The symbol culture, scent of the rich past, source of income for thousands and sought-after souvenir for tourists—but the famed fragrance faces a serious drop in production. Alvin Thomas and Hasan al Lawati follow the thinning trail of the scent of Oman.
The story of frankincense dates back thousands of years, with the earliest use believed to be circa 1450 BCE in Egypt. It has been extensively featured in ancient scriptures and is also touted as a fuel for the first global economy from 500 BCE to 500 AD.
Setting aside the facts, however, we need to understand what the frankincense is. In short, it is an aromatic resinous sap inside a special family of trees that are known to grow in the Arabian Peninsula.
Frankincense has long been known to be a western Oman special. It is found in abundance in the region and is used in everything from perfumes, toothpaste, soaps and even flavoured ice cream.
Oman has been a global supplier of the fragrant resin for centuries. Some of these trees are over 1,000 years old and could have been used to serve the Queen of Sheba – a Quranic and Biblical figure from 550 BCE.
It all begins when the tree – when ripe with the fragrant resin – is harvested for its resin. The harvesters must cut the bark with a special knife until the sap oozes out. This will then be dried in the sun before it can be used.
“The smell arising from frankincense is very sharp and distinct if you compare it with that of other resins,” says Mubarak al Kharusi, a frankincense trader in the Seeb souk. “What’s more amazing is that Oman is a hub for most frankincense exports to the world outside. It’s something that I take great pride in selling,” adds the man who visits Muscat from the Dhofar region to sell the product his father – a harvester of over 50 years – has reaped from frankincense trees in Salalah.
“This is the perfume of Arabia,” he proudly states.
And Mubarak is right. Frankincense is everywhere; in homes, schools, shops and even offices. Only if you delve into one of the souvenir shops in a hotel or even an airport or the souks across Oman can you appreciate the importance of this resin to the tourists and local buyers – it’s a commodity in demand.
Today, a pack of frankincense can cost anywhere between RO1 and RO5, depending on the quality of the product.
The market price of frankincense is determined by the colour, texture and the size of the clumps. The lighter and larger the clumps, the more expensive they are to buy.
For instance, Hoojri – known to be a first-grade resin – which has a light colour and a large clump size, is collected from trees in the north of the Samhan mountains in Dhofar and can cost up to RO38 per kg.
On the other hand, second-grade resins like Najdi – which is pale yellow in colour – can cost around RO25 per kg. Third- and fourth-grade resins will set you back anywhere between RO12 and RO6.
If you are thinking that the prices are high, then we must point out that a few thousand years ago the value of frankincense was equivalent to that of gold.
The Egyptians reportedly believed it to be the seat of the gods and used it in many of their mortuary rituals and purification ceremonies. Frankincense was used in burial rituals as an embalming material, an offering to the departed and a means to cover the odour of the dead body. Greek and Roman physicians used it in the treatment of almost every disease for its antiseptic and calming properties. Moreover, Omani women chew frankincense when pregnant to ensure an ‘intelligent baby’.
Another breakthrough in the importance of frankincense was when immunologist Mahmoud Suhail and a group of scientists observed that there is an agent within frankincense that stops the spreading of cancer, and which induces cancerous cells to close themselves down.
“Cancer starts when the DNA code within the cell’s nucleus becomes corrupted,” he was quoted telling the BBC. “It seems frankincense has a re-set function. It can tell the cell what the right DNA code should be. Frankincense separates the ‘brain’ of the cancerous cell — the nucleus — from the ‘body’ — the cytoplasm, and closes down the nucleus to stop it reproducing corrupted DNA codes.”
Despite all that, however, the value of the resin has dropped over time. And while all of this should spell well for sellers, many are now complaining that there is a shortage of the product.
Ahmed al Rashdi, a perfume seller in Muttrah souk, elucidates: “There are times when our vendors don’t bring us our frankincense from Salalah in time. This means we sometimes have to raise our prices or go without stock for days.
“Our prices aren’t fixed and people will bargain with us too, so this is not a pleasant period for us. Whatever may be the case, I am finding that some honest vendors are struggling to find the product in time for us, while some others are always piled up with stock.
“And because the frankincense trade is built on trust and network, we cannot simply switch vendors.”
This is a concern for a country that is known to trade commercial tree products for millennia. The commodity remains an important part of local culture and a main source of income to hundreds of farmers and their families.
According to the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), frankincense trees are currently undergoing severe population decline due to overgrazing, insect infestation, and unsustainable harvesting methods.
While frankincense is produced by tapping the Boswellia sacra tree for sap, researchers closely monitoring the effects of tapping have recorded its harsh impact on the trees when not done properly.
