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THE FIRST CHRISTMAS GIFTS : A TALE OF FRANKINCENSE AND MYRRH.

Byline: Susan Farlow Special to the Daily News

It was late March, and Christmas was a long way off, but the bazaar merchant in Salalah, Oman, was trying his best to interest me in some frankincense.

Nowadays, Westerners think about frankincense only during the Christmas season, when we hear the story of the Magi bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.

Yet several thousand years ago, frankincense was used day in and day out in temple rituals. The aromatic incense was so precious and rare, it was more valuable than gold.

I had just assumed frankincense was a thing of the past, a commodity that had become obsolete or even extinct by the 20th century. I was wrong. Here in the Salalah marketplace, the stuff was spread out before me. And not just in one shop. The bazaar was crammed with incense merchants whose tiny stalls overflowed with frankincense, spices, perfumes and, in some cases, myrrh.

I would learn that this southwestern part of Oman, called the Dhofar, was the center of the ancient frankincense trade and the place where the world's best frankincense trees grew. And the best frankincense still comes from here. I had arrived in southern Oman by ship, and as I was making the short drive to the city of Salalah (the capital of Dhofar province), I soon saw camels everywhere I looked. Some were munching on scrub brush, others strolling through a desert that looked like a giant spread of kitty litter.

``This is camel country,'' said my Omani guide, Eric. ``You have to be careful when you drive. We call the camels the local `speed breakers.' ''

Before long, we stopped beside a stand of the scraggliest trees I've ever laid eyes on. ``Frankincense trees,'' said the guide.

A few thousand years ago, the frankincense business put this place on the map, making the area the richest on earth. In those few days, the incense was vital to the rites of nearly every religious group in the known world. The temples of Egypt, Greece and Rome burned frankincense, a fragrant resin that's produced by making a scratch in the tree's bark. Once the bark is cut, resin oozes from the scratch and dries into clumps of gum. It's these clumps that are burned for their scent.

This region may have been the ancient world's wealthiest, but nowadays most people can't even locate the country of Oman on a map. And that's when I started to wonder: What's going on around here today?

From what I could see: Plenty.

``We call this region of Oman `the Eden of the Gulf,' '' said my guide. ``It is a cosmopolitan place and the winter capital when the Sultan comes down here (from Muscat, Oman's year-round capital).''

Soon, we reached the city limits of Salalah, a spotless place of landscaped boulevards, a huge complex ``built to Olympic standards'' and cream-colored architecture that reminds me of sand castles. The whole place looks like it was built just yesterday.

Actually, it was, more or less. In 1970, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said deposed his father and took over, Oman was about as backward as a nation could be. Few towns had electricity or running water. There were only five miles of paved road in the entire country. Moreover, his father had tightly sealed off Oman from the rest of the world. Few outsiders were allowed to visit this place, until recently known as the reclusive cousin of the Middle East.

But now, a little over 25 years later, the busy son has propelled Oman (population 1.7 million) into the modern world with a 20th-century infrastructure.

Long ago, southern Arabia owed its wealth to frankincense. This time around, Oman can thank oil for its prosperity, although when compared to other Gulf States, Oman's oil reserves are quite limited. And as its oil dwindles, Oman is hoping to use tourism to bring in income.

Everywhere I looked, it seemed construction was going on. ``There are jobs here for anyone who wants to work,'' explained the guide. Shops are plentiful, and it seemed that a third of the stores are groceries. Another third are tailors' shops; the remainder are hair salons. A Pizza Hut was doing a brisk business.

So trade is still big around here. As I would learn, this area was the southern end of the fabled frankincense trade route. From here, the route traveled (by camel caravan and later by sea) as far as Greece and Rome.

From 1000 B.C. to 300 A.D., the trade was at its height, although ``trading routes began as early as 5000 B.C.,'' according to Professor Juris Zarins, an archaeologist and frankincense authority from Southwest Missouri State University, who discovered what is claimed to be the fabled lost city of Ubar in Oman's Dhofar province. (His excavations have shown that Ubar citizens traded in frankincense between 5000 B.C. and 2500 B.C.) Then, ``around 300 A.D. to 400 A.D., the trade dropped out, due to the collapse of the Roman market,'' he said.

Today, frankincense trading might not be the business it once was, but it's still alive and well here in Salalah.

Around midday, the guide dropped me off at the incense market, a maze of closet-sized shops. All the merchants were young men and offered me samples of perfumed oil. I was more intrigued with the frankincense, which was sold in sandwich-sized Ziploc bags.

One merchant gave me a crash course in the stuff. Seems that there are three kinds: a yellow clump for incense burning; an amber-colored powder that you boil and then drink to settle an upset stomach, and a whitish clump that you chew for good teeth and gums.

He gave me some chewing frankincense. It was tasteless, but the chewiest substance I've ever chomped on. Teeth and gums got a marathon workout.

I ended up buying a couple of Ziploc bags full at $2 a bag.

On the subject of myrrh, the merchant pretty much drew a blank. Yes, he had some for sale. But he couldn't tell me where or how it grew. I did learn, however, that myrrh is more than twice as expensive as frankincense: Half a Ziploc bag of myrrh cost $3.

I dropped by the local Holiday Inn to buy postcards and stamps in the gift shop. ``Which are the most popular postcards?'' I asked the woman running the shop. ``The frankincense tree pictures,'' she replied. I bought the last one on the rack. It seems frankincense is still the area's main claim to fame.

On Location

Oman is a little-known corner of the world, and tourism is pretty much a new concept. But that can be a plus: You won't feel or be treated like a tourist here. And that's one reason to go now - Oman is a frontier in today's travel world.

It is also relatively safe. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs says street crime is low, and violent crimes are very rare. It does advise normal travel precautions.

For information on travel in and to Oman, contact:

For cruises: Orient Lines, (800) 333-7300; Princess Cruises (their next cruises with Oman won't be until 1998), (800) 774-6237; Renaissance Cruises, (800) 525-5350; Radisson Seven Seas Cruises, (800) 285-1835; Seabourn Cruise Line, (800) 929-9595.

For land tours: Swan Hellenic, (800) 367-6766; Travcoa, (800) 992-2003; Turtle Tours, (602) 488-3688, will arrange individual tours to Oman for groups with as few as two members.

For general travel information, contact: Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman, 2535 Belmont Road, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008; (202) 387-1980.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--Color) Containers of frankincense, myrrh and spices line the shelves of many merchants in Salalah, Oman.

Susan Farlow/Special to the Daily News

(2) A visitor gets an up-close look at a frankincense tree. Once more precious than gold. It was probably golden frankincense - not gold - that the Magi delivered as a gift to the baby Jesus, experts say.

Jerry Farlow/Special to the Daily News

Box: On Location (See Text)
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Words:1351
Previous Article:JERUSALEM : THE HOLY CITY ISRAEL'S CAPITAL IS SPIRITUAL CENTER OF THREE FAITHS.
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