bark

A short drive inland from the southern Omani coast is Wadi Dawkah, a frankincense tree park comprising one fourth of the UNESCO World Heritage site known as the ‘Land of Frankincense.’ This is where the Gidad brothers, Abdullah Mohammed and Ahmed Mohammed, use their skilled hands to harvest frankincense. They have been harvesting the aromatic resin since they were teenagers, here in the south of Oman. Due to Dhofar’s unique topography and distribution of moisture, being the only part of the Arabian Peninsula to directly catch the Indian Ocean monsoon, the land produces frankincense of a quality that is as superior as any other in the world. 

Valued through history for its medicinal benefits and pleasant aroma, frankincense was always highly sought by rulers, royalty and common people. It was used during meals, prayers and ceremonies. It’s said that the Emperor Nero once burned an entire year’s worth of frankincense at the funeral of one of his mistresses. The aroma of frankincense has permeated religious and spiritual gatherings of the Greeks, Romans, Egyptian and Israelites, as well as numerous other cultures. And in the Bible, it’s mentioned as one of three gifts brought to the newborn baby Jesus. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top: Frankincense trees in Wadi Dokah, a few hours drive inland from Salalah in southern Oman. The irrigation system watering this field is carefully regulated; the frankincense tree produces lower yields of resin if given too much water

Middle: Gidad is the seventh generation of a family of frankincense workers

Bottom: Abdullah Mohammed Gidad reaches to shave off hardened frankincense resin from the lower portion of the tree

Abdullah and Ahmed’s tools are simple: a knife, a bowl, and their hands. They chip away strips of bark to unlock the frankincense and later shave off the hardened resin. The trade has been passed down through the Gidad family for the past seven generations, so it’s no surprise that Abdullah and Ahmed say their craft is a part of them. 

Not only is the spirit thought to be restored from frankincense, enthusiasts also claim that it does wonders for the body by relieving stress, aiding in digestion and restoring the immune system. It may be used as a deodorant, toothpaste or flavouring for food and drink. Historically, for manyfamilies in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, frankincense was a basic staple which originated, then as well as today, from the region that is now southern Oman. 

 

 

Top: Gidad collects frankincense in his bowl

Middle: Greater frankincense yields usually come from cuts made to the lower portions of the tree

Bottom: Ahmed Mohammed Gidad shows the frankincense he has collected

After the Gidad brothers and other harvesters of frankincense have scraped it off from the trees – 14 to 26 days after they made the initial cuts – the aromatic resin arrives to distributers in bulk, the best quality mixed with the very poorest. Using sieves, pans and a keen eye, workers divide the fragrant chunks into four grades of quality. The lowest variety still contains portions of bark that are mixed with the resin; the next kind comes in small pieces but with no traces of bark; the third, next best, is large and chunky, with a darker colour. The highest quality of frankincense, known as Royal Hojari, is equally large in size, but has a light and green tint to it. Royal Hojari is valued for its purity; not a fleck or speck of bark is left within it. Once sorted, the frankincense is bagged, weighed and sold in Oman’s markets, where both seller and buyer barter for an ideal price.

 

 

 

Top: Frankincense is usually sold in bags weighing one kilogram

Left: Workers enjoy a joke as they weigh and bag the frankincense

Right: Frankincense on sale in a market in Salalah

If frankincense harvesting is done appropriately the tree will not receive any lasting wounds. The cuts, if made during the correct month, in the proper frequency, and to the suitable depth, allow the tree to recover from the recurring inflictions. There are few people who know the science behind it and have the skills to do this, for it takes experienced hands and a trained mind to injure the Boswellia sacra in the right way, enabling it to ‘bring healing,’ as the riddle says, and let its benefits flow freely for generations to come.

 

Royal Hojari, the finest grade of frankincense and Dhofar’s pride and joy

Writer: Jenny Gustafsson and Aaron Pluim
Photographer: Aaron Pluim

 

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