The ESO presented its findings from the Frankincense Research and Conservation initiative with project sponsor HSBC Bank Oman. The research project, ‘Sustainable Harvesting of Frankincense Trees’, started in 2010 in four experimental research locations, monitoring 180 frankincense trees in Dhofar to determine the right frequency of tapping to produce a sustainable yield without adversely harming the trees.
In a statement released to the media, Dr Mohsin Al Amri, Project Manager and Researcher, said: “For millennia, frankincense trees have served as an important source of income and cultural symbol to people throughout the Sultanate, being used for medical and cosmetic purposes as well as food flavouring. Despite that, frankincense numbers have continued to decline as overharvesting and unsustainable practices take their toll.
“Among other findings, research results have shown that tapping smaller trees result in insufficient seed germination which in turn reduces the produce. The impact of unsustainable harvesting methods may last up to three years, and for conservation to succeed we must continue to fill knowledge gaps, complement research findings and engage all stakeholders as often as we can.”
Adding to the researcher’s lines, Andrew P. Long, CEO of HSBC Bank Oman, said: “The decline of frankincense in Oman is a challenge that requires the collaboration of all stakeholders to protect this important cultural symbol. We are confident that our partnership on this unparalleled initiative will further enhance the community’s understanding on ways to protect Dhofar’s prized frankincense trees.”
The project funds covered both phases of the project, including three field surveys which were conducted between April 2015 and May 2017, to closely monitor 180 trees for foliage and seed germination as indicators of their health.
Rather interestingly, the study found that the trees that were exposed to over-harvesting flowered more than the trees that were under normal tapping practices. This can be explained as a survival mechanism in the trees, triggered by the sense of risk.
Also, it was found that larger trees seem to enjoy higher ability to produce intact healthy seeds than smaller trees.
Following the research and monitoring of these trees, awareness and advocacy campaigns were conducted with key stakeholders to reach out to the farmers and educate them on the usage of sustainable harvesting techniques which are vital to the continued survival of this endemic Omani species.
Reports that there is a sharp decline in the number of frankincense trees are making rounds in the media. As per the reports, the Luban tree, which provides some of the most eminent frankincense in the world, is under threat of extinction.
According to a recent study, there has been a staggering 85 per cent drop in the density of frankincense trees in Jabal Samhan (in Salalah) over the last 13 years. It’s not just wrong practices or over harvesting that have led us to this stage; droughts have also played a detrimental role, accounting for a 34 per cent reduction in the numbers of the tree.
It was stated that in 2015, authorities planted more than 600 of the trees in areas like Samahram, Khor Rori and Wadi Madrakah in an effort to revive their fast depleting numbers – and this, according to numerous frankincense traders, has bridged the gaps slightly.
Falah al Balushi, a trader of 30 years at the Muttrah souk, tells Y that he feels that the supply of the resin has been on the up ever since the authorities took action to curb illegal selling and also harvesting.
“I come from a family that are experts in frankincense. We have been doing it for decades and it is only now that we have started retail of the item. Before this, we used to sell it to other shopkeepers in the dukan (market).
“I still get my stock from my brother who comes once every two weeks from Salalah. He harvests it himself, so I can trust that everything is in safe hands. But one issue we have been facing of late has been that the tourists are trying to take advantage of our good nature.
“We adore people coming to Oman to soak in the flavours of the country, but they spend thousands of Riyals on a cruise ship or stay in five-star hotels, and then come to haggle with us for a few grams of frankincense.
“It’s an insult to the product and to us. Every single customer that comes here asks for a drop in the price. It’s not an issue to ask for one and I will happily give him or her a better price, but then they start comparing the hujri (high-quality frankincense) to the najdi (lower quality frankincense) and that’s when they start fighting with us over the price differences.
“I usually sell regular frankincense for about RO2.5 to RO10 – and that’s something I’ve been successful at, but the coming up of supermarkets in the Muscat region is slowly killing our sales.”
Shops in supermarkets around the capital are known to sell frankincense for as low as RO1 and the average price drops further when the buyer opts for a burner and coal.
This is a feeling shared by Yasir al Mahri, a trader from Salalah who only visits the capital during the Muscat Festival.
“My frankincense costs between RO1 and RO7, but visitors are mocking me saying that they would get better quality products for lesser in Chinese stores and malls,” he tells.
“We work hard to harvest this resin and collect enough to showcase it in the Muscat Festival. But it hurts us to see that people don’t appreciate the art of traditional perfumes anymore. And if that is the case, then we won’t have a job in the near future.”