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Frankincense via Plants of Dhofar Guide

No matter what I say about frankincense, there is probably no better study done, especially through an "anthropological" view as this one. Plants of Dhofar is an excellent and very hard to find book. It's also super expensive at the moment. Written by Miranda Morris, Anthony G. Mililer and illustrated by Susanna Stuart-Smith, the rest of the title is The Southern Region of Oman Traditional, Economic and Medicinal Uses.

It's a great guide, and, after asking permission of one of the authors, I am presenting the Frankincense entry here in its entirety. It's really long but if you want to know about the traditional local uses of Boswellia sacra, now's your chance.

Please note: I did my best to quote this as close as possible. There are undoubtedly a few mistakes, mispellings etc, and sorry about that in advance. Also, I left out most of the transliterations of Jebali since, if you're interested in Jebali, you probably either have the book already or are here in Salalah.

Want a copy of Plants of Dhofar? Here is one on Amazon

Printed in 1988 by the Office of the Advisor for Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of the Royal Court, Sultanate of Oman. ISBN 07157 0808-2

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"Boswellia sacra Flueck

Lehr der Pharmakognosie des Pflanzenreiches 31 (1867)

Jibbali: megerot (tree)
Dhofari Arabic: sajerat alluban, mugereh (tree)
Jibbali: sahaz (gum-resin)
Dhofari Arabic: luban (gum-resin)

Tree to 5 metres tall, with a single trunk, or more commonly, several from base; bark papery, peeling; young branches densely tomentose; all parts highly resinous. Leaves alternate, crowded at the ends of branches, imparipinnate, oblong-obovate in outline; leaflets subopposite, sessile, 6-8 pairs, increasing in size toward the tip, terminal leaflet largest, 15-40 mm long x 8-20 mm across, tip rounded, margin creanate-undulate, base truncate, thinly tomontose above densely so beneath. Flowers i axillary racemes crowded at the ends of branches, racemes 9-12 cm long, laxly-flowered; pedicels 2-4 mm long lengthening to 8mm in fruit. Calyx obscurely 5-toothed. Petals 5 white free spreading, broadly ovate to ovate-triangular, 3.5-4 x 2.75-3 mm, acute. Stamens 10, inserted outside the fleshy disc, filiments c. 1.5 mm long, stigma capitate. Fruit a capsule, 3-5 valved, ovovoid with an acute tip, 8-12 mm long x 6-7 mm in diameter, 3-5-angled or winged in section, reddish brown, glabrous, valves 1-seeded, seeds contained in bony endocarp.


The genera Boswellia and Commiphora both belong to the family Burseraceae which is characterized by having resin ducts in the bark from which the resins frankincense and myrrh are obtained. Both genera are distributed from tropical Africa to Asia with Commiphora the larger of the two general with about 250 species and Boswellia much smaller with only 25.

Several species of Boswellia including B. sacra, B. papyrifera (from tropical NE Africa), B. frereana (from Somalia) and B. serrata (from India) produce an oleo-gum-resin which is exploited as the frankincense or olibanum of commerce--the different species each producing a distinct type and quality of the resin. Only one species, B. sacra, is found in Arabia. This also occurs along the north eastern coast of Somalia. In Arabia B. sacra extends from the Hasik area in Dhofar west to near Habban (46°30E) in the eastern part of the Hadramaut.

The correct scientific name for the Arabian plants has for a long time been rather confused. The first scientific collection of specimens from an Arabian frankincense tree was made in 1846 by Dr. H.J Carter at Rakhyut. Carter was surgeon aboard the East India Company’s survey ship Palinurus which surveyed the Southern Arabian coast. At the time, he incorrectly named his specimen B. serrata, an Indian species. In 1867 a Swiss chemist and botanist Fluechiger re-examined Carter’s specimens and described them as a new species--B. sacra. Three years later in 1870 an English botanist Birdwood revised the whole genus and considered Carter’s specimen to the same as material from Somalia which he described as B. carterii--a name which was for a long time misapplied to the Arabian plants. Recent research has shown that the African plants (under the name B. carterii) and the Arabian plants all belong to the same species which must be called by the oldest name--Boswellia sacra.

Boswellia is named after Johan Boswell, uncle of James, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson. Boswellia sacra is without a doubt the most famous plant of Dhofar, and indeed was of vital economic importance in Dhofar within living memory.

