Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Frankincense: Could it be a cure for cancer?
The gift given by the wise men to the baby Jesus probably came across the deserts from Oman. The BBC's Jeremy Howell visits the country to ask whether a commodity that was once worth its weight in gold could be reborn as a treatment for cancer.
Oman's Land of Frankincense is an 11-hour drive southwards from the capital, Muscat.
Most of the journey is through Arabia's Empty Quarter - hundreds of kilometres of flat, dun-coloured desert. Just when you are starting to think this is the only scenery you will ever see again, the Dhofar mountains appear in the distance.
On the other side are green valleys, with cows grazing in them. The Dhofar region catches the tail-end of India's summer monsoons, and they make this the most verdant place on the Arabian peninsula.
Warm winters and showery summers are the perfect conditions for the Boswellia sacra tree to produce the sap called frankincense. These trees grow wild in Dhofar. A tour guide, Mohammed Al-Shahri took me to Wadi Dawkah, a valley 20 km inland from the main city of Salalah, to see a forest of them.
"The records show that frankincense was produced here as far back as 7,000 BCE," he says. He produces an army knife. He used to be a member of the Sultan's Special Forces. With a practised flick, he cuts a strip of bark from the trunk of one of the Boswellia sacra trees. Pinpricks of milky-white sap appear on the wood and, very slowly, start to ooze out.
Boswellia sacra produces the highest-quality frankincense
"This is the first cut. But you don't gather this sap," he says. "It releases whatever impurities are in the wood. The farmers return after two or three weeks and make a second, and a third, cut. Then the sap comes out yellow, or bright green, or brown or even black. They take this."
Shortly afterwards, a frankincense farmer arrives in a pick-up truck. He is white-bearded, wearing a brown thobe and the traditional Omani, paisley-patterned turban.
He is 67-year-old Salem Mohammed from the Gidad family. Most of the Boswellia sacra trees grow on public land, but custom dictates that each forest is given to one of the local families to farm, and Wadi Dawkah is his turf.
He has an old, black, iron chisel with which he gouges out clumps of dried frankincense.
"We learnt about frankincense from our forefathers and they learnt it from theirs" he says. "The practice has been passed down through the generations. We exported the frankincense, and that's how the families in Dhofar made their livings."
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