On this Christmas day, Magellan and I are treating ourselves to the gift of frankincense.
It’s burning in the ceramic mukkabbah we bought in Oman, releasing a primal smoke, an aromatic fragrance more powerful than that released by our Christmas tree.
Until two Christmases ago, we didn’t know much about frankincense. Gift of a wise man. Valuable commodity in ancient times.
Now we’re hoarding the four kilos we brought back from Oman, treating our little beads of frankincense, which are the colour of old-fashioned creamed honey, as if they were more worthy than gold. Which at one time they were.
The birthplace of frankincense is Dhofar in the southern corner of Oman. Frankincense needs a desert upbringing to thrive. Chemical ecologists say it’s the extreme heat and drought that concentrates aromatic chemicals in plant life.
On our way to the Empty Quarter in Oman, our guide Aubed took us to Frankincense Park. Considered a gift from God, frankincense trees, Boswellia sacra, can’t be cultivated or transplanted. They can grow as tall as five metres although the ones we saw, which were jubilados—our age—weren’t that high. Frankincense trees produce white blossoms called roses. Inside the roses are seeds that turn from green to black and then are blown off the tree. These seeds are the only way that new green shoots of the Boswellia sacra are generated. Tree locations were kept secret, guarded by the families who claimed ownership.
Harvesting frankincense is a laborious three-step process. First you score the bark with a knife to exude a teardrop of milky sap. About three weeks later, you score the gummy cut again. Finally, after another few weeks, you harvest the small, hardened globules. An average tree generates only ten kilos of frankincense per season. It came as no surprise when Aubed told us the frankincense industry died out in part because of the labour. “It’s more work than getting an easy government job,” he said.
The highest quality of frankincense is yellowish white—and at one time in antiquity it traded, pound for pound, for another luxury product of a similar colour: gold. The Roman emperor Nero, when his wife died, burned a year’s production of frankincense as a testimony of his love. (When frankincense is burned, THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, is emitted—possibly another reason why frankincense was so revered in antiquity.)
Before the time of Marco Polo, as many as 70 camel caravans carrying pebbles of this profound essence started out every day from Dhofar along the Frankincense Trail to customers up to 2,000 miles away. Commerce was different 3500 years ago. Traders lived by the concept of gharar—they shared the good and bad implications that chance plays with profits with the farmers of frankincense.
Luban (from olibanum the Latin word for frankincense) is what Aubed called the bits of frankincense that we found on the ground. Brown luban is the least valuable so that’s what we bought to toss on our campfires and our home fire pit. When burned, brown luban emits a fragrance a little like the muskiness of pine. At the Salalah Souq, we bought medium-grade luban, which lasts longer and has a nicer scent, for ten Omani rials per kilo, about $35. That’s what’s burning in our censer today.
You can eat the most valuable luban. To me, it tastes like a mixture of honey, lime and vanilla. We tried it at a restaurant in Muscat on our second-last night in Oman. As we were leaving, they presented us with a small package of this precious luban. We’re planning to re-gift, putting a piece of luban from that package into everyone’s water glass tonight at Christmas dinner.
A few months before we went to Oman, I read the book Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Paul Nabhan. Here’s what he says about frankincense.
Fragrances and flavors are the tangible corollaries of visions and dreams. They are intermediaries between the physical and spiritual domains, reminding us that there is more to the world than what we can absorb through our eyes.
Our gift of frankincense in Muscat came from the restaurant Al Angham, which features cuisine from around Oman served by women dressed in the traditional, elaborate costumes of the various areas. They served frankincense ice cream!
Managed by Aubed’s cousin, Arabian Sand Tours is the small, family-operated company that provides tours in the Empty Quarter of Oman.
Dekeersmaeker, Maria. The DNA of Salalah, Dhofar. Amazon Digital Services, 2011. A very good reference on frankincense.
The Frankincense Park is a UNESCO site. Frankincense is used in expensive perfumes, including Amouage, the one the Omani government gives to visitors of head states. For health purposes, it’s used as an anit-inflammatory, an antiseptic, to cure acne or dry skin, to cure respiratory, immune, nervous systems and morning sickness and for helming wounds. It’s also used to dye cloth. The leaves of the the frankincense tress are fed to animals and the buds are used as an astringent. It is said that “frankincense cleans out old thought patterns and other people’s energies.”
Humble, Kate: The Frankincense Trail is a great BBC documentary that follows the intrepid Kate Humble along this epic route (240 minutes). Turns out that our guide Aubed was part of the team!
Nabhan, Gary Paul. Cumin, Camels, and Caravans. California: University of California Press, 2014. Much of what we know about frankincense came from Gary’s book, which I serendipitously discovered only a month before we left for Oman. (He also writes for the food magazine Gastronomica.) We highly recommend this book for a vicarious journey into early commerce, excellent writing and good Arabic recipes.
Popp, Georg. Oman, Jewel of the Arabian Gulf. Hong Kong, Odyssey Books & Guides, 2010.
The Ancient Network of Perfume and Incense Trade Routes (Map sourced from wysinfo)