The frankincense trees of WadiDawkah and the remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr/Wubar and the affiliated ports of KhorRori and Al-Baleed vividly illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries, as one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world.
Criterion iii The group of archaeological sites in Oman represent the production and distribution of frankincense, one of the most important luxury items of trade in the Old World in antiquity. Criterion iv The Oasis of Shishr and the entrepots of KhorRori and Al-Balid are outstanding examples of medieval fortified settlements in the Persian Gulf region.
This group of archaeological sites in Oman represents the production and distribution of frankincense, one of the most important luxury items of trade in antiquity from the Mediterranean and Red Sea regions to Mesopotamia, India and China. They constitute outstanding testimony to the civilization that from the Neolithic to the late Islamic period flourished in southern Arabia. The Oasis of Shishr and the entrepôts of KhorRori and Al-Balīd are excellent examples of medieval fortified settlements in the Persian Gulf region.
Shisr lies about 180 km north of Salalah in the desert. This agricultural oasis and caravan site on the route along which frankincense was brought from the Nejd to the port of Sumhuram was dominated by an Iron Age fortress and continued to be used in the Islamic periods. The archaeological remains occur near a large collapsed limestone dome in which there is a cave from which a perpetual spring flows. A fortress wall, constructed of limestone blocks and an irregular pentagon in plan, surrounds a central complex on a rocky outcrop. Stubs of walls indicate that the enceinte was divided into two enclosures, dominated by a substantial building that underwent a number of alterations and extensions during the medieval period, oriented on the cardinal points of the compass in what may be a southern Arabic tradition.
The port of Sumhuram/KhorRori (the Moscha of classical geographical texts) was founded at the end of the 1st century by LL’adYalut to control the trade in Dhofar incense. Indian seamen who had brought cotton cloth, corn and oil in exchange for incense overwintered there, waiting for the favourable monsoon winds to take them home. It was the hub of the trading settlement on this coast during the 1st and 2nd centuries BC. Its close links with the powerful Shabwa state made this small fortified town very rich. The process of disintegration began in the first half of the 3rd century, when the site was reclaimed by the sea and by natural vegetation. KhorRori lies 40 km to the east of Salalah on a hilltop on the eastern bank of a sweet-water outlet (khor ). The remains of the fortress are located on a rocky spur running east-west. It forms part of a wider defensive system, details of which still can be distinguished. The walls are built from dressed-stone facings with rubble cores. The most heavily fortified part is on the north, where the entrance is located, which itself is a massive structure with three successive gates on the steep entry path. It is flanked by the remains of towers.
Al-Balīd, an elevated site extending along the coast with a khor providing water from the mountains, is the historically late name for a medieval town in the Mahra area. It began to decline in the 12th century, and it was attacked and partially destroyed on several occasions in the 13th century, both by Arab rulers and by Persian raiders. By the late 15th century, radical changes to trading patterns imposed by Portuguese and other European trading nations sealed the fate of the town. Most of the site now consists of a barren landscape covered with stone blocks, the result of robbing for the construction of more recent buildings. The Great Mosque was surrounded by an outer platform on three sides. There was an inner courtyard and the 4 m square minaret was originally in the north-east corner. The main prayer hall was lined with 144 octagonal columns, which supported the roof. The structure underwent many changes, in some cases for collapses due to poor construction and for ground instability.
The Frankincense Park of WadiDawkah: The Neolithic inhabitants of southern Arabia were engaged in long-distance trade with the Arabian littoral and from there into Mesopotamia. Excavations have revealed that shells and obsidian were being traded, and there are documentary and epigraphic sources relating to trade in frankincense by the later 3rd millennium BCE, when it was certainly flourishing, not only with Mesopotamia but also with Egypt. The sources of frankincense can be identified with the three areas in the Dhofar region in which the frankincense tree is still to be found. The other main export from southern Arabia at this time was that of horses. The central feature is a north-draining wadi on the edge of the desert; the frankincense trees are to be found in the flat bed of the wadi . The higher areas within the park are largely acacias and similar species that can tolerate the more extreme conditions.
While Shisr was already playing a major role in the Iron Age as an important outpost providing traders with water before they entered the desert of the Rub al-Khali, the foundation of the fortified port of KhorRori/Sumhuram by LL’adYalut, king of the Hadhramawt, took place at the end of the 1st century BCE in the context of growing sea trade between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. After the decline of KhorRori during the first half of the 3rd century CE, the site of al- Balid can be considered to be that of the port which took over the main role in sea trade up to the Late Islamic period In the region of Dhofar the natural setting of WadiAndoor, WadiHogar, and WadiDawkah represents the most significant area where frankincense trees grow. The WadiDawkah Park has been chosen for nomination as a natural/cultural site, representative of the harvesting of the incense gum from very early times and still intact in its natural setting.
Early hominids (Homo erectus) arrived in Dhofar around 1 million years ago from East Africa. Evidence of their crossing is preserved in archaeological sites, principally in Yemen and western Saudi Arabia. Recent studies point to modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) reaching Dhofar around 1000,000 BP1, as shown by finds from the Nejd, and especially around the Shisr area.
