Salalah is Oman’s second largest city is in Dhofar province, about 1,000km southwest of Muscat. The city itself consists of a jumble of low-rise buildings, mosques and minarets, a Corniche dotted with palm trees and thriving plantations of coconuts, papayas and bananas. Its men dress in brilliant white dishdashas with an embroidered kuma(cap) or massar (turban), the women wear jet black abayas and, Salalah being more traditional than Muscat, often a veil.
The khareef, as it’s known locally, transforms the rugged mountains and valleys from parched brown to lush green.
It is humid, but temperatures of around 27 degrees Celsius make this southernmost tip of the sultanate popular with holidaymakers from the Gulf. Western travelers tend to visit in the dry months – October to May – when the skies are blue and the seas calm, but seeing Salalah during the khareef offers an unusual glimpse of the Gulf. With the recent opening of a shiny new airport, and the arrival of a handful of top-notch resorts, this little pocket of paradise won’t stay a secret for much longer.
Dhofar is also home to the Boswellia sacra tree, source of the ancient world’s most prized commodity: frankincense.
Since the seventh century BC, people have collected and dried these droplets, which give off a heady aroma when burned. The flourishing trade saw huge quantities shipped via the Red Sea to Egypt, Africa and Europe, and east into the Arabian Gulf and on to India and China.
The ancient frankincense port at Khor Rori remains accessible. Atop a small hill above the picturesque freshwater creek, separated from the sea by a sandbank that was once a bustling port, lie the excavated ruins of the city of Sumhuram, founded in the third century BC. As wild camels and flamingos gather at the creek to drink, explore the maze of buildings, temples and wells encircled by once-impregnable limestone walls.
About 35km to the west of Salalah, visit the more extensive but less excavated ruins of al-Baleed, part of the 12th-century trading port of Zafar, which had seen its heyday by the late 15th century. A footpath wends its way through the waist-high ruins of a great mosque, a citadel and houses, before finishing at the excellent Museum of the Frankincense Land, which brings to life not only the trade in the aromatic resin but Oman’s proud seafaring history, too. The pretty fishing village of Taqah, the inhabitants of which make their living from catching sardines in winter (the seas are too rough during the summer monsoon season), is another highlight. Set back from the white-sand beach that extends east from Salalah is Taqah’s 19th-century fort, once the residence of the local wali (governor). The beautifully restored building consists of an outer wall with four watchtowers, an inner courtyard shaded by an old date palm and rooms filled with weapons and handicrafts that illustrate everyday life.
Stop by at a similarly restored fort in Mirbat, 40km east of Taqah, topped by cannons overlooking another small harbour through which frankincense once passed, and wander streets lined with merchant’s houses that were reduced to rubble during the Dhofar Rebellion.
The town has a second, crumbling fort that was the scene of the 1972 Battle of Mirbat, in which nine British SAS soldiers repelled an attack by 300 communist guerillas.
On the other side of Salalah, towards the Yemen border, the road begins to zigzag 1,000 metres up the Jabal al Qamar, or Moon Mountains, which are as spookily lunar as they sound, especially when enveloped in cloud during the khareef.
Visit the Al-Husn souk, a colourful market with a neat grid of pedestrianized alleyways next to the Sultan’s palace. The souk is brimming with small shops selling frankincense and powdered incense and the shopkeepers are unfailingly friendly. They are not the only ones.
The world may be getting smaller, but Salalah still feels like a distant land with a lot to explore…