The frankincense trees grow in a fairly restricted habitat. They prefer the arid zone behind the monsoon mountains, beyond the reach of the monsoon rain, but within the reach of the cool winds which blow steadily during the season. Where the trees grow (or have been purposely transplanted as has been suggested for those frankincense trees found at the back of the Salalah plain) within the range of the monsoon rains, they are known to produce an inferior quality of frankincense. Thus the trees on the seaward-facing slopes west of the Thumrait road and along the course of Wadi Adonib, for instance, were recognized as not being profitable to work as were the trees growing in the rocky gullies and run-offs in the dry hinterland of the Mughsayl area, in the high mountains behind Hasik and Sudh, or in the larger north-draining wadis behind Jibjat, such as those in the vicinity of Barbazum and Dhahaon. The trees are mostly to be found growing on the lower slopes and down in the base of gullies and run-offs, or more thickly along the broader floors of the larger wadis, rarely being able to survive on the high ridges or the high, raised plateaux. The erroneous understanding that frankincense trees “only grew in areas of good rain” has persisted even among some modern authorities, such as Muller, who says in his very comprehensive article on frankincense that the trees arecultivated in the Qarra Mountains in areas where the monsoon rains reach. The Bents, travelling in the 1890’s, only saw the (inferior, rather stunted) frankincense trees that grew (or had been planted according to Wendell Phillips) on the seaward-facing slopes of the monsoon mountains, and consequently also inferred that such trees grew in the monsoon-affected areas. However, they gave a more accurate description of the tree than earlier writers. Not until 1930 were the superlative trees of the more important frankincense areas, such as the north-draining wadis, described by that careful and painstaking writer, Bertram Thomas. He described both the trees and the method of collection of the gum. How little known Dhofar was, botanically at least, is amply demonstrated by the fact that Groom, writing his fascinating book on frankincense and myrrh in the 1980s still felt it necessary to say: “insuffucent samples have been available for proper botanical examination to determine whether there are botanical distinctions between the trees of different areas.”

The earliest records of the collection of frankincense and the trade in the gum are shrouded in an often impenetrable mantle of myth and magic; for example, the precious gum-bearing trees were said to be guarded by fierce red snakes (probably North East African Carpet Vipers, Echis pyramindum pyramidum or Echis khosatzkii,) which leapt into the air to inflict their fatal bites on any intruder; or the trees were believed to grow in an area of swirling mists, the course of deadly disease and fatal epidemics, a place both mountainous and forbidding, wrapped in a dense cloud and fog. In the earliest times, such frankincense as was wrested from this inhospitable terrain seems to have been reserved for divine worship, and was considered to be sacred to the gods. It was burned during sacrificial ceremonies, and offered in the temples; severe penalties being prescribed to punish anyone who attempted to remove it or tamper with it in any unsuitable way.

‘Arabia’ was believed in such early times to be the sole source of most of the best-loved and most precious scented woods, gums, and spices of the time, such as cassia, cinnamon, storax, myrrh and balsam as well as frankincense. The collection of the these other scented materials was likewise surrounded with mystery--cassia growing in shallow lakes infested with screaming, winged creatures; cinnamon wrested only by the brave from the nests of giant birds, high in the mountains, from which the birds had been lured away from by placing chunks of meat on ledges in the steep, beetling cliffs......labdanum gathered from the beards of billy goats to which it had adhered as the animals browsed on the sticky labdanum bushes, and so on. Greek sailors were generally the source for the earlier descriptions of the country that produced frankincense and other scented gums, and they painted a picture of a country  which was mountainous, forest covered and subject to snow, and which had many rivers that ran down from the high peaks to the plain below. (The mention of snow has troubled many later commentators--for myself I have always like to think that this might be a reference to the tall, glistening white mountains called Jebel Gingeri, a prominent landmark for those at sea, a peak that sparkles and glitters by day and glows palely by night, and thus perhaps might be thought to be snow-covered? This glistening white appearance is in fact the result of a thick layer of white lichen which covers the whole mountain but is especially prevalent on the seaward side.) Such early descriptions describe the inhabitants of this fortunate land as being made drowsy by the inhalation of the heady aromas emanating from the multitude of scented shrubs and trees, and of their having to keep themselves awake and alert by burning and inhaling the smoke of the “incense of asphalt” and of “goats beards”. Indeed, it was said that they actually burned the precious wood of cinnamon and cassia as everyday firewood, so plentiful were thee trees in their area. Interestingly too, there are references to great numbers of cattle being herded in the frankincense lands.

The gathering of the frankincense gum itself was described as being the job of slaves and others banished to the area for punishment. The collectors of the gum were said to frequently to perish from lack of food and fall sick from the many fatal infections  endemic to the area. The gathered gum was taken to the ports and loaded onto the trading ships with the express permission of the king and the whole trade was rigidly controlled.

The mountains which were described by Ptolemy in his geography as the ‘mountains of Ophir’ are now thought to be the same as the mountains of  Saphar and to refer to Dhofar, and indeed, recent excavation around the lagoon near Taqa has confirmed that there was indeed a frankincense trading depot there which had a protected all-weather harbor and landing ground (now submerged and silted up). Inscriptions discovered on the site name the port as ‘Smhrm’, (possibly ‘Sumahram’--the voweling is uncertain: short vowels are not represented in the Epigraphic South Arabian scripts), and describe it as having formed part of the ancient Sabean hegemony. Visible as a constant thread running through all the mystery and obfuscation of the many and conflicting reports of early travellers is the fact that the trade in frankincense was of great economic significance. Firstly to those who lived within the area in which the trees grew, secondly to those who at varying stages in recorded history managed and organized the trade in the gum and the various market outlets, and finally to those who controlled the overland trade routes, especially once the sucessful domestication of the camel had been achieved.

