Frankincense has been one of Oman’s most famous and highly prized natural products since antiquity, and its heady aroma is never far away, wafting out of everything from homes, mosques and souks through to modern office blocks and hotel lobbies, providing the country with an instantly recognizable olfactory signature. The majority of the world’s supply is now harvested in Somalia, while Yemen is also a major producer, although Omani frankincense – particularly that from Dhofar – is generally considered the finest.
Frankincense (in Arabic, luban) is a type of resin obtained from one of four trees of the Boswellia genus, particularly the Boswellia sacra, which thrives in the semi-arid mountainous regions around Salalah, often surviving in the most inhospitable conditions and sometimes appearing to grow straight out of solid rock. These distinctive trees are short and rugged, rarely exceeding 5m in height (and frequently shorter), often with a shrub-like cluster of branches rising straight from the ground, rather than a single trunk, and with a peeling, papery bark.
Frankincense is collected by making – or “tapping” – small incisions into the bark, causing the tree to secrete a resin, which is allowed to dry and harden into so-called “tears”. Tapping and collection is a skilled but often arduous profession, now mostly done by expat Somalis. Trees start producing resin when they are around ten years old, after which they are tapped two or three times a year. Virtually all frankincense is taken from trees growing in the wild – the difficulty of cultivating the trees means that they’re not generally farmed on a commercial scale, in the manner of, say, dates, adding to the resin’s mystique.
There are many varieties of frankincense, sorted by hand and graded according to colour, purity and aroma. “Silver” (also known as Hojari) frankincense is generally considered the highest grade. The whiter and purer the colour, the better the grade. More yellowish varieties are less highly valued, while at the bottom of the scale come the rather blackish Somali varieties. The resin is then mixed with coals and burnt in a frankincense burner, ranging from simple clay pots to the colourfully painted examples favoured in Dhofar.
Frankincense is a key element in traditional Omani life; a frankincense burner is traditionally passed from hand to hand after a meal in order to perfume clothes, hair and beards; it is also used as an ingredient in numerous perfumes, as well as in Omani bukhoor. Besides its aromatic properties, frankincense has many practical uses. Its smoke repels mosquitoes, while certain types of frankincense resin are also edible, and are widely used in traditional Arabian and Asian medicines to promote healthy digestion and skin. Even more cutting-edge medical uses for the resin are currently being investigated, including its use as a treatment for Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis and even cancer.