Oman’s Frankincense would have been the original cash crop if cash had been invented 3,500 years ago; but in those days it was a crop of barter, royal gift or the spoil of war.
The most famous use of Frankincense is as one of the 3 gifts brought to Jesus by the 3 Kings/Wise Men/Magi.
Apart from the sheer time span that is behind the trade perhaps the most surprising thing about Frankincense is that it is a real product, as it’s been surrounded by fantastic legends. In 430BCE Herodotus wrote ….’the trees which bear the Frankincense are guarded by winged serpents, small in size, and of varied colours’. The trade in Frankincense stretched from Dhofar to the very centre of Rome via Yemen.
Growing in remote areas of Dhofar (this tour with me visits Dhofar) in Oman the Frankincense tree has thin papery bark hanging from them which create a delightful rustle in a breeze, their leaves a dark olive green contrasting with the rich ochre where the under-bark has been exposed, its small, delicate flowers growing from the end of a branch.
For all the legends woven around Frankincense, it is a surprisingly nondescript material, small pebble-sized granules in a range of shades between brown and an almost translucent milky white.
In fact, the Arabic name for Frankincense, Luban, refers to that pale milky white colour that is the sign of the most exceptional quality of Frankincense.
These granules are the dried resin of the Frankincense tree.
Hand in hand with its remarkable history Frankincense has an equally interesting present.
Perhaps it’s most prosaic use is as an air fragrance. A material that smoulders rather than burns with a flame (today usually processed charcoal) is placed into a special container, an incense burner, known in Oman as a Magmer. Several small pieces of Frankincense are placed on top of the smouldering material. The result is that the Frankincense itself smoulders and gives off its fragrant smoke.