Uncommon Scents

On Oman’s streets and in its souks and stores, you’ll notice another side to this ancient land – one that will heighten a most sensitive sense.

Perfume bottles on display in an Omani souq

It’s in the air everywhere you venture throughout the Sultanate. Delicate perfumes paint the atmosphere in olfactory tones at just about every turn, washing over everyone who strolls the streets.

At times you’ll smell different attars, the essential oils extracted from the petals of roses or jasmine. Then there’s the aroma of oudh, a black resin secreted from the Asian evergreen tree, Aquilaria. A scent from antiquity, Oudh is now highly prized by many of the world’s great perfume houses.

Uniquely, perfume has affected the design of the traditional dishdasha worn by Omani men. This ankle length robe features a short decorative tassel around the neckline designed to be scented by the wearer’s preferred fragrance. Many Omanis also steam their dishdashas with bahoor, a perfume-soaked wood essence, to surround themselves in a divine scent.

Frankincense Tree
The Boswellia Frankincense Tree

By far the most revered fragrance in all of Oman, however, comes from a scrubby, gnarled tree that grows in the Dhofar region in southern Oman. For thousands of years, Boswellia sacra has been revered for producing frankincense, more valuable than gold at the time of the birth of Jesus.

The archaeological site at the ancient port of Sumhuram
The archaeological site at the ancient port of Sumhuram

Legend has it that the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut sought frankincense from the ancient Omani port of Sumhuram (near present day Salalah) as far back as 1500 B.C. Some historical accounts also state that the Queen of Sheba built herself a palace in Sumhuram on what was then one of the world’s most important ancient trade route, stockpiling vast quantities of the precious resin for her personal use. Throughout the ages it has lured travellers and explorers, from Marco Polo to TE Lawrence. And Emperor Nero burned the equivalent of the entire southern Arabian Peninsula’s yield of frankincense to commemorate the death of his wife.

An Omani Frankincense Burner
An Omani Frankincense Burner

Today, you may not find such extravagant uses of the precious crystallised sap, but you will still sense its sweet, woody scent in mosques, shops, offices, homes and hotels throughout the country. Once you’ve travelled here, whenever you catch even the faintest hint of its fragrance it will instantly transport you back. Or you could take some home with you. Frankincense, along with Oman’s other signature scents, is available in souks and stores, especially those around Salalah.

Muscat's Muttrah souq
Muscat's Muttrah souq

In 1983, His Royal Highness Sayyid Hamad bin Hamood Al bin Said determined to revive Oman’s ancient traditions of perfume making. He commissioned French perfumier Guy Robert, responsible for exotic fragrances at Hermès, Dior and Rochas, to create a perfume using frankincense, myrrh and rosewater from Oman’s Jebel Akhdar region. His final creation, Amouage, used more than 100 essences to create one of the world’s most valuable and desirable scents. Silver and gold bottles of it are presented to visiting Kings, Queens, Emirs, Presidents, Prime Ministers and dignitaries received by the Omani royal family.

For the rest of us, Amouage has released a fragrance called Ubar that is far more accessible, and available from the company’s flagship store at Muscat’s Sabco Centre. Or at your local David Jones department store if you can’t wait until your next visit to Oman to secure a bottle of this uncommon, heavenly scent.