An extremely arid phase between 20,000 and 8000 years BP in southern Arabia led to the abandonment of most of the peninsula. In the Neolithic period, around 6000 BCE, pastoral nomads arrived in southern Arabia. These Semitic speakers came from the Levant and gradually occupied most of the peninsula. Traces of their herding of cattle, sheep, and goats, recognizable from their distinctive flint tools, are to be found throughout the Nejd on ancient river courses and lakes. It was these people who established the ancient longdistance trading routes.
They first began trading frankincense from Dhofar in response to a demand from southern Mesopotamia. By 3200 BCE, with the introduction of writing, there is evidence that trade in frankincense increased in volume and frequency. The specific ethnic identity of the traders is unknown, but distinctive flint types link the trade specifically to Dhofar.
The Bronze Age in Dhofar (2200-1300 BCE) was a period of retrenchment. The population retreated to the edges of the hills and the Salalah plain near permanent springs. They had close ties with the Bronze Age villages of Yemen. It was at this time that domestication of camels began. Maritime trade, most likely of copper, linked Masirah with Dhofar. The palaeo-lagoons and upland terraces were exploited intensively for the first time. Frankincense continued to be traded widely.
The Iron Age (1300-300 BCE) saw the emergence of local populations again, herding cattle, goats, and now camels, as well as growing plants specific to Dhofar such as sorghum and millets following a lifestyle similar to that of the contemporary Mahra peoples. The rise of the southern Arabic states created a formal network for incense that reached to the west, along with a continuing demand from northern Yemen and eastern Arabia.
By 300 BCE the site of Shisr had become part of this network. The Periplus of Ptolemy’s Geographia (2nd century CE) provides a clearer picture of the region and its peoples. Excavations at Shisr and the Salalah plain show that both the Hadrami state of Shabwa (KhorRori/Sumhuram) and the indigenous people participated in the incense trade. The Omani Arabs, moving north-eastwards from Yemen, enter the picture at this time as part of the complex interaction in social relations and economic life. The Parthian Persians also influenced Dhofar, as instanced by material remains at Shisr and the Salalah coast. Combining the historical and archaeological evidence, it has been suggested that Shisr could be either Ubar or the Omanum Emporium of Ptolemy, whilst KhorRori has been associated with the Moscha limen of the Periplus Maris Erythraei (1st century CE).
During the Islamic period internal trade continued to prosper, perhaps fuelled by the demand for incense and horses. Links to India that had been developed millennia earlier continued to be strong. Coastal Dhofar participated in long-distance international trade, especially in the Abbasid Period. Both fortified inlets and harbours and small settlements testify to these ties between the Red Sea and East Africa to the west and India and China to the east. Al-Balid and Mirbat continued to prosper, reaching their peak in the Middle Islamic Period. By 1450 the Turkish and Portuguese invasions brought the network created in Iron Age and Islamic times to a standstill.
There is a number of Neolithic sites in the immediate vicinity of Shisr. This agricultural oasis and caravan site on the route along which frankincense was brought from the Nejd to the port of Sumhuram was dominated by an Iron Age fortress of the 2nd century BCE. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that the site continued in use in the Early and Middle Islamic periods. However, it declined steadily from the late 1st century CE and had lost its importance by the 3rd century. There was very limited occupation along the southern wall which lasted into the Late Islamic period.
The port of Sumhuram (Smhrm – “His Name is Great”) was founded at the end of the 1st century BCE. Inscriptions record that it was established by LL’adYalut to control the trade in Dhofar incense. It is identified as the Moscha of classical geographical texts, where Indian seamen who had brought cotton cloth, corn, and oil in exchange for incense overwintered, waiting for the favourable monsoon winds to take them home.
The port was the hub of the trading settlement on this coast during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. Its close links with the powerful Shabwa state made it a very rich town. At this time it was a small, strongly fortified town covering some 1ha. However, the process of disintegration began in the first half of the 3rd century, a process that was completed by the end of the century, when the site was reclaimed by the sea and by natural vegetation.
Al-Balid is the historically late name for a medieval town in the Mahra area, the name of which is transcribed variously as “Dhofar,” “Dhufar,” “Zafar,” etc. However, archaeological excavations have shown that there was an Iron Age settlement here. It most probably survived for a long period afterwards, despite the lack of a specific mention in Ptolemy’s Geographia.
There is no doubt of its importance in the Islamic period. However, it began to decline in the 12th century, and it was attached and partially destroyed on several occasions in the 13th century, both by Arab rulers and by Persian raiders. By the late 15th century radical changes to trading patterns imposed by Portuguese and other European trading nations sealed the fate of the town.
The Neolithic inhabitants of southern Arabia were, on the basis of archaeological evidence, engaged in long-distance trade with the Arabian coastal littoral and from there into Mesopotamia. Excavations have revealed that shells and obsidian were being traded, and there are documentary and epigraphic sources relating to trade in frankincense by the later 3rd millennium BCE, when it was certainly flourishing, not only with Mesopotamia but also with Egypt.
The sources of frankincense are clearly described by Ptolemy, and can be identified with the three areas in the Dhofar region in which the frankincense tree (Boswellia sacra) is still to be found. This trade continued throughout the Iron Age and into the Islamic Period. The other main export from southern Arabia at this time was that of horses