In its heyday, frankincense commanded fabulous prices--the value of frankincense and myrrh in the markets of the Roman Empire, for instance, was at times equated with gold. As well as being burned as an offering to the gods, frankincense was also of importance medicinally and was used as a fumigant to combat disease and evil odors. In the Book of the Dead, the ancient Egyptians (who believed frankincense to be the sweat of the gods, fallen to earth) the authors recommended the use of incense in many of the mortuary rituals and in ceremonial purification. Kindled in clay troughs and the flame doused with cows milk, frankincense was recommended for warding off evil and enemies malevolence. Medicinally, the gum was used in the treatment of almost every imaginable disease by Greek and Roman physicians, and remedies employing frankincense also appear in the Syriac Book of Medicine, in the texts of the Muslim practitioners of the middle ages and in Indian and Chinese medical writings.

Arab authors of the mediaeval period, such as Yaqüt, described the kings of Dhofar in Islamic times as being enormously wealthy and able to live lives of luxury as a result of managing and controlling the frankincense trade. Mention is made of a king, Guhays, (or some form of the root/ghs/) who ruled Oman from ‘the aromatic area’ and who survived to the ripe age of one hundred and fifteen years. A Portuguese Jesuit, Manuel de Almeida, delayed in Southern Arabia on his way to Ethiopia from India in 1623, enquired about frankincense and was told that the king of Dhofar and Shisr owned all the frankincense in the whole world. He was also one of the few earlier writers to describe the frankincense habitat with accuracy--he said that the trees were to be found growing in the high, barren mountains between Dhofar and Qishn. The national epic poet of Portugal, Luis de Camoes, in his long epic poem of the sixteenth centurym the Lusiads (in the translation of Bullough of 1963) wrote:

“Olha Dofar, insigne porque manda
o mais choiroso incenso pera as aras”
(Canto X, V. 101-2)
“See Famous Dhofar, which ever did boast
The sweetest smoke to make the altar steam!”

In later Islamic times the port of Qishn took over from the ancient Qana/Cana the role of main depot for frankincense, but on a more modest scale. Writers such as Al Mas undi and Al Muqaddasi described the frankincense-growing areas as consisting of plantations around Shishr and in the hinterland of the port. Al Qalqashandi too wrote in his Al-lata’im was Anwa al-Tib (“Sweet Smelling Resins and Aromatics”) of Shishr as the center of the trade. Yaqut did not agree, and claimed that all frankincense trees were from Dhofar alone.

Different kinds of frankincense were distinguished by the early authorities: Theophrastus says that the clear droplets are of the best quality and that the gum that is scraped off the bark or picked up off the ground is of a lesser quality (still considered true today.) The whiter gum collected in the ‘autumn’  cutting season was considered to be superior to that of the ‘spring’ cutting which is a darker reddish-brown color and less strongly perfumed. Pliny describes the two cutting seasons in terms that also appear in inscriptions in Epigraphic South Arabian and which are close to those still employed in Dhofar today: thus ‘carfiathum’--the autumn season, in Dhofar khareef and in the descriptions khrfyt, and the spring season ‘dalthiathum’, in Dhofar dote and in the inscriptions dy’yt. All early authors agreed that the best frankincense was the ‘male’ frankincense, and described this as being white, round, whole, oily, and highly flammable. Some said it was called ‘male’ because because it collected in lumps and hung on the tree like testicles. It was this superior quality that was used for burning in the temples as an offering to the gods. Sometimes the preferred shapes were made artificially; lumps of softened gum were squeezed together and molded by hand to the desired shape; or small pieces were cut up and put into a clay pot and rolled around and about until they had formed a single lump and taken on the curved shape of the pot, or liquid, soft frankincense was made into artificial ‘tears’ by being shaken in a basket. The fact that the gum lent itself to moulding was a factor much exploited in the great extravaganzas of the heyday of the Roman Empire. At the funeral celebrations of the tyrant Sulla, for instance, an entire statue of him was made from frankincense and cinnamon and mixed with other spices. Plutarch even mentions a statue of a bull having been made from frankincense, myrrh and other costly ingredients by a vegetarian winner of a horse race, which was offered to his friend in place of the more usual offering of meat! Much inferior was the ‘female’ frankincense, which was usually described as consisting of pieces of a much smaller size, shaped ‘like chick peas’ and of a darker, yellowish color. Pliny comments that the small fragments that crumbled off the worked frankincense lumps, as well as the frankincense dust and powder, was called ‘manna.’

As regard the collection of the gum, Theophrastus’ description of all those years ago is astonishingly relevant to, and consistent with the methods still used in Dhofar; he describes trees bearing cuts and gashes that looked as if they ahd been made with axes, and describes the gum as being scraped off the tree with an iron tool, or being allowed to drip onto palm-leaf mats spread under the tree....he also reported that no one guarded the frankincense groves, and that the gum was left lying in unprotected heaps. Pliny reported that some authorities claimed three thousand families had the exclusive and inherited right of harvesting the gum and also that cutters who had been in contact with a woman or attended a funeral were not allowed to harvest the trees. He reported that other authorities said rather that the trees were held in common and the harvesting right distributed annually. He described the bark as being incised only where it appeared to be thinnest and the sap was most copious.

