An Ancient Scent Seeks Modern Markets

Mohammad Kutty knows the legends well. The 35-year-old Indian merchant beguiles a half-dozen tourists in the southern Omani city of Salalah with tales of Arabia's ancient frankincense trade. Picking up a small, yellow-brown ball of hardened frankincense, Kutty announces: "In the ancient world, frankincense was more important than gold. Every major civilization bought frankincense from this region. The Queen of Sheba and the King of Persia ordered it by the ton."

Then, standing a little straighter, he hands the tiny ball of resin to one of the young women, adding solemnly: "It was frankincense from this region that was given as a gift to the baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men."

The tourists, most of them German, enjoy the spiel. They buy small plastic bags of frankincense for about $2.50 apiece. It's a slightly inflated tourist price, but a steal by ancient standards when only royalty could afford the incense, believed to have curative powers.

Frankincense, a gum resin extracted from scraggy Boswellia sacra trees located in southern Oman and parts of India, Somalia, and Yemen, first became popular--and valuable--4,000 years ago. It was hauled by camel to the courts of regional kings and by sail to far-off emperors such as Rome's Nero, who burned his personal year's supply in the cremation of his beloved wife. From 1000 B.C. through 400 A.D., the frankincense trade became the most lucrative in the world, surpassing even China's silk trade. For a while, it made southern Arabia the richest place on earth.

Today, the frankincense trade in Oman is small and largely local. The country's total production is 7,000 tons; annual revenues from the trade stand at around $78 million, according to government estimates. Of the yearly harvest, only 5 tons' worth was exported in 1999, a fact that frustrates traders such as Kutty. "There is not much activity in the export business," he says. "I think we can really boost exports with a little marketing."

Oman's government agrees. It is seeking to increase frankincense exports as part of a plan to revive the economy of the southern Dhofar region of Oman, according to Mahmoud bin Badr Abri, director of Oman's agricultural marketing authority. Abri says Omani frankincense is superior to cheaper, better marketed varieties from India and Somalia--an opinion supported by experts such as Juris Zarins, an archaeologist at Southwest Missouri State University. So far, Abri has focused on the tourist market, promoting "The Magi's frankincense" as a key part of the Oman experience. But plans are afoot to revive the ancient role of frankincense as a factor in Oman's balance of trade.

The private sector is also taking a hand in increasing the international exposure of Omani frankincense. Adventure Arabia, a private Omani-British joint venture, has set up a Web site to sell Omani frankincense over the Internet. A Florida company, Bombay Aromatics, buys the resin directly from Omani merchants and markets it online in the U.S. And the Amouage company, based in Oman and belonging to a local sheikh, is boosting the product as an ingredient in fine perfume. In partnership with French perfume maker Guy Robert, of Chanel and Dior fame, Amouage has created a high-end frankincense-based scent, also called Amouage, that it bills as "the most valuable perfume on earth."

EVIL SPIRITS. Amid the winding alleys of the open-air Salalah souk, near the front of Kutty's small spice and oils shop, two massive baskets overflow with pebble-like clumps of the resin. Omani customers hold the frankincense to the fierce sun--the more light seeps through, they say, the better the quality. Kutty has two suppliers who show up every few months in a pickup truck loaded with sacks of frankincense. As for Kutty's local customers, they use it daily. It is burned in clay pots--the musky, lemony smoke is used to scent rooms and, in more traditional families, to ward off evil spirits. After dinner parties, a pot of glowing frankincense is passed around the room. The men waft the smoke into their beards, and women let it blow through their hair.

The local sufficiency of frankincense keeps margins low in the trade, Kutty complains. Another damper on prices is the fact that many producers don't bother with middlemen such as Kutty, instead selling directly at bazaars. Kutty's most striking competitors are a group of Bedouin women, members of a tribe who have traditionally harvested the resin. They sit cross-legged to conduct business. With their golden veils, henna-reddened hands, and colorful robes, they are popular among tourists.

Frankincense traders interviewed in the Salalah market are confident of the government's ability to help them boost exports--if it chooses to do so. They point to the state-of-the art container terminal a few kilometers away as proof. In 1996, the forward-thinking, British-educated ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, decided to build a major regional port to capitalize on Salalah's favorable location beside Indian Ocean trade routes. A contract was signed with Sea Land (now Maersk SeaLand), and the port was completed early and under budget, a real achievement in a region used to delays and cost overruns.

"When the government can build a first-class port so fast and so well, they can certainly take steps to boost the frankincense trade, too," one Omani trader says. Indeed, the port itself may help. Major shipping lines from the Far East, Africa, and Europe call at modernized Salalah. Small merchants such as Kutty would love to see their resin packed aboard those massive ships. Meanwhile, Kutty exports small amounts to nearby countries, principally Dubai and India. And they go the traditional way--on wooden dhows, powered by sail and, these days, diesel, plying the routes that made Oman a maritime power in the days of Sinbad.

Oman, a Kansas-size country with 2,735 km of coastline, ran into hard times when steamships savaged the dhow traffic. In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos took over from his father in a bloodless coup, Oman was one of the most economically backward countries in the world, with just 10 km of paved road, one school, and only small pockets of electricity. Today, however, Oman has world-class hospitals, highways, a first-rate university, and a burgeoning middle class. Unlike its Persian Gulf neighbors, Omanis accomplished their economic modernization without the benefit of massive oil wealth. Oman produces less than 900,000 barrels per day, a pittance compared with neighbors such as Kuwait; furthermore, those reserves are expected to dry up in 20 years. While newly discovered natural-gas fields may take up the slack through the middle of the century, Omanis are already seeking alternative sources of revenue.

UBAR'S RUINS. Salalah's frankincense traders hope their storied industry will be the next focus of government attention--despite historical warnings about the dangers of the trade. In the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that southern Arabia's frankincense trees were guarded by flying serpents. The Koran tells of the glittering frankincense entrepot, Ubar, whose inhabitants were punished for their loose morals. Ubar disappeared from the face of the earth, prompting several 19th- and 20th-century British expeditions to search for it. In 1991, American archeologists, guided by satellite images, found the lost city's ruins just a few kilometers from Salalah.

However today's frankincense trade develops, it is unlikely to bring Oman the wealth or the problems it brought to Ubar. But for now it still offers a glimpse into ancient Arabia. The resin is extracted today the same way it was 4,000 years ago. In the spring, tiny slits are made in the tree bark, and the resin that oozes out is collected in bowls.

My Omani guide, Mohammad, takes me to witness the harvesting of frankincense. In an air-conditioned Jeep Cherokee, we drive toward a cluster of squat trees. Mohammad asks a Somali--a sinewy fellow wearing a T-shirt and blue slippers--if we can watch him collect frankincense. I am startled by Mohammad's request, and mention that I thought the collection of the resin was still reserved for Omanis. "Those days are over," the Somali says cheerfully. "Now, many people collect it."

An Ancient Scent Seeks Modern Markets (int'l edition)

The Somali crouches and points to a few teardrops of resin. "Most of it has already been collected," he said, "but this tree is good. It keeps giving." With a sharp blade, he scrapes off several drops. Mohammad flicks a lighter and touches the frankincense with flame. There is a sizzling sound, and pale smoke dances and disappears. Mohammad fans the smoke toward me, urging me to run it through my hair. Above us, the sun lingers in the blue-gray evening. The Somali continues picking at the tree, dropping more balls of resin in a simmering pile. In the distance, beside a pickup, a group of Omanis lie prostrate in prayer, their backs to a vast, dust-colored plain.

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