Frankincense comes from trees in the Omani desert and since they are believed to be a gift from Allah should not be propagated, bought or sold … something the traders of the seas cared not to think about too much. Elspeth Black looks at the ways this historically religious material has been tapped.
It seems hard to imagine that the harsh, dry sands of Oman produce something much of the world once sought after. The golden sap oozing out of incisions made in scrawny trees in the Omani desert becomes frankincense when left to harden in the sun. The area where there are still many trees, the frankincense park of Wadi Dawkah, was made a UNESCO site in 2000. The species growing in Dhofar is famed for producing the finest quality sap.
The dried sap meant Oman became the centre of trade between the Mediterranean and Red Seas to Mesopotamia, India and China. Trade began many thousands of years ago, with archeological evidence showing Neolithic remains of frankincense. As a result the area was covered in fortresses, providing security for the area as well as being places where traders could spend winter months. Indian seamen would also stay in the area at times and exchanged cotton cloth, corn and oil for the precious nuggets.
It may seem surprising that such an unpretentious-looking plant can be at the centre of such riches. However, the sap has many and varied uses. Its medical qualities meant the Romans and Greeks prescribed it for virtually any illness and its place in the inner sanctum of temples in Egypt, Jerusalem and Rome obviously made it very important.
The sap from the boswellia tree, the one from which frankincense is tapped, is not the only type of tree that produces a useful liquid. Violinists, ballet dancers and bull riders all need rosin, derived from various coniferous trees, to increase friction and reduce slippage. Tree sap is also used in chewing gum, cement and fossilising dinosaur teeth. Maple trees may not have had traders sailing round the world to the same extent, but no pancake would be the same without it.
By Elspeth Black
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.