This gum, (or more accurately, gum-resin; that is to say, gum plus resin plus the volatile oil which gives the product its fragrance) was believed by many Semites to be the blood of the tree itself which was held to be of a divine origin and essence. The ancient Egyptians had a myth about a strange and marvelous bird which came from ‘the Land of Punt,’ whose sweet fragrance was the result of it bearing frankincense in its talons. Later legend spoke too of the fabulous Phoenix bird that build its nest from twigs of frankincense and other costly and scented woods, and filled it with redolent and precious spices in preparation for its death. This legendary bird was said to originate from Southern Arabia, and to feed there on the tears of the frankincense tree, on the dew from heaven and on frankincense blossoms. Every five hundred years it flew to Heliopolis to bury its dead father, who was wrapped in a shroud saturated in myrrh. A Hebraic term hol was used to describe the Phoenix: in ancient Hadramawt there was a god called /hwl/ and it is claimed by some authorities that the Phoenix legend was brought north by south arabian traders, and was the source of the belief that frankincense was a gift from the gods and southern arabia the origin of all precious scented woods and spices.

Frankincense was long associated with longevity as it is demonstrated, for instance, in the tales of Alexander’s adventures in India. Here, at the oracle of the sun and moon tree, the Indian guardians of the oracle lived in a bower of frankincense trees from which wafted the aroma of frankincense and balsam. They lived on pure water, balsam and frankincense, a diet on which they had thrived for three hundred years. Frankincense appears in many other early legends, such as the charming and romantic Roman myth of a young girl who was burned to death by her father, enraged by her love affair with the Sun-God. She was rescued from the flames by her lover and transformed into a frankincense twig which later grew into a tree. Myth also tells of Adam having been given gold, frankincense and myrrh by God as a consolation for having lost paradise. He hid these gifts away safely in a cave high in the mountains, from where they were rescued by Noah after the waters of the flood had receded and the precious gift was passed down from generation to generation and kept carefully until the time of the three magi, who brought them to Bethlehem as gifts for the newborn Jesus.

Emperors and kings considered frankincense to make a worthy gift, and many tales are told in early accounts of its ostentatious  use and display by the wealthy. One of the more appealing tales is told of Alexander the Great, who was irritated when rebuked by one of his tutors, Leonidas, for his wasteful and extravagant use of frankincense at a sacrifice, and for his unseemliness of making such a demonstration of his wealth. It was suggested to him rather severely that he should save such extravagant displays for a time when he had conquered the frankincense lands. When he finally conquered Gaza, he is said to have proudly sent his tutor an enormous load of costly gums (500 talens of frankincense and 100 talents of myrrh) along with a message of rebuke in his turn to Leonidas not to be so miserly to the gods in future!

Apart from the various uses of the gum in ceremony and medicine, powdered frankincense was also used to produce a long burning taper whose flame was very hard to extinguish. A mixture of pitch, sulphur, tow, pinewood sawdust and powdered frankincense was smeared over a wooden stave and set alight. These burning brands were apparently used with great success to set enemy strongholds on fire. An unusual use of the bark was described by Dioscoridos: it was put into water to attract fish, luring them into nets and traps. By mediaeval times, the named varieties of frankincense had grown enormously.--Chinese texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries describing the trade between East Asia and Arabia tell of thirteen different kinds of frankincense (a commodity apparently much in demand in China) at this period.

The annual trade expeditions between Southern Arabia and the northern markets became twice-yearly trips in response to the increasing demands for the products of the frankincense tree: gum, bark, powder and wood, and this heightened demand probably also encouraged the extension of the cutting season, which was mentioned by some commentators of the period as having a detrimental effect on the trees. Ibn al Mujawir in his Ta’rikh al Mustabsir describes this bi-annual north-south route via Baghdad through the desert to “Zafar”, “Mirbat’, and “Raisut.” The same author also gives the word mug(u)r as one of the terms for frankincense, a word still used in Dhofar in the Modern South Arabian language group to describe the frankincense tree.

