Dhofar city tour, Oman: On the frankincense trail in a city obsessed with scent

"We like nice smells," says Abubakar, clutching his fareeka – the tassel that hangs from his crisp dishdasha robe – and breathing in its perfumed scent. "I think," he smiles, "more than normal."

Abubakar is a guide here in Dhofar, running tours of an old castle. He gives his fareeka a spritz of perfume each day to help him through, he says, to lighten his mood: "When you are feeling tired or down, you just need to smell something good, and your life will be easier."

That is not a unique notion; people in this part of the world are obsessed with scent. This is Dhofar, the southernmost state in Oman, and it's an area that was once made rich, and continues to thrive today, thanks to the power of aroma. So much of what you see before you – the dusty streets of its bustling capital, Salalah; the coastal villages nearby with their mudbrick homes and blue-hulled fishing boats; the crumbling ruins of ancient citadels atop barren hills – is owed to the value of a sweet smell.

And so the obsession continues. Men here spray their fareekas with perfume to give them a pleasant aroma for the day. Women stand over incense burners to allow the smoke to imbue their abayas – the dark robes imported from Iran and worn by all women here – with a heady smell.

They use a variety of scents, many of which are bought and sold in the old souqs and the more modern supermarkets nearby. However, the most popular and the most sought-after aroma is the one that built an empire here: frankincense. The ancient treasure. The modern luxury.

You can catch faint whiffs of this fabled perfume as you stroll the dark alleys of Al-Husn Souq in Salalah. This is a relaxed, mostly quiet market, set back a few blocks from the beach, a place where vendors peer out from dimly lit stores, where kids shriek and play, and groups of men chat and sip coffee and eye off any strangers in their midst.

Most of the stores here sell frankincense, the dried sap of the boswellia tree, a plant that only grows in specific, rare conditions; conditions you'll find around Salalah. When burned, this dried sap produces a sweet perfume, a scent that has been highly prized throughout history by the rulers of great empires as diverse as the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Persians and more.

Those powerful leaders were all willing to trade their own treasures to possess frankincense. And thus, the sultanate of Dhofar was born.

To grasp this history, you only have to travel half an hour down a lonely road from Salalah, past Taqah Castle, where Abubakar conducts his sweet-smelling tours, and on to Sumhuram.

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Or rather, what's left of Sumhuram. These days this coastal citadel is just a tumbledown ruin, where the foundations of an ancient city strain to peer at the ocean – the giver of life, the highway upon which all of Dhofar's riches departed and arrived – that has retreated to the far horizon in the thousand or so years since the city was last inhabited.

It's the rubbish that lies around on the ground at this archaeological site that tells the story of its old power: the shards of terracotta that were moulded and fired in Roman-era Naples; the broken vessels that were created in ancient Egypt; the ornaments from India; the pottery that originated in Persia.

These scraps speak of a forgotten empire, of a trading power that once dominated this part of the globe. They tell stories of buyers and sellers who flocked here from around the known world, who brought with them treasures from home and who left with the most prized of local goods: gold, jewels, and of course, frankincense.

Dhofar was strong. It was rich. From the 4th century BC to around 300 AD, this was a major hub, the perfect place, both geographically and financially, for traders moving between powerhouses such as India, China, Persia, Rome and Egypt to stop to resupply and to do business, a natural halfway point to meet and exchange.

The state has long since been subsumed by the Omani sultanate, becoming part of a wider empire. And yet remnants of its independent history, and indeed of the product that helped it command such power, remain.

You only have to gaze out the window of your car to spot them, the gnarled trunks and spindly branches of boswellia trees that seem to grow straight out of the rocks in this desert landscape. Locals harvest the frankincense by tapping the trunks, allowing sap to bubble out and dry in the sun. It takes a week to properly coagulate, to produce the coloured jewels of resin that can then be sold in the markets, transported around the world, and eventually burned over charcoal to produce their distinctive smell.

At Al-Husn Souq it's not just the chunks of resin that are sold in the tiny stalls that line the shaded alleys, but all of the accoutrements for burning them: traditional stone or clay pots that hold the charcoal; patterned covers to disperse the smoke; tiny, modern handheld burners that can be used in cars or offices.

It reminds me, here, of Abubakar's passion for perfume, something so endearing in its honesty. "Smelling nice smells will make you better and better," he'd intoned. "Just put perfume on your hand and smell it and you feel good."

That's the tale of Dhofar. Olfactory sensations. Pleasant smells. Mostly it is the sweetness of frankincense or myrrh that permeates the air, but other times it's piquant spice that gets the nose tingling, an aroma that always seems to be wafting across the pier in the seaside village of Mirbat, just down the highway from the ruins of Sumhuram.

The history of this town stretches back to Dhofar's frankincense-powered glory days. Now, however, Mirbat is a sleepy little port resting by the Arabian Sea, where old mudbrick houses have fallen into disrepair, and fishing boats bob in the quiet marina.

Al Meena restaurant is a no-frills affair, where men sit around plastic tables overlooking the water, and fresh fish roasts in an outdoor oven. The ordering process is as simple as the decor: walk into a back room, select a whole fish from the fridge, and then sit back as it is doused in spices first brought here by ancient traders – from India, Pakistan, Iran – and roasted over coals, before being served with rice piled high.

You get the feeling life hasn't changed a whole lot here since those ships from history's great empires stopped calling in. Locals still fish from their wooden boats. Robed men still wander the dusty streets. And the sweet smell of frankincense still drifts by occasionally on the dry desert air.

The writer was a guest of Oman Tourism.

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FLY

Etihad Airways has twice-daily flights from both Sydney and Melbourne to Abu Dhabi, with connections to Muscat and then Salalah. For bookings, call 1300 532 215, or see etihad.com

STAY

The Crowne Plaza has comfortable, modern rooms by the beach in Salalah, starting from $233 per night. See crowneplaza.com/Salalah

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