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Salalah, Oman

On the Trail of Frankincense in Salalah

Salalah is the capital of Oman’s southern Dhofar province, and the second-largest city in the country. Set on the Arabian Sea and backed by the Dhofar Mountains, the city enjoys a sub-tropical climate and a summer monsoon season—the khareef—that gives the area a lush and misty character, with plenty of banana, coconut, and papaya plantations.

Salalah is, however, more famous for the product from the Boswellia genus of trees: frankincense. Throughout history this area was a major site of production and transport of the aromatic resin that was once worth more than gold. The overland trade route that wound its way west to Egypt was known as the Frankincense Trail, and may date back to the time of the pharaohs. Ports such as 12th-century Zafar shipped the incense out east to India. The ruins of Zafar can still be seen in Salalah, preserved as the informative and well-organized al-Balid archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just up the coast are the ruins of another ancient port, also anointed by UNESCO: Sumhuram, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The Queen of Sheba is believed to have built a summer palace here.

Modern-day traders should check out Salalah’s al-Husn Souk, where the air is thick with the sweet, earthy scent of frankincense and savvy hagglers can get a good line on handcrafts, perfumes, and, of course, the precious resin. If that sounds like too much work, the city’s palm-fringed beaches are a beautiful place to unwind.