Powdered frankincense was used as a fragrant talcum powder, and was mixed with ammoniac salts and used in the care of the skin. Frankincense was also added to wine to perfume it, but drinking too much of this mixture was said to cause madness and even, death. In times of war, this property of the gum was sometimes exploited by feeding it to war-elephants to enrage them before they went into battle. A similar drink was also said to have been given as an opiate drink to those about to be executed in order to numb the pain and terror. A little frankincense was often taken in wine to stiffen resolve and raise morale, and in even smaller doses was given to children with respiratory complaints. In folk medicine of the early period frankincense often appeared in various remedies: parts of a hyena were mixed with frankincense and wine and the mixture drunk to restore or improve fertility; the lungs of a hare mixed with wine and frankincense  were taken as a remedy for epilepsy; a difficult labor was eased by taking a potion made from snake skin with added wine and frankincense; and calculi were dispersed by taking a mixture of mare droppings, frankincense and fermented honey; the Emperor Nero was even said to have used a paste of frankincense and wax as an unguent to disguise the physical evidence of a night of debauchery. and a similar pomade was a common treatment for removing bags under the eye. The medicinal uses of frankincense throughout the ages are too many and diffuse to go into here, so only a few of the remedies which have some relevance to usage in Dhofar will be mentioned.
The early physicians described the properties of frankincense as being ‘hot, dry, dessivative, astringent and detergent’. Extracts of the pkant were used primarily as an astringent (especially extracts prepared from the bark), often prescribed in the form of a suppository to treat haemorrhoids, childbirth was protected by a fumigation of frankincense; crushed frankincense was much used in poultices and plasters to a wide variety of skin lesions and eruptions; the gum was made up into pills  taken to treat spitting of blood and abdominal and chest pain; it was a common ingredient in collyria for the treatment of a wide variety of ophthalmalic diseases; it was an ingredient of the many of the various theriacs and panaceas or ‘universal remedies’--mixtures said to cure all known ills and to be an antidote to all known poisons; male frankincense was thought in particular to be very good for the healing of bone fractures and was also mae into a pessary to encourage conception; even the pollen was prescribed in a rememdy for gout, and the buds and berries for cleansing of an infected throat. Frankincense featured in many of the more wild and extraordinary remedies that flourished in mediaeval times in India and the Middle East (and which later reached Europe), such as the remedy for nosebleeds made from frankincense powder rubbed into the flesh of a live snail; or a poultice for the treatment of various eye conditions made from frankincense mixed with fennel juice and the ground flesh of a viper which had been burned alive in a clay pot. The soot produced by burning frankincense was carefully scraped from a pot held inverted over the burning gum for use as a medicament to treat eye ailments especially, but this soot was also valued as a haemostatic and a disinfectant for treating wounds, ulceration and cancerous growths. Interestingly, frankincense is is described in the Taj al Arus as being taken internally in order to dispel forgetfulness, for which it is still appreciated in southern Arabia. Hysteria and various psychic disorders were also treated with frankincense (usually mixed with other ingredients); it was chewed to disperse phlegm and mucus from the head, to strengthen the teeth and gums, to avert lethargy, and as a beneficial tonic for the heart and brain; and to relieve the nausea of pregnancy, pregnant women were advised to chew the inner bark of the frankincense tree. Frankincense still appeared in the official Pharmacopeia of India of 1868, where it is described as being beneficial, taken internally as well as in the form of fumigation--in the treatment of chronic pulmonary affections, such as bronchorrhoea and chronic laryngitis, and made up into an ointment applied locally to treat carbuncles, ulcerations, boils and other skin eruptions.

In Dhofar, the frankincense tree was of great importance, both historically, as the course of the very valuable frakincense gum-resin, and in more recent times, even when the treade in the gum declined, for its foliage, bark, bast, fruit and flowers, as well as the gum. This continued to be tapped, but on a lesser scale and more sporadically.

The curly, bright green leaves were an extremely important fodder, especially in the drier areas where these trees tend to grow. Tjose at work tapping the gum would also fill sacks with the leaves and send them to the livestock encampments as feed or would sell them to the cameleers who moved back adn forth between the coastal towns and the frankincense -gathering work camps, bringing food to the labourers and taking back with them the loads of gum to be stored in the merchant’s warehouses. There were no restrictions on the gathering of the foliage, since the removal of the leaves was not seen as having any deleterious effect on the gum-prodcing potential of the tree. It was the favored fodder for sickly, weak or parturient livestock, and was considered to be one of the best treatments for an animal suffering from diarrhoea. However, when fed to livestock mixed with dried sardines or with flour, they were said to sometimes cause a severe illness called in camels J:izemét and in goats J:halîb, whose symptoms were a distended belly, severe constipation and staggering and dizziness, Camels were often successfully treated by being made to gallop hard and by branding on the hips or the crown of the head (or in modern times, by being force fed “pepsi” or other fizzy drink) and goats by branding above and below the navel. The leaves are easy to pick abd a bundle of foliage could quickly be collected to be taken back to livestock at the encampment. Both buds, flowers and fruit provided a tasty and astringent mouthful for the herders too--they have a taste not unlike that of the gum itself, and were considered to have a cleansing and tonic effect on the digestive system and to deodorize the mouth . The delicately perfumes yellow flowers were considered to  be a very superior fodder, especially for goats, and were likewise observed to be popular with bees, The fruit too was gathered as a tasty treat for especially pampered and cherished animals, and were considered to have curative and stimulating properties that exceeded even those claimed for the foliage.

