Oman – Been There
Sumhuram and the mystical virtues of frankincense
Dhofar, Southern Oman. 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.”