As far back as 5000 BC, southern Oman (now called Dhofar) was the centre of the lucrative frankincense trade. This highly prized commodity, produced from the aromatic sap of the frankincense tree, was traded for spices with India and carried by caravans across all of Arabia. While the trees grew in Yemen and one or other two locations, they grew best in the monsoon-swept hills of Dhofar, where they continue to be harvested to this day. So precious was the sap of these trees, that even the part-mythical Queen of Sheba hand-delivered Dhofari frankincense to King Solomon. Equally legendary, of course, are the gifts borne by the three wise men of biblical report.
The Bible also mentions the golden- pillared city of Ubar, built by the people of Ad. This fabled city, which has excited the curiosity of explorers for hundreds of years, grew out of the frankincense trade to become one of the most powerful cities in the region. The remains of the city were reputedly rediscovered in the 1990s by English explorer Ranulph Fiennes. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe this claim, looking at the virtually barren plot near Thumrait – much more persuasive is the fact that the presumed descendents of the remarkable civilisation of Ad still occupy the surrounding desert, speaking the distinct and ancient language of Jibbali, whimsically known as the ‘language of the birds’.
Oman enjoyed further prosperity in pre-Islamic times through the trading of copper. Indeed, Oman is referred to in some sources as ‘the Mountain of Copper’, and the Bahrain National Museum provides evidence of vigorous trading in copper between Oman and its Gulf neighbours. The country then slipped into a long period of isolation that prevailed until the 7th century AD when Islam was introduced by Amr ibn al-As, a disciple of the Prophet Mohammed. Oman was quick to embrace the new faith – it even gained a reputation for its proselytising zeal.
For about the next 500 years Oman came under the leadership of the Bani Nabhan dynasty (1154–1624).
Islam had reached Oman within the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. By the middle of the eighth century C.E., Omanis were practicing a unique brand of the faith, Ibadhism, which remains a majority sect only in Oman. Ibadhism has been characterized as “moderate conservatism,” with tenets that are a mixture of both austerity and tolerance.
The Portuguese occupied Muscat for a 140-year period (1508–1648), arriving a decade after Vasco da Gama discovered the seaway to India. In need of an outpost to protect their sea lanes, the Europeans built up and fortified the city, where remnants of their colonial architectural style still remain.
The Ottomans drove out the Portuguese, but were pushed out themselves about a century later (1741) by the leader of a Yemeni tribe, who began the current line of ruling sultans. After one last, brief invasion a few years later by Persia, Oman was free for good of foreign-occupying powers.
Isolated from their Arab neighbors by the desert, the Omanis became an economic power in the early 1800s, largely by using their position on the Indian Ocean and seafaring knowledge gained from the Portuguese to gain access to foreign lands. They took control of the coasts of present-day Iran and Pakistan, colonized Zanzibar and Kenyan seaports, brought back enslaved Africans, and sent boats trading as far as the Malay Peninsula.
At this time, the country became known as Muscat and Oman*, denoting two centers of power, not just the capital and the interior but also the sultan and the imam, the Ibadhist spiritual leader.
The British slowly brought about a collapse of Muscat and Oman’s “empire” by the end of the nineteenth century without use of force. Through gradual encroachment on its overseas holdings economically and politically, they caused Oman to retreat to its homeland. In time Britain held such sway in Muscat and Oman itself that it became in effect, and later in fact, a British protectorate.