The red colored underbark was the most widely exploited of rhe plant dyes available to those who lived in the drier areas of Dhofar, being used in aprticular to dye the imported coarse cotton cloth from which most clothing was made. The bark was stripped from the trunk and larger branches of the tree in long strands, crushed and pounded and then cooked over a slow fire with  little water until the mixture had become a deep, dark red-brown. Then the bark was strained out and the cloth lowered into the dye and held down with a rock. The cotton came out a clear red-brown, a very popular colour, especially in the desert areas. The underbark as also used in the tanning process for the same reason: ground to a paste it was mixed with the cheif tanning agent to turn the leather the rich mahogany red colour which was so admired. The astringent properties of this bark were exploited in a variety of other remedies, internal and external. The red underbark was chewed by woman in the early stages of pregnancy who were suffereing from attacks of nausea and vomiting. It was dried, crushed and made into a stimulating and beneficial tisane. It was pounded to a smooth paste and used to treat skin sores or to soothe chapped skin, especially in children. The paste was used too as a healing salve for a variety of other skin conditions, and was rubbed over the entire body as a treatment for an illness whose main sympton was a generalized puffiness of the whole body. The ground down underbark was simmered for a long time in waer and them squeezed through a piece of fine cloth over dirty or infected wounds. Or it was singed at a slow fire until quite blackened and then crushed to a powder which was thoroughly dried and then stored in the family ‘medicine bag.” This powder (J: temdit) was an important antiseptic and a widely sued astringent dressing, and was considered by many to be superior to the similar preparation made from the barks of the Commiphora. However, at times when the gum was commanding a high price, temdit was rarely made form the productive trees since extensive removal of the underbark was held to have an adverse effect on the gum-producing potential of the tree. Sometimes a very special temdit mixture was made from the hard core of the frankincense fruit--this was not held to damage the tree in the same way that the removal of the bark did, but was a much more laborious process, especially to make any useful quantity. A tiny frankincense plat less than a foot high could be pulled up by the root and the outer papery skin slipped off to reveal the inner white root which was chewed for the sweet liquid it provided, both remedially for a variety of stomach ailments, and to quench thirst. Swallowed, the jucy fibre also maje a filling meal. The pliable and strong bark was often made into the popular pop-gun (J:soxes, DA: suxid.)  Firstly a thick outer layer f bark and bast was twisted off from the hard inner core of a straight twig to make a hollow tuber. Then a projectile was prepared from a pebble or from some wadded cloth, and the rigid rod-like core was pushed hard up the tube to strike the projectile which had been wedged in the aperture at the other end. This, in skilled hands, projected it at great speed, making a high whistling sound, and over quite impressive distances. The moist underbark, crushed to a thick paste, was also used to deodorise a tainted or smelly skin bag or o render more supple stiffened or dried out leather by inserting the paste into the bag and then rubbing it hard over a flat, stone surface until all stiffness and smell had gone.

The different qualities and types  of gum were distinguished by name in various ways. The gum could be differentiated by season: for instance J:sahaz xarfi was the best quality of all--gum harvested during the monsoon season [J:xorf] from the eastern growing areas which were beyond the reach of the monsoon rains. At this season, the sun was at its hottest and the gum consequently at its very best. The sahaz serbi was the gum produced in the months following the monsoon, right up until the very last cut of the season [J:ksum] and was good, but not as good as sahaz xarfi. [J:sahaz kidi,] ‘summer gum’, was inferior to both the former classes, being the gum that resulted from the very first cuts of the season [J: edka and sa ‘af], but the worst gum of all was [J: sahaz estebi], that is, ‘winter gum’, gum harvested (outside the eastern area) during the coldest season of the year. The best gum, in general terms, was the [J: sahaz negdi], the gum produced by the trees growing in the high, dry Negd mountains, in areas untouched by the mists and dampness of the monsoon season, and far from the sea. The gum produced by trees growing in the lower-lying areas of the Nged to the north of the Negd mountain ranges was called J: sahaz ehskot, and was regarded as being inferior to the sahaz negdi. The least valuable gum of all was that called J: sahaz rasmi, which was the gum produced by trees growing on the mountain slopes by the sea and that of th broad, flat, coastal wadis. Within each major type further subdivison was made, a particular grade of gum being asked for by the name of its place of origin--thus the very best gum of all was said to have been that produced in the area between Dahanut and Habjer in the mountains behind Hasik, an area reached by climbing the pass at Bab Harkek. But even within this area, a knowledgeable purchaser would ask for gum from Ba’al Sower, from Mussi, from Ejefo de Golot or from Elekah Esekes--that is, by individual ‘manzilt’, or gum collecting work camp.  Different grades of gum were used for different purposes. When used dried (for fumigation mainly) it was considered more important to know exactly the source of the gum, but when used fresh this was of less significance.

