Oman is one of the world’s most sought after destinations, but behind its modernity lies a rich history laced with myths and majesty, discovers Anna Selby.
A scrubby tree looking more dead than alive in a stony desert is an unlikely basis for an economy. This, however, is no ordinary tree. The clue is its trunk, covered in scars that yield a sap that crystallises into one of the most precious commodities known to the ancient world – frankincense. This was the incense, once more valued than gold, that the Queen of Sheba gave to Solomon, that Queen Hatsheput burned in her Luxor temple, and that the Magi took to the infant Jesus.
The frankincense trade brought vast wealth to Oman, especially to the southern region of Dhofar, producing cities and palaces of dazzling splendour. One, Sumhuram, sits on a promontory looking out across the blue Arabian Sea and is said to have been the palace of the Queen of Sheba.
The even more famous Omanum Emporium, featured on Ptolemy’s map of 150AD; built to rival paradise, it was surrounded by marble walls, set with precious stones and topped with golden roofs. Omanum Emporium – known as Irem in the Koran and Ubar in Tales from One Thousand and One Nights – was famed for its debauchery and paganism, provoking the wrath of Allah who buried it under the sands. There it stayed, despite many expeditions to find it, until an octagonal fortress with nine towers was discovered by satellite in 1992 in modern Shisr.
Surrounded by a web of caravan tracks thousands of years old, Shisr could just be the fabled capital of the frankincense trade. The journey there alone is pretty exciting. Leaving the empty white beaches of Dhofar’s coast, populated by flocks of flamingos, you drive through fertile river valleys into the magnificent jebel, the mountains, home to soaring eagles on the edge of the Empty Quarter and 400,000 square kilometers of a shadeless, windswept, shifting sea of sand.
On Shisr’s other side, paradoxically, is the region of the al khareef rains, the tail of the Indian monsoons that fall here as a misty drizzle in summer. The gardens around the regional capital, Salalah, burst into flower, bananas, papayas and coconuts flourish, wadis become fast-flowing rivers and the southern slopes of the jebel turn green and fertile.
It’s not just the weather that confounds western expectations of the turbulent Middle East. This is a stable, peaceful country, spotlessly clean (the capital Muscat is regularly listed among the world’s cleanest cities). Its modernity is based, like its neighbours’, on oil and gas but this is no Dubai or Bahrain. There are no steely skyscrapers here and the architecture speaks in the vernacular.
For the traveller in search of Arabia Felix, only Oman will do. Souks sell leather, pottery, silver, hunting guns, the silver-sheathed khajar knife, the national symbol and, of course, frankincense. The magic of the desert – with its beautiful amber and gold dunes – is just two hours drive from the capital in the Wahiba Sands. Bedouin live here with their goats and camels and there are a handful of luxury encampments. You can ride a camel into the sunset, then storytellers with the silvery tongue of Sheherezade, the lead character in One Thousand and One Nights, or musicians and dancers will beguile the evenings under a starry sky.
Legend and modernity rub shoulders here constantly and the taste for dazzling Arabian palaces has never really gone away. Hotels are at the magnificent end of the spectrum, their entrances still scented with frankincense. The tone is set by the Al Bustan Palace – with an atrium high enough to stand a jumbo jet on its tail.
This is not a land where minimalism comes easily. It may be some time since the Queen of Sheba passed this way, but a love of opulence still lingers like a legend in the sands or the scent of frankincense on the air.
The Sultanate of Splendour
Oman remains one of the hottest Middle Eastern destinations for travellers from Asia and the Country Holidays six-day Country of Mountains, Wadis, Deserts & Historic Forts itinerary captures the essence of the nation. After exploring the Natural History Museum, the traditional Old Souk, and the Grand Mosque in Muscat, you’ll pass through the Eastern Hajar Mountains en route to the coastal town of Sur, home to the Dhow Museum (there’s even an opportunity to visit the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve). You’ll enjoy an authentic desert camping experience in the Wahiba Desert, a paradisiac oasis with turquoise and sapphire coloured water pools, and explore this mesmerising landscape on 4x4 adventures, returning to camp in time for a BBQ served under the stars. In Ibra, a medieval village in the Jebel Akhdar mountains, you’ll climb ancient watchtowers before journeying to Misfat Al Abruyeen and Bilad Sayt, traditional mountain hamlets that are popular with hikers exploring the region’s deep canyons, home to dramatic rock formations.
The Empty Quarter
A land of myths and mystery, the Empty Quarter, known on the Arabian Peninsula as Rub’ al Khali, has captivated the imaginations of explorers for centuries. The largest sand desert in the world, the Empty Quarter is a fitting name for a sea of shifting sand dunes that covers over 650,000sqkm (making it larger than France). With dunes towering as high as 250 metres, the desert reaches the borders of Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen but the majority is within the confines of Saudi Arabia.
Of the many myths and legends that linger within the sand seas, the most compelling is that of the Lost City of Iram, an ancient metropolis first mentioned in the Qur’an in the 7th century, that was said to have been pounded into the sands of the Empty Quarter for defying the warnings of the prophet Hud.
Despite the inhospitality of the desert, it’s an increasingly popular destination for intrepid travellers; enjoy your own One Thousand and One Arabian Nights adventure on a four-night itinerary as you tour Oman’s historic town of Salalah before delving into the Dhofar Mountains, a desolately beautiful landscape peppered with ancient frankincense trees, en route to the Rub al Khali, where you’ll camp under the stars, much like the Bedu tribesmen have for centuries.
Anna has been a journalist or over 20 years, specialising in travel for almost 15 of them. She is the author of over 30 books and has written for all of the UK's broadsheets as well as many magazines. She has travelled all over the world from Tierra del Fuego to Iceland and from Botswana to Kazakhstan. She reserves a special place in her heart for the islands of Polynesia where she lived with her young son.