Beauty has an address ~ Oman
Salalah, Oman’s land of frankincense, monsoons and camels
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.
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.