The gum was used fresh in various ways: still soft lumps of the gum were chewed as a sort of chewing gum to strengthen the teeth and gums, to stimulate the digestion, and to combat halitosis; fresh or soft gum was used as a depilatory wax, and was regarded by many as being even superior to the gum of Euphorbia balsamifera. For this purpose small, soft fragments of the fume were mixed with salt and inserted into a carious and painful tooth; it was even used by women as a sort of hair lacquer--women preferred a hairstyle that exposed the maximum amount of brow and temple, and many shaved or plucked their hair in order to achieve the desired result, removing in particular much of the hair at the temples. The hair was then combed back hard from the face, and held in position by an application of fresh frankincense gum. This when dry set hard, and as well as keeping the hairstyle in the required shape, also gave the head a smooth, dark and gleaming appearance. (The scum that collects on the surface of a kettle of boiling, heavily sugared black tea was also used for this purpose.) Lumps of moist frankincense were moulded by hand into the rough shape of a cone and one or two of these would be ignited in the evening as darkness fell. Such a gum ‘candle’ would burn steadily with a small flame until dawn, and, placed in the mouth of the cave or hut, not only provided minimal lighting but also kept at bay dangerous animals and malevolent spirits which roamed around during the hours of darkness. The fresh gum was also used in the treatment of fractures--a broken limb was often treated by splinting it between two thick slices of frankincense bark which had been smeared with fresh frankincense gum. (The best gum of all for this purpose was considered to be the J: hanzob--small, rounded ‘beads’ of frankincense which were gathered in particular from the Habjer area). This coating of gum set hard when it dried, providing a rigid casing to support the damaged limb as it set. This property of hardening to produce a waterproof, firs (but not brittle) surface was also exploited with great success in the repairing of cracked or holed clay vessels, and even on occasion metal ones too.

Frankincense gum, fresh or dried, as also used in the treatment of mastitis, in both livestock and humans. It was either boiled in the milk of the patient until a thick paste resulted, which was then smeared over the affected part; or mixed with ground cuttlefish bone and soured milk and boiled down to a paste, also locally applied. The fragrant smoke resulting from the burning of the dried gum was considered to ahve powerful curative and protective properties. A sick person (or indeed animal-most remedies applied to livestock as well as to their owners) would always be fumigated with frankincense. Someone believed to have been laid low by the evil eye or struck down by malevolent influences or by ‘spit’ would have a bowl of burning frankincense leaves placed at their head, while relatives (or invited specialists known to have specific and recognized powers in these kinds of cases) circumambulated the patient, bearing a second burning bowl of frankincense, while murmuring various incantations and invocations. This ceremony was repeated (though possibly in a more simplified version) at intervals during the illness--and especially at night--that most dangerous and hostile time--to keep the jinn and other menacing spirits away. Since most serious or prolonged illnesses were considered to be the result of inimicable action on the part of someone or something, such fumigating treatment was a regular feature of any course of treatment, as well as being used prophylactically. Someone suffering from a headcold would breathe in the smoke of burning frankincense gum, with or without added sugar sprinkled over the smoldering charcoal. and during and after a circumcision operation, smoke from the burning gum would be wafted around the patient and particularly around the site of the operation, the wound then being annointed with dried camel dung or with a salve prepared form various plant mixtures. Whenever a serious matter was to be decided or a pact made, this would normally be solemnised and ratified not only by an exchange or drink between the parties to the contract, but also by the burning of frankincense. Frankincense was often burned too during the ritual of swearing an oath over the graves and shrines of certain revered, sanctified men in a traditional ceremony long practiced in Dhofar.

Clay bowels of various traditional designs for the burning of frankincense are still made in Dhofar. Very large ones which burn large amounts of dried gum are made which are carried on the head in processions, right now to tiny shallow bowels, which burn two or three granules of the gum only. Visitors are often hospitably offered bowls of smoking frankincense--the bowl is passed around the men first, who hold it under their chins and waft the smoke around their beards and to their nostrils, then raise the bowl and allow the smoke to permeate the hair and headcloth, some also moving the bowl across the torso and under the arms to perfume the body. When the bowl is passed to the women, they can either restrict themselves to wafting the smoking bowl around the head to perfume the hair and head shawl, or, in more relaxed an informal family gatherings, will fumigate themselves more fully by placing the smoking bowl on the ground and standing over it holding the neck of the dress tightly shut while the hostess or a friend holds the hem of the dress over the bowl in such a way that the smoke is trapped under the dress. Wooden fumigating tripods are also made under which are set bowls of burning incense and over which clothing is heaped in order to perfume and fumigate the clothing, of to dry it out (especially during the wetter season.)

In the more permanent coastal settlements in particular, where refuse oiled up in the narrow alleyways between the houses and the arrangements for hygiene and sanitation were usually minimal, the inhabitents of the tall stone houses and low palm-frond huts alike burned frankincense (and other scented mixtures) regularly in order to mask the insalubrious odors and to combat disease. The dried gum was also made into a fine powder by crushing and grinding it down, and then mixing it with other fragrant powedered woods and spices-according to the pocket of the woman who was making the mixture-in order to make a sort of talcum powder which was rubbed into the skin to perfume it and make it soft and smooth to the touch.

