I am tracking a scent across the desert. I meander up a slope between boulders of limestone almost too hot to touch, dodging dwarfed trees and bushy shrubs, all with spiny branches twisted and punctuated with greasy but fragrant leaflets. A few spindly milkweeds with toxic sap cling to the cliff face beside me.
As I stop for a moment to catch my breath, I let my eyes scan the arid terrain rolling high to the south of me, up the mountain plateau called Jabal Samhan. I am witness to a stark and largely unpopulated landscape. It is not totally barren, yet most of the world’s farmers and city dwellers would declare it empty. By that, they might mean that it is marginally arable, barely habitable, or is incapable of offering much of value to humankind today.
But they are wrong if they presume that this landscape lacks any value to our common heritage. Over millennia, something of exceptional value came out of this arid landscape that, when combined with other forces, changed the course of human history. The question is whether we value what grows in and is harvested from this landscape in any profound way today.
I have come here on a pilgrimage to seek an answer to that question. I have climbed into the Dhofar highlands, a plateau that sits some two thousand feet above the Arabian Sea. It is home to a scatter of semi-nomadic herding and foraging Jabbali tribes known as the people of the Shahri, the ones who “make mountain talk.”
I hear no kind of talk at this moment. All is quiet. There is no wind. I gulp down hot air. My nostrils flare and I pick up a distinctive fragrance, subtle but inviting. The smell prompts me to remember that ancient Greek geographers called this odoriferous country Eudaimôn Arabia, or “Arabia, the Blessed.” One of them, Herodotus, noted that “the whole country exhales an odor that is marvelously sweet.” Later this land came to be known to the wider world as Arabia Felix, a vortex of happiness amid much hardship and struggle. At first, it offered nothing more than a few fragrant desert plants and animal substances that were known collectively to the Greeks as aromatikos. Such aromatic substances have long been perceived by many cultures as having the capacity to generate a sense of happiness, healing, well-being, and harmony within the world.
As I make my way up the switchbacks of a goat trail, I wonder how long the “happy” slopes of Jabal Samhan have baked in the torrid sun. My feet kick up dust in the wake of my walking. It has not rained here for weeks. This is a land of heat and drought.
Scientists who call themselves chemical ecologists suggest that the aridity that results from these two conditions has helped rather than hindered the evolution of aromatic plants, which they define as those having compounds containing benzene rings. Over millennia, the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula developed into prime habitat for the most powerfully aromatic plants in the world.
What these desert plants lacked in productivity, they often made up in fragrance, flavor, and mythic potency. Perhaps that is because the leaves of many of them exude aromatic oils that help them resist heat, drought, and damage from herbivores. Such aromatic but highly volatile, fleeting chemicals are more concentrated in the floras of arid climes than anywhere else.
Although much of the Dhofar region has limited agricultural potential and an uneven distribution of useful wild plants, Arabia Felix could aptly be called the birthplace of the global trade in aromatics. Like Aladdin’s magic ring, when properly rubbed, this landscape opens up to reveal a psychotropic world of incenses, culinary spices, perfumes, and curative herbs to delight and refresh the weary.
Despite its scarcity of vegetation, Arabia Felix is full of highly pungent scents and flavors. It has wild crocuses akin to saffron, barks reminiscent of cinnamon, wild fennel, leeks, garlic and onions, aromatic gums, and resins galore. When mixed into a paste with dates and plastered onto pit-roasted mutton or goat, an Omani selection of these plants provides the taste portfolio called khall al-mazza. If you crave currylike flavors in savory stews, you will be satisfied with an even more complex mix of herbs and spices called bizar a’shuwa, which has long been used across the Arabian Peninsula.
The term used for this herb-rich rocky habitat in Dhofar is nejd, from the ancient Semitic languages of “mountain talkers,” the tribes of al- Kathiri, al-Qara, and al-Mahra. The highland cultures of Jabal Samhan share a history and preference for landscapes markedly different from those of the better-known Bedouins of the Arabian sands. The striking contrast in plant composition between these adjacent landscapes is what ecologists call “beta diversity,” a pronounced dissimilarity in the herbs that a plant collector might find between localized floras as he or she moves from one patch of desert to the next. In general, deserts exhibit high rates of “species turnover” from one arid landscape to another, so that few of the favored food and medicinal plants of one desert mountain range can be found in another just a day’s walk away. Thus, for as long as we know, plants have been traded from one place to another and savored beyond their place of origin.
Off to the southeast, the windward slopes of Jabal Samhan dive toward the cooler, breezier, more humid coast of Yemen. To the west, in the domain of the truly nomadic Bedouin, lies the infamous Empty Quarter, the austere sea of sand known to Arabic speakers as the Rub‘ al-Khali. For centuries, it has been the stretch of the Arabian Peninsula least frequented, even by the hardiest of nomads. Even the Bedu, the most competent nomads who frequented the sandier stretches of the Arabian Peninsula, are wary of its paucity of water and the perils of its drifting sands.
