White Gold and Black Gold
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 10th November, 2014
Long before Oman struck oil, providing the wherewithal for the modernisation of the country and its infrastructure after Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, this South Eastern corner of Arabia acquired a significant part of its wealth from the trade in frankincense, the aromatic resin of a long-living tree found notably in the Dhofar region. In biblical times and well into the Middle Ages, frankincense was very costly, making it worth the while of traders to transport it by camels across the desert to Jeddah in what is now Saudi Arabia, for shipment to Egypt and beyond, or overland via Petra and on into the Middle East and Europe. Just as oil was dubbed “black gold”, so frankincense was referred to as “white gold” — the most prized type being a milky white, though other less expensive varieties are a murkier brown or grey. The value dropped hugely in modern times, as other forms of air purifier and perfumes were commercialised, but it is still produced in significant quantities in Oman and sells well in e markets here, not least in Salalah, where I am writing this blog piece. Earlier today I visited the UNESCO world heritage site in a wadi where there are hundreds of trees, many of them centuries old. Outside the fenced-in area of government production, the trees have been shorn of lower foliage by camels, but one only needs to make a small nick in the bark for a tiny emission of sticky white resin to emerge, already full of scent. In normal harvesting, which happens between May and September, the trees are left for three weeks for them to bleed sufficiently to provide the requisite amount. Frankincense was one of the wondrous products presented to the baby Jesus by the Three Kings, according to the New Testament, and it is somehow reassuring to think that this white gold will continue to be garnered in Oman long after the black gold runs out.