Scenes from the Land of Frankincense

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I have found the place where the Three Wise Men did their Christmas shopping: Salalah, a city that lies on Oman's gloriously turquoise southern coast. The souk here smells like the churches of my youth, its scent conjuring the solemn midnight masses I attended on Christmas Eve, when the priest would shake the thurible over his congregation, dousing it in a veil of frankincense.

FrankincenseAs the vapour dissipated, the voices of the choir would rise in joyous song, harking the herald angels, wising joy to the world, enjoining the faithful to come, oh come all ye! The solemnity evaporated too, and a sense of elation settled over us where the frankincense had been. We streamed out of church into a new day, a world alive with possibility.

My faith has quivered just as surely as those smoky whorls, but the nostalgia ignited by frankincense in the souk brings a smile of remembrance to my face. I am in a world far removed from the Christian tradition of my upbringing — a broad frill of desert sewn (alongside Yemen) onto Saudi Arabia's hem; a Middle Eastern, mostly-Islamic country characterised by domed-and-tiled mosques, women wearing hijabs and the call-to-prayer riding on the hot breeze.

But the substances that vivify the story of Jesus' birth — and which the Three Wise Men carried all the way to Bethlehem — are for sale here in this southern Dhofar region of Oman: gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the frankincense souk, traders offer containers filled with raisins of amber-coloured myrrh — the hardened gum of the thorny Commiphora tree. In the gold souk, gilt-drenched shopfronts line an entire street; merchants drape customers in tiaras of gold and cascading necklaces of gold and extravagant gold jewellery fit for a (newborn) king.

But it's frankincense for which this region is best known (apart from its attraction during the monsoon, when Dhofar turns green beneath a shroud of rain and visitors fleeing the unbearable summer months in the northern Gulf States camp out below joyfully gushing skies).

Indeed, it was in this region to which merchants and traders from Rome and Ancient Greece, from India and the Far East and Europe were drawn between the third century BC and the fifth century AD. They would load their ships with priceless pearls of frankincense and shepherd them back across the seas to awaiting buyers flush with cash.

The trees from which these scented beads are harvested still speckle the desert north of Salalah: scratch the bark and white sap bleeds from the wound; leave it alone and it will gradually harden into resinous beads ready for the picking.

 

"Here in Oman, the clouds of Christmas frankincense have expanded beyond the churches of my youth into a veil connecting vastly disparate worlds."

 

So historically significant was Oman's frankincense industry during the time of Christ, UNESCO has granted heritage listing to a collection of sites comprising its Land of Frankincense trail: the oasis of Wadi Dawka, crammed with frankincense trees; the ruins of the trading city of Al Baleed at Salalah; and — most impressively, perhaps — the remains of the ancient port of Sumhurum near Mirbat, where those ships from far-off lands would weigh anchor and their merchants eagerly come ashore. Archaeologists are still unearthing treasures subsumed within its crumbling foundations.

Here in Oman, the clouds of Christmas frankincense have expanded beyond the churches of my youth into a veil connecting vastly disparate worlds.

How little I knew about this substance as I ingested its scent: that it was so precious not a grain of it would leave Sumhuram without authorisation; that it would be used to treat headaches and infections and to chase away evil spirits from Omanis' homes; that all these centuries later, men would still dip the tassels of their dishdasha (traditional Omani dress) into its essence, and women would continue to place mabkharas (incense burners) beneath their voluminous abayas (Islamic dresses) and fan the smoke so that it might seep into the fibres.

How delightful to see this country's mosques suffused with the scent of frankincense — not just on celebratory days, but always. And what a surprise it is to find that this place in whose proximity Christianity unfolded smells exactly — precisely — like Christmas.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. She travelled as a guest of Oman Tourism.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, gold, frankincense, myrrh, Christmas, Oman, Islam

 

 

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Innocence lay on bed of hay- -Is this what his gentle eyes do say?- All wise men play their part- When searching for His light within the dark- Gold frankincense and myrrh- Within the righteous heart do stir- Truth is Love this must be understood- No manmade decree- It is the action of Truth that sets mankind free- Deception and deceit are trod upon- By His holy feet- Humble heart, placid moon, twinkling Star- All mankind shall know who you are- kevin your brother In Christ
Kevin Walters | 13 December 2018


My sister's gingerbread, my father's Old Spice, Mum's roast chicken, incense at midnight, gold in the southern morning. Christmas with Our Family, with all our brokenness and pain. God bless us, all Children of the Book.
Joan Seymour | 14 December 2018


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