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.


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.


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.


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.


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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