Hugging the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, the province of Dhofar (in Arabic, Zafar) can seem like a world away from the rest of Oman. Separated from pretty much everywhere else in the country by a thousand kilometres of stony desert, the region’s history and identity have always been largely separate from that of the rest of the Sultanate. Fabled in antiquity as the source of the legendary frankincense trade, Dhofar boasted one of Arabia’s oldest and most cosmopolitan cultures – whose remains continue to exercise historians and archeologists to this day. The region was only finally brought under the control of the sultans of Muscat in the mid-nineteenth century, while the Dhofaris continued to assert their independence until as recently as the 1970s before finally being brought into the Omani fold.
Centrepiece of the region is the laidback city of Salalah, capital of Dhofar and by far the biggest settlement for hundreds of kilometres in any direction. This is Oman with a distinct, tropical twist: endless white-sand beaches line the coast, while coconut and banana palms replace the ubiquitous date trees of the north and neat little pastel-painted houses stand in for the fortified mudbrick mansions found elsewhere in the country. The differences are especially striking during the annual khareef (June to August/early September), when the rains of the southeast monsoon brush along the coast around Salalah, turning the area to a fecund riot of misty green which has no equivalent anywhere else in the Arabian peninsula. During this period Salalah is thronged with visiting Omanis and other Gulf Arabs, who flock here to experience the unusual pleasures of rain – an attraction that might well be considered overrated by most visitors from outside the region – although the magical explosion of green, accompanied by the bursting into life of seasonal waterfalls and streams, more than compensates.
Numerous attractions dot the hinterland of Salalah, enclosed by the arc of the scenic Dhofar Mountains, including the rugged Jebel Samhan and Jebel al Qamar dotted with wadis, gorges, sinkholes, blowholes and other geological curiosities. Down at sea level, the coast is lined by huge, and largely deserted, strips of pristine white-sand beach, picture-perfect khors (creeks) and a string of further attractions including the quaint old town of Mirbat and the ruins of ancient Sumhuram. Beyond the mountains you enter the vast stony desert which stretches from here to Muscat, where you’ll find the slight remains of the legendary Ubar and, further on, the enormous dunes of the majestic Empty Quarter.
The history of Dhofar is quite separate from that of the rest of the country, looking west towards neighbouring Yemen rather than north towards the Omani heartlands. The region as a whole rose to prominence, and economic prosperity, much earlier than most other parts of Oman, thanks to the lucrative local frankincense trade. Frankincense was traded through the region from Neolithic times onwards, gradually developing into the so-called Incense Route, one of the ancient world’s most extensive and important commercial networks. Frankincense was transported by sea from the coast of Dhofar westwards up the Red Sea to Egypt, Africa and Europe, and east into the Arabian Gulf and on to India. By land, caravans headed up via Shisr across the Empty Quarter to Bahrain and, westwards, into Yemen and then north to Medina, Petra and, ultimately, Egypt.
A string of ports developed along the coast of Dhofar to service the frankincense trade, including Sumhuram, followed by Mirbat, Sadh, Hasik and Zafar (the forerunner of modern Salalah, and the origin of the name “Dhofar”). The internal politics of the area remain obscure. The kingdom of Hadhramaut, in what is now southern Yemen, appears to have enjoyed some control over the region, while the influence of the Persian Parthians may also have been strong at various times. From around 300 AD onwards, the international frankincense trade went into a gradual decline, although Mirbat and Zafar, at least, continued as major commercial centres, exporting horses and spices in addition to frankincense and attracting many foreign visitors, including Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.
The region was only finally brought into the Omani fold in 1877, during the reign of Sultan Turki bin Said (ironically, just as his own capital in Muscat was coming under increasing threat from the marauding Sharqiya tribes). Outside control was minimal to begin with, however, and in 1896 the local tribes rebelled, overran the sultan’s fort in Salalah and murdered the garrison. Muscat eventually reasserted control, though its authority rarely ran much further than the immediate environs of Salalah itself, with the mountains remaining more or less autonomous under the patchwork of competing tribes.