Frankincense played an important part too during childbirth. Ideally, the gum was burned throughout labour in order to protect the mother during her travail, and then, once she was safely delivered of her baby, to protect the newborn baby too. Many women believed in the efficacy of squatting over a bowl of burning frankincense for a time every day throughout the ritual forty day period that followed a birth (and that proceeded the ceremonial washing, cleansing and celebration of the birth.) This practice was held to assist in the healing of any birth scarring or lacerations, as well as protecting the parturient woman from post partum infections and fever during this risky period, to accelerate the recovery of the body from the rigors of giving birth and to restore muscle tone. Frankincense was plentifully burned during wedding ceremonies, but not at funerals--the room i  which the person had died, his bedding, his clothing and finally his winding sheet being fumigated instead with the mixture of scented woods and oils known locally as baxxur. The large wooden or clay containers used to store water were cleaned out and fumigated with frankincense--every fortnight or so they were emptied, scrubbed out and then a smoking frankincense burner was lowered in and more gum dropped onto the red coals.The container was then scurely covered and left until thoroughly impregnated with smoke. The the frankincense burner was removed and fresh water quickly poured in, and the container covered over once more. This practice gave the water a distinctive flavour and perfume.

Herders often burned frankincense during milking to protect the indispensable milch animals from the evil eye and from inimical spirits. many people would regularly throw a couple of pieces of gum gum onto the evening fire as the sun went down, and again in the darkest hours of dawn just before the sun rose--the two most potentially dangerous times of the day when jinn and other evil spirits were at thei most potent and most active. It can indeed be readily appreciated that frankincense--regarded as being a potentially effective counter-force to such evil--played a major part in the treatment of most illness, holding a central position in the armoury with which the tribespeople tried to face the barrage of imperfectly understood disease that threatened them.

The soot produced by the burning gum was also used. A pot was inverted over the bowl of burning incense, and the soot or lamp black that collected on its  undersurface was scraped off and stored in another container. This soot was considered to make a particularly effective eye antimony, which both soothed sore eyes, protected against infection and improved the sight. The soot was also used in tattooing. Tattooing varied slightly from area to area, but in the mountainous monsoon areas, was generally restricted to the area of gum above and below the central teeth visible when smiling. The tattooing was accomplished by piercing the skin with two needles held close together, allowing the blood to run a little, then rubbing lamp black into the perforations to make a permanent mark. Some people also filed the central top and bottom teeth in vertical lines with little slivers of flint, and rubbed lampback into these incisions to to make a permanent stain. In other parts of Dhofar, more extensive and different tattooing was carried out, such as a vertical line cut to run down from the center of the bottom lip through the crease of the chin itself, or lines radiating from the corners of the mouth--ideas of what was alluring varied from area to area and often from tribe to tribe.

The very best qualities of frankincense gum were usually destined for export and sale, but most cutters would try and keep back a few of the precious “pearls” for private sale, barter or gift, and in particular to keep within the family for the most important occasions or for times of severe illness, when the burning of the very best frankincense was regarded  as being indispensable to a successful cure. The prime quality frankincense was very white, had no bark adhering to it, was made up of individual, smooth, well-formed “pearls” or “beads,” was “strong” (that is, one of two pieces alone would be sufficent for a thorough fumigation,) and, most importantly, when held in the palm of the hand, it felt and looked like silver. Imbibing the “pearls” was believed to have a very beneficial effect on the memory: boys and girls engaged in the study and memorization of the Qur’an in the local Qur’anic schools, especially when the time for the recitation test approached would put one or two “pearls”  in a small cup of water with some iron, cover it and leave it until morning, and then, having removed the iron, would drink down the contents before breakfast. The best grades of gum were kept for use in remedies for preventative medicine, and for its phylacteric value. The lower grades were used for illumination, their soot being used in making eye antimony, ink-making, or for tattooing, while all grades were used for everyday fumigation.

In the Yemen too, women (and especially pregnant women) are said to enjoy chewing pieces of gum from the “female” frankincense (the larger, softer pieces.) The gum is also a common ingredient there in various remedies taken to treat a wide variety of illnesses, especially psychotic, neurotic or hysterical ones, and is used too in the treatment of people who have fallen ill as a result of motional disturbance or witchcraft. Bowls and cups from which guests are to be offered liquid refreshment (and in particular, water) are frequently held inverted for a moment or two over a smoking censer in order to perfume the container and to purify it and to make it “safe” from evil. Here too, frankincense is burned during labour to protect the mother and then newborn at this most dangerous time when both are most vulnerable to attack by evil spirits and the eye of jealousy and envy. In Ethiopia, the soot of the gum is also considered to be good for the eyes, and fumigation of the eyes with the smoke of the gum is regarded as being beneficial to sore or tired eyes. The soot of the frankincense mixed with the bile of a goat or sheep is applied to the eyes to treat temporary or worsening blindness. The gum is also melted and then boiled in cow or goat milk and taken to soothe a cough. The dried gum is crushed to a powder with myrrh and dried aloes juice to make an antiseptic powder used on wounds and ulcers to dry them out, or after being mixed with white of an egg to a paste, is painted over sore areas of skin to dry them out and speed up the healing process by making a protective covering over the damaged skin. "


So there you have it. Dhofari frankincense . There it is.

If you find an opportunity to grab a copy of this fabulous book, Plants of Dhofar, take it! It contains incredibly detailed entries on Dhofari medicines, plants and the like.