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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Salalah, Oman’s land of frankincense, monsoons and camels

Alison Gardner

The Salalah monsoon season, June to September, transforms the Dhofar region into a uniquely green vision with waterfalls, rivers and plant growth not seen at other times of the year

Flying south from Muscat truly confirms that Oman is a desert kingdom. Sand and rock dominate the landscape for 600 miles or 1,000 kilometers, until you glimpse Salalah. In the fabled Governate of Dhofar close to the border with Yemen, the monsoon – that rare and beautiful seasonal visitor to this small area of an ever-thirsty Arabian Peninsula – has given Salalah a moderating countenance of green with splashes of vivid color from flowering shrubs and trees, and thousands of birds that migrate through this seaside oasis.

Salalah is surrounded on land by a half-circle of mountains and behind that by the classic sand desert of the vast and infamous Empty Quarter. It has served as a natural fortress for thousands of years. Along with favorable harbors, it is the Khareef, the cooling, renewing annual monsoon that has drawn rulers and merchants, to visit or settle the shores of Frankincense Land. Even the Queen of Sheba fell under the spell of the area’s treasure far greater than gold and sent gifts of frankincense to impress Solomon! Today it is the fine sand beaches,the cultural history and archaeology, and the natural diversity that draw visitors to this ancient paradise, mainly from Europe and the Middle East.

Enormous incense burners along main roadways declare that visitors have arrived in the land of frankincense, once a more valuable commodity to the Arabian Peninsula than oil is today. My evening stroll through the city’s aromatic souq revealed dozens of stalls with mysterious ingredients waiting to be blended into fragrant combinations. Bathed in the characteristic scent that accompanied me throughout my stay in Salalah, I selected brightly-colored pottery incense burners of different sizes and packages of lumpy raw incense to burn in them. Next day I drove to the source. Marvelling at the survival of such gnarled little trees sprinkled randomly across the rugged landscape, I imagined how many centuries of incense sap has been carefully harvested from each hardy little warrior. In 2000, the United Nations declared the region a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the unique historical legacy of its frankincense.When fine white sand beaches bordering the Arabian Sea lose their attraction, history offers a stimulating substitute. Premier among the sites is the newly-opened Frankincense Land Archaeological Park (Al Balid) on the Salalah waterfront, an impressive early-Islamic excavation site where the government has built a world-class museum for local artefacts, a gift shop, restaurant and snack bar, and a botanical garden of indigenous plants. Or for a less organized archaeological adventure, explore the fortified ruins of Samahram dating back thousands of years. Its exports of frankincense reached Egypt, Greece and Rome from ancient harbors below Samahram that are today vivid blue estuaries and rivers [khor] attracting dozens of bird species. 

Or drive 28 miles or 45 kilometres into the flowering hills where Jacob’s tomb [An Nabi Ayub] is a popular Moslem pilgrimage destination once you navigate around herds of haughty camels that rule the road and the countryside. Major hotels and the Salalah tourism office will recommend guide/drivers for any of these worthwhile attractions.

Salalah is blessed with the widest choice of accommodation anywhere outside Muscat. It ranges from five-star multinational resorts like the 45-acre Crowne Plaza Resort, to oceanside vacation villas and apartments, to the finest hostel I have seen anywhere in the world. If there is such a thing as a five-star hostel, this 2004 government-built facility surely qualifies, with spacious brightly-furnished rooms and modern private bathrooms for about US$36 or €30 or family suites for only a little more. Cafeteria meals are inexpensive and high quality.

Most Omanis happily speak English because it has been a mandatory subject in school for three decades, and all signs are in English throughout the country. Foreign visitors are welcomed as special guests.