Dhofar - a short visit
Can you believe that in the 1st century BC, Frankincense was valued more than gold?
Frankincense (Loban or dhoop in Hindhi) was used for medicinal and religious purposes in the ancient world. Amongst its many usages, it was also known as an antidote for poison! Frankincense, is produced from the resin of the tree, Boswelia Sacra! It is fabled that, one of the gifts, that the Queen of Sheba carried for her meeting with King Solomon, was frankincense, produced in Dhofar (in Oman), which is known to be the best quality in the world. Trade in Frankincense, was one of the most important activities which florished in the Arabian region during ancient and medeiaval times.
I timed my visit to Salalah, in the Dhofar Governate of Oman, to coincide with the Khareef Season and arrived in the last week of August 2016. Khareef ( or monsoon ) occurs only in this part of Arabia and turns the region lush green. Waterfalls, running streams, fog, mist and rains is a phenomena, to witness which, tourists from all parts of Arabia arrive in large numbers. The weather also affects the flora and fauna and migratory birds arrive during this time. The Omani Tourism Board, promotes this weather experience, as the Khareef Festival.
My flight from Mumbai to Muscat takes 2.5hrs. At Muscat Airport, they had a special transfer counter for those visiting Salalah for the Khareef Festival and within minutes, I am at my next boarding gate, enroute to Salalah, which takes 1.5hours. The town of Salalah, is part of a distinctive natural diversity where the coast blends with the mountains and the desert, in wonderful harmony, so that the mountains look like a fertile crescent, rising to a height of 1,500 metres and then descending into a flat plain that embraces sandy beaches, stretching for hundreds of kilometres. During the Khareef, the temprature hovers around a pleasant 27 deg C.
The next morning, I am picked up from my hotel ( Sumuhuram Village Resort), by Sayeed my guide, in a 4x4 Landcruiser. During the drive through sparsely populated plains and mountains, Sayeed is a bundle of information. Our first stop is at Ain Razat which is a perennial spring water stream. We follow up, with a short stop at Ain Athum, a water fall fed by spring waters. Both places were very scenic. Though I had carried extensive rain gear, I found it unnecessary. Rain was more in the form of a drizzle, with frequent stops, during which the water dries up quickly. By the time we arrive at Khor Rori, the morning fog had dissipated and the sky is clear. I am thankful for the better light. Khor Rori, is one of the start points of the Frankincense Trail and the reason I have visited Salalah.
In the year 1949, the ruins of a lost city, was discovered in Dhofar, by English explorer James Theodore Bent and his wife, Mabel . Archeologists established that this lost city of Sumhuram, was at the center of the global frankinsence trade and had ties with India, Rome & China. Established around the 4th century BC, most likely by Hadraumut (Yemen) royals, the fortified city is located on a rocky spur running east-west, forming part of a wider defensive system, details of which are still evident. The walls have dressed stone faces with rubble cores. The most heavily fortified part is on the north, where the entrance is located, itself a massive structure with three successive gates on the steep entry path. It is flanked by the remains of towers.
Below the ruins of Sumhuram, lies the tranquil Khor Rori. A pair of symmetrical headlands flanks the mouth of the khor( creek), which is fed by the fresh waters of the Wadi Darbat. A wadi is an Oasis. Perennial freshwater is also one of the important reasons that led to establishment of Sumhuram other than the natural lagoon offering safe harbour. Since the khor extended inland, it had many safe places for ships to moor.
Sumhuram was an important stopping point for merchant ships travelling the immense distances between the Mediterranean and India, and the large numbers of imported objects that have been excavated testify to the flourishing trade that was conducted between this city and various parts of the world. Notwithstanding its modest size (covering no more than a hectare), the town was laid out along the lines of a metropolis complete with a residential quarter, a large area of warehouses for the storage of goods, a splendid temple, and a small sanctuary where the gods could be venerated. A well 25 meters deep, a network of canals, and numerous water basins guaranteed a supply of fresh water for the inhabitants. Evidence of bustling economic activity has been discovered, including metal ware production and food preparation.
It appears that over the centuries the changing shape of the coastline saw Sumhuram’s port slowly silt-up, forcing trade to move elsewhere. In my pictures, you will see a low sand bank, below the headlands, which prevented ships from entering the khor from the seaward side. It’s likely that the site was abandoned by the third century AD.
Each stone at Sumhuram has a story to tell, a very ancient one, at that. Wish I could have stayed much longer to hear them all.
Text and images - Prasad Kotian