THE GAR­DEN OF ARA­BIA

Be­tween the desert and the sea, Salalah is like a green world unto it­self.

Seabourn Club Herald - - IN THIS ISSUE - By Rafe Klinger

Be­tween the desert and the sea, Salalah is like a green world unto it­self.

Trudg­ing through the swel­ter­ing Omani desert bak­ing in the 120-de­gree heat, the go­ing is nearly im­pos­si­ble. Walls of sear­ing sand dunes 40 to 50 feet high loom over scorch­ing, bone-dry plains that seem to go on for­ever. This arid zone is called The Empty Quar­ter be­cause al­most noth­ing can live here. Sud­denly, south on the plain, a vi­sion rises up from the desert floor be­hind shim­mer­ing waves of heat — an im­pos­si­ble sight of green­shrouded moun­tains.

Nes­tled in­side, sil­ver rib­bons of wa­ter­falls cas­cade. Dense woods, green pas­tures and plants and trees bear­ing trop­i­cal fruits abound. Packs of camels roam veg­e­ta­tion-lined roads and hun­dreds of species of birds drink and bathe in ponds and creeks. White sandy beaches dot­ted with co­conut palms stretch where the lime­stone cliffs meet the Ara­bian Sea. In this oa­sis nes­tles Salalah, the gar­den city of the desert, where the sear­ing heat gives way to tem­per­a­tures hov­er­ing around 80 de­grees.

Bathed by the driz­zle of the kha­reef — the mon­soon that swoops out of In­dia from June through Septem­ber — Salalah is a par­adise out of the Ara­bian nights. It is the fa­bled land of frank­in­cense, the tree resin from which per­fumes and in­cense are made. The fra­grant sap was as valu­able as gold in an­cient times. This is also the land of the leg­endary Queen of Sheba, who built one of her palaces near this city. To­day’s Salalah is a ma­jor port on the Ara­bian Sea. But it’s also a lush par­adise of white beaches, of wa­ter­falls pour­ing into emer­ald pools, of roads roamed by packs of camels and of plan­ta­tions ripe with ba­nanas, man­gos, pa­payas and limes.

It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ori­gin of the Frank­in­cense Road.

A HEADY HIS­TORY

Frank­in­cense comes from the sap of the Boswellia tree, and south­ern Oman is one of the few places on earth where it grows. To­day, groves of more than 2,000 aro­matic trees can be seen in the Frank­in­cense Park above Salalah or grow­ing wild in the forests of the Dho­far Moun­tains. The tree resin was burned as in­cense for re­li­gious cer­e­monies in Mediter­ranean coun­tries like Is­rael, Greece, Rome and Carthage, and aro­matic per­fumes were cre­ated from its oil. The sub­stance was also prized as a rem­edy for high blood pres­sure, nausea, fever, in­fer­til­ity and can­cer, and the in­cense de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as a pow­er­ful in­sect re­pel­lent.

The orig­i­nal hub of the Frank­in­cense Road, 5,000 years ago, was the Lost

City of Ubar, the ru­ins of which are be­lieved to be north of Salalah in the broil­ing Empty Quar­ter desert. Leg­end has it that Ubar, a mag­nif­i­cent city filled with build­ings con­structed with “lofty pil­lars,” sud­denly van­ished, swal­lowed by the sands due to some nat­u­ral cat­a­clysm. The fa­bled “Lawrence of Ara­bia,” T.E. Lawrence, de­scribed it as “the At­lantis of the Sands.”

With Ubar gone, the port city of Sumharam, lo­cated nearby mod­ern Salalah, be­came cen­ter of the in­cense trade. Car­a­vans of hun­dreds of camels car­ried the pre­cious scent north­west through the desert to Egypt and up into Is­rael, to ports where ships car­ried it to south­ern Euro­pean lands. Car­a­vans trav­el­ing east brought frank­in­cense to Per­sia, while boats car­ried it to In­dia and China where it was traded for silk and other goods.

WHITE SANDY BEACHES DOT­TED WITH CO­CONUT PALMS STRETCH WHERE THE LIME­STONE CLIFFS MEET THE ARA­BIAN SEA.

The trade made the fortress and port town of Sumharam rich. About 1000 B.C., the Queen of Sheba, who ruled in East Africa and nearby Ye­men, de­cided to cash in.