Here in the Dhofar highlands, at least enough terra rossa exists among the limestone to support a scatter of low shrubs, some far-flung patches of wiry grass, resinous bushes of rockrose, and withered but bristly stalks of thistles. This desert-scrub vegetation is seasonally browsed by a few goats and camels, the hardiest of livestock breeds. In fact, they sometimes seem to be the only creatures tenacious enough to inhabit the nejd, but by no means do they comprise the sum total of the fauna there.
The small caves I spot along the rocky crest on the western horizon occasionally shelter the stick-gathering hyrax and rock-climbing lizards. I have also noticed larger caves and ledges below the cliffs that protect the meager harvests of spices gathered by al-Qara foragers and herders, their baskets and bundles left there in the shade.
No one would call the Dhofar highlands a landscape of bounty. On the whole, most of its habitats lack much fertility, fecundity, productivity, or diversity. If the inhabitants do not take advantage of the brief spurts of plant growth that follow occasional rains, they could easily go hungry. And within Dhofar, the nejd is one of the most intensely arid habitats. But it also holds a singular treasure, a desert plant that emits an extraordinary fragrance.
Long ago, that particular treasure catapulted some Semitic-speaking nomads out of the desolation of the southern reaches of their peninsula, propelling their descendants toward all corners of the globe. They began to trade their aromatic herbs, incenses, and spices to others in better-watered climes. They exchanged their fragrances, flavors, and cures for staple foods and other goods that their arid homeland could not consistently provide. They understood that all habitats are not created equal in terms of the natural resources found within them.
So early on in their history, these Semitic tribes realized they should not remake one place to resemble another but rather trade the most unique goods of each to those who lacked them. They made an asset out of one of the inherent weaknesses of their homelands: its inequitable distribution of plant and animal productivity. In doing so, they built an economic model for trade between regions that initially redistributed both wealth and wonder among the inhabitants.
Later on, that model changed, for the spice trade triggered an economic and ecological revolution that rippled out to every reach of the human-inhabited world. It is the revolution that we now call globalization. And yet, it has been difficult for many of us to imagine its origins, for we live and breathe within it unconsciously, as if it has always existed and will always continue to exist as it does today.
As I ponder that thought, ahead of me I spot the destination—a precious part of the origin of that revolution—that initially motivated me to travel nine thousand miles from my home. I am now far enough up the slope finally to touch, for the first time in my life, the very spark that may have jump-started the engine of globalization.
I reach my hand out and gingerly lay it on the limber branches of a tree that is about as tall as I am. It has a voluptuous trunk covered in a jacket of ashy-hued bark. I reach farther into its canopy and grasp a thicker branch around its girth, as if I am feeling the bulging biceps of an iron-pumping friend. These sinuous branches are laden with small clusters of slightly crumpled but highly aromatic leaflets. I notice that the trunk is indelibly marked with scars, scorings in the bark made by intentional slashes with a knife, and on these scars are dried droplets of a pale white resin that forms perfect tears.
Just beneath the bark are microscopic tear-duct-like structures that can be stimulated to shed their resin by scoring, the very same means used by our primate ancestors to obtain acacia gum, gum tragacanth, mastic, or myrrh from other woody plants. Like them, this resin has long been valued as a medicine, vermifuge, flavorant, spice, and incense.
But that is where the comparisons among gummy incenses stop. For close to four millennia, this particular gum has been regarded as the highest-quality incense in the world. It was once the most economically valuable and most widely disseminated plant product on the globe: frankincense, food of the gods.
Even the stuffiest of scientists begrudgingly acknowledge the sacredness of this tree every time they recite its scientific name, Boswellia sacra. I have some familiarity with its distant relative, the elephant tree of the Americas, for I have often collected the copal incense from its trunk. And many winter days, when I suffer from inflammation and pain from an old horseback-riding injury, I rub my muscles with the salve of B. serrata, the so-called Indian frankincense, or salai.
I dip beneath the canopy of the gnarly tree and pull a small but recently crystallized lump of gummy sap from a scar on its central trunk. It looks as if in the spring prior to my arrival the trunk’s bark had been scarified in two or three places, probably by a Somali migrant harvester. He likely slashed at the bark with a mingaf, a short-bladed tool that looks much like a putty knife, then came back a month later and cleaned the wound. At the end of spring, he did so a second time as well, and then the wound wept for several more weeks.
The milky sap flowing out of the tree’s phloem has already begun to congeal into a semiliquid resinous latex. Frankincense tappers call the creamy sap “milk,” or lubān in Arabic, shehaz in mountain talk. But this is the sweetest, whitest, and milkiest of all frankincense, the internationally acclaimed hojari fusoos. Its quality is found nowhere in the world except here, in the highlands of Dhofar.
Extract taken from Cumin, Camels, and Caravans by Gary Nabhan, published by University of California Press, reproduced with permission.
Gary Paul Nabhan is the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona. He is the author of several award-winning books, including Where Our Food Comes From, Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Food, Gathering the Desert, and Arab/American. For more information, visit garynabhan.com