Oman - Salalah
Written by Matthew Teller Photography by Piers Golden
At a dusty roadside café in southern Oman, as Indian truck drivers shovel handfuls of soupy rice, I open my paperback at a photo of a bearded, intense young man with a disarming crinkle around the eyes. Comparing the image with the cheery real-life figure sitting opposite me, sipping his sweet, milkless tea, it’s clear that two decades have been kind to Bakheit bin Abdullah.
Twenty years ago Bakheit worked with an archaeological team led by British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, helping to discover the lost city of Ubar, a trading entrepôt in the Omani desert, which grew wealthy on the ancient trade in frankincense. Fiennes’ photo of Bakheit ended up in his book Atlantis of the Sands.
Today – a little plumper, neater, but with the same sly twinkle – Bakheit remembers the old days with fondness.
“Fiennes was a hard worker,” he says, pulling a tough-guy face. “I’d like to see him again.”
Oman’s Dhofar region is frankincense country. For millennia people have scraped the bark of the scraggy native Boswellia sacra tree, allowed its sap to harden into small nuggets, then picked them off and heated them over embers. Religious ritual across the Mediterranean and the East depended – and, in places, still depends – upon thick, sweet frankincense smoke to transport supplications heavenwards.
Astride the camel caravan route, Ubar flourished – until the day, around AD 400, when the city’s water source suddenly caved in, destroying the buildings above it, along with most of the surrounding oasis. The Quran mentions the calamity, talking of the earth being ‘cleaved open’.
After the disaster, memory of Ubar’s location faded, and the ruins lay lost for over 1,500 years. Fiennes had become obsessed with finding Ubar while in Dhofar in 1968. In Atlantis of the Sands, he describes how it took years of searching before a site at Shisr emerged as the likeliest candidate. His team began digging in earnest in 1991 – whereupon unique pottery, glassware, and fragments of a 2,000-year-old chess set confirmed the discovery of a major centre of international trade.
I can see how they almost missed it. The site, far out in the Dhofari desert, is only half the size of a football field. A few walls stand above a crater several metres across.
Despite the drama – and the fabulous wealth of Ubar’s former inhabitants – I tour the site in five minutes flat, passing the stumps of towers and peering into the gaping cavern.
Notwithstanding stupendous natural beauty, Dhofar remains quietly remote, its easygoing capital Salalah hiding behind coastal mountains. This is the only sliver of Arabia to receive the Indian Ocean monsoon. From June to September each year, while the rest of Arabia bakes, rain drizzles onto Salalah from grey skies, fog envelops the beaches, and temperatures plummet to a balmy 20°C.
For those few weeks Salalah is crowded with Gulf visitors seeking the novelty of cool air and dense cloud: wherever you look, misty meadows host extended families, delightedly picnicking in the rain.
Yet visit just afterwards – in October, say – and you find landscapes of lushness under crystal-clear skies. The greenery persists: Dhofar’s rolling wooded uplands cut by folded valleys could almost be England, until you spot camels silhouetted on the ridge-tops.
I spent days meandering around Salalah, watching shadows lengthen across whitewashed arches (the city’s name derives from a local word for ‘white’) and sipping sweet water from freshly opened coconuts, sold at roadside stalls beneath towering palm groves. Beside the excellent frankincense museum, packed with detail on maritime history, I dropped into Basma Alnobe’s shop, selling frankincense oil, frankincense water, even frankincense soap. “It takes a woman to judge quality,” she smiled.
The Queen of Sheba would agree. Her local palace lay just east of Salalah, by the coastal creek of Khor Rori. At the shadeless ruins of Sumhuram, above the creek, I explored the ruined temple of the moon-god Sin, and peered into long galleries where frankincense would have been stored before being shipped up the Red Sea.
Abdullah Saidi, a customer visiting from Abu Dhabi, nudges me. “This Hawjari is the best,” he smiles. “We burn it every day in the house.”
West of Salalah, between rocky hills in the desolate Baal Thayfer – the ‘Place of Camel Droppings’ – Mabkhot Al Amiry hefts his manqaf – a broad chisel – choosing where to make the first cut in the papery bark of the tree in front of us. With short, downward strokes he chips away a strip of bark, exposing orangey, sap-filled wood.
As we watch, white droplets appear on the surface of the wound, swelling to form viscous globules. Mabkhot encourages me to touch one. It is sticky and resinous. A tell-tale sweet fragrance sends my head spinning. This is the source.
“First we had frankincense, then we found oil,” one insightful young Dhofari told me. “The next generation’s wealth will come in solar power.”
And then he shook his head and smiled.
“But we will always love frankincense.”
At the height of the Roman Empire, Dhofar was exporting immense quantities of frankincense – by ship to Yemen and thence up the Red Sea, and by camel caravan overland to Petra and the Mediterranean. It is said that Emperor Nero burned an entire year’s supply at the funeral of his second wife, Poppaea, in Rome in AD 65.
Omanis take smell seriously. Arrive in the country and the first thing you notice is a lingering, seductive fragrance in the air. Traditional ankle-length dishdasha robes, worn by men throughout the Gulf, in Oman feature a unique aromatic accessory: a dangling tassel, woven into the collar, that is dipped daily into scented oil. Omanis drift about in a cloud of their own sweetness.
But these are rarely the blended whiffs of commercial perfumiers. Souks and malls overflow with natural products that smell lovely. Visitors invariably latch onto culinary spices, but for locals the aromatics matter far more. Splinters of oud, a resinous wood imported from Cambodia, sell at wildly inflated prices for burning in the home. Bukhoor, woodchips soaked in aromatic oils, are equally popular.
But the king of them all is lubban, or frankincense, with its deep, complex aroma.
By the numbers
Salalah is the capital of Dhofar, the largest of the Sultanate of Oman’s eleven regions at roughly 100,000 km2. Dhofar lies in the south of Oman, bordering Yemen to the west.
Dhofar is known for the oversized tombs of some well-known religious figures. The tomb of Nabi Ayoub (the Prophet Job) is more than 4m long, while Nabi Omran – grandfather of Jesus – rests in a tomb 33m long.
Most of Salalah’s 350,000 tourist arrivals visit during the khareef monsoon season every summer, when the month-long Salalah Tourism Festival draws crowds for its cultural shows, exhibitions, and entertainments.