What is frankincense?

Frankincense is the sap tapped from the scraggly looking Boswellia tree and grown in Oman, Yemen and Somalia. It has been traded for around 5000 years. And Omani frankincense is said to be the best in the world. The more opaque the resin, the more pure it is. You can even eat it.


The role of frankincense

Oman has long been famous for frankincense. The frankincense trade brought enormous prosperity to the ancient cities of Dhofar, from where ships laden with the precious perfume would depart to Egypt and the Mediterranean along the Red Sea, or overland by camel via inland settlements such as the legendary Ubar. Demand has waned somewhat since then, but frankincense remains a key ingredient in traditional Omani life. Frankincense burners are traditionally passed around after a meal to perfume clothes and hair, while the resin is also used as an ingredient in numerous perfumes, including the heady Amouage, Oman’s bespoke scent par excellence. The smoke of frankincense also helps to repel mosquitoes, while certain types of frankincense resin are also edible, and continue to be widely used in traditional Arabian and Asian medicines to promote healthy digestion and skin – scientists are also investigating its possible uses in the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases such as Crohn's disease, osteoarthritis and even cancer. 


Collecting frankincense

Frankincense (in Arabic, luban) is a resin obtained from one of four trees of the Boswellia genus, particularly the Boswellia sacra, a distinctively short and rugged species, rarely exceeding 5 metres (16ft) in height. Boswellia sacra can survive in the most inhospitable conditions, sometimes appearing to grow straight out of solid rock, and thrives particularly in the semi-arid mountains around Salalah. 


Frankincense is collected by cutting small incisions into the bark of the tree, causing it to secrete a resin, which is allowed to dry and harden into so-called “tears”. Virtually all frankincense is taken from trees growing in the wild – the difficulty of cultivating the trees means that they’re not generally farmed on a commercial scale, in the manner of, say, dates.

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