MEM­O­RABLE BEAUTY

The am­bi­tious monarch built a sum­mer palace nearby at Khor Rori, a large creek, where she stock­piled the valu­able in­cense. (To­day, the ru­ins form an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal at­trac­tion just east of Salalah, over­look­ing a na­ture refuge for many of the area’s nearly 200 species of birds.)

Sheba sup­pos­edly vis­ited King Solomon of Is­rael be­cause of his leg­endary wis­dom, bring­ing him a valu­able stock of frank­in­cense among other gifts. But his­to­ri­ans say she was also a brainy beauty, who mixed busi­ness with plea­sure. She wisely se­cured a treaty from Solomon to pro­tect her frank­in­cense car­a­vans from ban­dits as they passed through his king­dom on the way to Mediter­ranean ports.

Dur­ing negotiations, Sheba is ru­mored to have had a brief, pas­sion­ate ro­mance with Solomon. He re­put­edly was de­scrib­ing Sheba as the beloved in his famed ro­man­tic poem The Song of Songs.

Salalah con­tin­ued the lu­cra­tive frank­in­cense trade through the 1200s.

Now it’s a ma­jor port and re­sort city with won­drous nat­u­ral and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sights.

SALALAH’S SIGHTS

One tasty place not to miss is the open-air fruit mar­ket lined with stalls cov­ered by thatched roofs and brim­ming with a rain­bow of pro­duce grown nearby, in­clud­ing ba­nanas, limes, man­gos, co­conuts, pa­payas, guava and cus­tard ap­ples. These oc­ca­sion­ally end up in de­lec­ta­ble restau­rant dishes along with lob­ster and other lo­cal seafood. The lo­cal cui­sine also in­cludes veg­etable cur­ries in­flu­enced by nearby In­dia.

Vis­i­tors can also en­joy the mild heat on the sandy beaches. Some 30 miles

west of Salalah is a gor­geous white stretch where cliffs meet the sea at Mugh­sail Bay, per­fect for sun­ning, swim­ming and even bird-watch­ing. At high tide, the waves blast into lime­stone caves and shoot out blow holes 100 feet into the air.

Or visit the spec­tac­u­lar Wadi Dar­bat, a na­ture park set in a river val­ley with dense woods. Camels feed in the pas­tures and bathe in the wa­ter along­side grace­ful white storks. This refuge also fea­tures thun­der­ing wa­ter­falls, one plung­ing 300 feet. There are caves to ex­plore con­tain­ing draw­ings from shep­herds who used them for shel­ter. The park is less than 20 miles east of Salalah and near the Khor Rori creek, home to birds like greater flamin­gos, teals, spoon­bills, pur­ple herons and os­preys.

The Tomb of Job, the prophet revered by Jews, Chris­tians and Mus­lims alike, is also close by. The book of Job tells of a wealthy fam­ily man whose faith is tested by God. Job loses his wealth, fam­ily and health, but still re­fuses to blame the Lord. Af­ter much suf­fer­ing, his wealth, health and fam­ily are re­stored and he’s given long life, al­low­ing him to live to see gen­er­a­tions of his off­spring pros­per. His re­puted burial place, in a com­pound en­closed within a cir­cu­lar wall on the hill of Ja­bal Al Qar, is one of the world’s old­est pil­grim­age sites.

The more ad­ven­tur­ous can take a sa­fari seek­ing the Lost City of Ubar, said to have been buried ages ago in the desert with all its riches.

About 100 miles north of Salalah, amidst the sear­ing sand dunes of The Empty Quar­ter, is Shisr. In the early 1990s, Ni­cholas Clapp, an am­a­teur ar­chae­ol­o­gist who’s been com­pared to In­di­ana Jones, claimed he un­earthed a wall and tow­ers of a fortress here which he be­lieved was part of Ubar. The ru­ins dated back thou­sands of years and the site was on a route frank­in­cense car­a­vans would have trav­eled on their way north to Mediter­ranean ports.

Some crit­ics say the ru­ins aren’t old enough to be Ubar, while oth­ers claim the Lost City is merely a myth. But even if you don’t find Ubar, there’s plenty to ex­plore, dis­cover, taste and en­joy in Salalah — the gar­den spot of Ara­bia.

Ad­dax Al-Baleed Ru­ins Greater spot­ted ea­gle

Open-air mar­ket

Lo­cal cui­sine

Tomb of Job

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