Frankincense was one of the most valuable commodities traded in the ancient world. An ordinary Boswellia tree produces the golden resin that became so popular that Oman developed routes to facilitate frankincense trade. Now, the Frankincense Trail remains a protected cultural attraction for travelers.
People can visit the main sites, cities and ports that boosted the trade and walk the routes that camel caravans traversed in ancient times. The Frankincense Trail in Oman is famous among travelers, as it is the birthplace of frankincense and is at the heart of the trade.
In This Article
The History of Frankincense
Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is a yellow resin made from the dried sap of a Boswellia tree, which is found in Oman and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia in northeastern Africa. The Boswellia tree is recognizable by its papery bark, sparse leaves and white-petaled flowers with a red or yellow center.
Frankincense harvesting begins with cutting the bark, which causes milky white sap to ooze from the tree. Over several months, this sap hardens and transforms into a golden color. The sap is then harvested by scraping it off the tree and collecting the hardened resin.
Pure frankincense has a pale yellow color and is translucent. Traders will hold the bits of resin up to the light — the more light penetrating through it, the better the quality. The natural oil content makes it burn well, producing a musky, lemony smell.
Throughout history, frankincense has held significant spiritual importance. The Babylonians, Sumerians, Assyrians and Persians offered frankincense to their gods, and it was one of the gifts the wise men brought to baby Jesus in the Bible. The Egyptians began using it as a base for their perfumes and an ingredient in oils to preserve mummies.
Today, while frankincense is not a very widely used essential oil, some research suggests potential health benefits. It is prescribed in Chinese medicine for blood stagnation and inflammation diseases, in addition to relieving pain and swelling.
As the popularity of frankincense grew, trading took off. What began as a medicinal remedy grew into an ingredient for cosmetics and a highly prized commodity.
The Frankincense Trail and Its Early Routes
So, what is the Frankincense Trail? The frankincense routes flourished between the third century B.C. and the second century A.D. and rivaled the trade of gold, silk and gems. The network of trade routes enabled frankincense trade between Yemen and the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Peninsula, the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia. This network spanned a distance of over 2,000 miles. These networks included overland trails, where traders traversed long distances over the desert and maritime routes.
This site in Oman, dubbed The Land of Frankincense, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site to maintain its integrity and authenticity. Salalah is the capital city of Dhofar, the southern region of Oman, which was famous in ancient times as part of the frankincense trading community. A few main sites and communities surrounding Salalah helped the old frankincense trade flourish in Oman.
Although stony and semi-desert, Wadi Dawkah, about 25 miles north of Salalah, is famous for its frankincense trees. From this region, frankincense was produced, collected and then taken for trade. To this day, the Boswellia trees thrive in the extreme heat and produce frankincense. The historical distribution of frankincense was through three main sites that were exceptionally fortified.
The port of Khor Rori, about 25 miles east of Salalah, was a natural harbor between the fourth century B.C. and the fifth century A.D. The remains of this port tell the story of a strong fortress. Tower remains border the port’s old entrance that made up a massive structure with three gates on the steep entry path. This port of Khor Rori served as a commercial distribution point for frankincense as far as East Africa and India.
There are ruins in Khor Rori that some archeologists believe may be remains of the Queen of Sheba’s palace, from which she reigned over this busy coastal trading region.
Al-Baleed is a port city on the beaches of the Indian Ocean and lies to the east of Salalah’s beach. Artifacts collected from China and other countries suggest that the city’s harbor held great importance in the trade of frankincense on the Silk Road to the Sea.
Unlike Khor Rori, Al-Baleed did not have a fortified harbor. Instead, the frankincense and other goods were loaded and unloaded on small boats in the shallow water. The city was heavily secured, but numerous attacks and radical changes in the trading forced by Portuguese and European traders led to its downfall by the 15th century.
Shisr or Ubar, now a famed lost city, was a significant station along the routes from Wadi Dawkah to the Njed in Saudi Arabia, the harbor and ports. This agriculture oasis in the desert that lies around 112 miles north of Salalah was a caravan site and provided water supply to traders. Ancient camel caravans would stop at this oasis as they carried frankincense overland to Palmyra, Persia, Rome and Egypt.
Tips for Traveling the Frankincense Trail
To visit these rich heritage sites, encounter the unique Boswellia tree and discover more about the ancient frankincense trade, you don’t have to be a trader like in ancient times. The exceptional journey that the Frankincense Trail offers is a traveler’s dream, and with these tips, you can make the most of your voyage.
- Who should visit: The Frankincense Trail is a beautiful destination for world travelers but will particularly appeal to you if you are an ancient history, cultural, outdoors and archaeology enthusiast. This trail is best for people who love nature and are eager to learn more about history.
- When you should visit: Oman is very hot during the summer months between June and August. The best time to travel the trail is when the temperature is milder, from October to May.
- How you should dress: Many of the people of Oman are religious and honor their culture and traditions. As a sign of respect, you should dress conservatively by covering most of your legs and shoulders.
- How can you visit: You most likely won’t need a visa. In 2020, Oman passed a law allowing visitors from 103 counties to stay there for up to 10 days without a visa. The U.S. is on those list of countries.
- How to experience it: Booking a tour is the best way to enjoy an immersive experience of the trail. You can gain in-depth knowledge from a local tour guide and ask questions about the history of the routes. A guide will also know the best attractions.
Visit the Frankincense Trail With Windstar Cruises
At Windstar Cruises, our boutique yachts offer an intimate travel experience for guests. We accommodate between 148 and 342 guests on board our ships to allow you time and space to enjoy your journey and our tailored itinerary. We can help you experience the beauty of the Frankincense Trail, immerse in the rich heritage and learn more about the culture this ancient route offers.
To learn more about this destination or for help planning your vacation, request a call from one of our knowledgeable vacation planners!