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Uncovering the Mystery of Luban: In Conversation with Oman’s First Frankincense Sommelier

One of the most widely-known mentions of frankincense is in the story of the three wise men bringing it as a gift to honour the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. Over 2,000 years later, this ancient resin still finds takers.

With several modern studies establishing its worth for alleviating various ailments, the use of frankincense is becoming popular all over the world. Due to its unique earthy scent, today this highly sought-after resin is finding use in aromatherapy, spa treatments, and even food. 

Luban Frankincense

In Oman, which produces one of the world’s best-quality frankincense, the traditional use of frankincense, or luban – as it is called in Arabic, is over 5,000 years old. 

More valuable than gold – Egyptians called it the ‘sweat of the Gods’

In the ancient world, luban was more valuable than gold and Egyptians called it the ‘sweat of the Gods’. From ancient trade routes to religious practices, it has been a precious and revered commodity. Its fragrance, which it releases when burned or heated, is captivating, with a complex blend of woodiness, and citrusy with hints of spice and balsamic undertones. This aromatic charm has made it a sought-after ingredient in perfumery, providing depth and structure to iconic fragrances. 

Beyond its scent, luban is valued for its therapeutic properties, including anti-inflammatory and antiseptic effects. It has been used in traditional medicine to treat various ailments. Luban's symbolic and mystical nature, associated with spirituality and divine rituals, adds to its appeal.  

Luban Frankincense

Harvesting luban is a ritual in itself…

Harvesting luban, like using it, is a ritual in itself. This aromatic resin is obtained from the Boswellia tree. While there are 20 species of this tree in the world, only five of them produce luban, with Boswellia sacra and papyrifera being particularly revered. A skilled harvester makes incisions using a special knife called ‘Manqaf’ in the bark of a mature tree (8 – 10 years old) to create shallow cuts. These cuts expose the sapwood, which contains the resin-producing cells. The tree's natural defence mechanism triggers, and it begins to produce a sticky, milky-white resin that seeps out of the wounds. 

Over time, the resin forms droplets or beads on the surface of the bark. Harvesters return to the tree after a few weeks to carefully scrape off the hardened resin tears. The collected resin is then processed, cleaned, and sorted according to its use. This process is repeated several times during the resin collection season, with specific time intervals in-between to allow the tree to recover. 

In Omani culture, luban is used as a room fragrance to ward off negative energy and is commonly burnt at sunrise and sunset.

In its raw form, the luban appears as small, irregularly shaped lumps that range from pale yellow to amber or reddish-brown in colour. The resin can be finely ground or used in its solid form according to its intended use.

Khalid Al Amri, who is the official Culture and Heritage Ambassador at Shangri-la Muscat and the first accredited frankincense sommelier in Oman, calls luban his calling in life. He has been studying it with experts and institutions since 2021. He offers guests at the Shangri-la Muscat an insight into the nuances of Omani culture during the tours around the resort and uses luban in different forms to create a unique experience.

Luban Frankincense khalid al amri

Khalid Al Amri in the Frankincense garden in Shangri-La Muscat, Oman.

Luban as a unique experience at Shangri-La Muscat

Mr. Al Amri’s frankincense experience begins right when someone walks into the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah and Shangri-La Al Husn resorts, as its fragrance wafts through grand lobbies. Just as it is done in Omani homes, the guests are greeted and offered the finest Arabic coffee and dates. In addition to this, Shangri-La Al Husn has its very own private frankincense garden with 21 frankincense trees, where guests can touch, smell, and see frankincense in its natural form. As Mr. Al Amri takes them around the garden, he shares stories and his knowledge of frankincense. 

In Omani culture, luban is used as a room fragrance to ward off negative energy and is commonly burnt at sunrise and sunset. It is also a key part of the welcome experience in an Omani household. Mr. Al Amri shares that luban is one of the first smells that he remembers from his childhood. “My earliest memory of frankincense goes back to my childhood when my mother would burn frankincense daily. Whenever I would be unwell, she would boil Al Hojari frankincense, which is a high grade of frankincense, and give it to me.” 

Luban Frankincense khalid al amri

It is well known for its healing and therapeutic properties, as well as a perfume note and an aphrodisiac. The aromatic resin is used in ceremonial and celebratory occasions such as prayers and weddings. It is also believed to ensure good health for a mother and child during childbirth. The Shangri-La Al Husn uses these famed healing properties of luban at their Luban Spa where they offer Arabian-Oriental treatments and massages using frankincense oil.

In his experiments with luban, Mr. Al Amri also advises restaurants and bars in the Shangri-La Muscat on how to use frankincense in dishes and cocktails. He heartily recommends trying the ‘Phoenix from the Flames’ cocktail, which is made with limoncello, pastis, bourbon, luban, and orange.

Luban: Tied with Oman’s history and heritage

Talking about Oman’s shared history with luban, Mr. Al Amri says, “It [luban] is an integral part of Oman’s heritage. The mountainous Dhofar region in southern Oman was renowned for thriving trade and exporting Arabian horses and frankincense. In ancient times, the frankincense trail was the most important commercial route throughout southern Arabia and luban was transported on camels along the spice trails from east to west and whereon it was sent to empires across the globe.” 

Luban Frankincense

The Luban Spa at Shangri-La Al Husn, Oman.

He adds, “Oman is home to the finest frankincense and the most respected exporters of top-quality frankincense with the finest variety come from Wadi Hojar. Shielded by mountains, the Wadi, (dry valley or ravine) has soil rich in minerals and optimum conditions for the trees to grow.” 

Uncovering the mysteries of luban

Uncovering the mysteries of luban, we realize that there is much more behind this extraordinary resin. So the next time you receive frankincense as a gift, or catch its residual odour after a ceremony, let it serve as a poignant reminder of the profound history, tradition, and wisdom it carries. Beyond its enchanting fragrance, frankincense symbolizes the interconnectedness of cultures and the healing power of nature. It beckons us to cherish the wonders of our natural world, for within these precious gifts lies a tapestry of stories waiting to be explored.