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更新時間:2019/10/9 19:22:51 來源:紐約時報中文網 作者:佚名

Oman's ancient biblical scent

Wisps of frankincense smoke wafted through the bazaar as I plunged through the crowded, labyrinthine passageways of Muscat’s Mutrah Souq. This alluringly musky scent permeates Omani cities and culture, and I was never far from the distinct, earthen aroma floating through the air.

當我穿過馬斯喀特(Muscat)穆特拉市集(Mutrah Souq)擁擠、迷宮般的通道時,一縷縷乳香(frankincense)的煙霧飄過集市。這種誘人的麝香氣味彌漫在阿曼的城市和文化中。我從未遠離空氣中飄蕩的這種獨特泥土氣息。

I was lured by the hypnotic perfume curling up from frankincense smouldering in pots outside stores dripping with gold jewellery and silver censers. Tiny open-air shops teemed with spices, mounds of myrrh and piles of dates. Women in full-length black abaya cloaks perused colourful-as-Crayola silk scarves and shawls, while men in white ankle-length dishdasha robes and beautifully embroidered kuma caps inspected heaps of pebble-sized amber-, caramel- and cream-coloured frankincense nuggets.


This was Muscat at its most magical, conjuring images from the Bible. The Mutrah Souq was also, surely, one of few places in the world where I could buy gold, myrrh and frankincense – the three gifts presented to baby Jesus by the Three Magi in Christian tradition – under one roof. These were among the most precious gifts imaginable two millennia ago, when frankincense was worth its weight in gold.


Used for 6,000 years as a perfume and panacea, frankincense (from the Old French ‘franc encens’, meaning ‘pure incense’) is an aromatic resin harvested from trees of the rugged Boswellia genus, which grows exclusively in a narrow climate belt from the Horn of Africa to India and parts of southern China. Most of the world’s supply comes from Somalia, Eritrea and Yemen – countries plagued by conflict in recent years, which has negatively affected their frankincense production. But peaceful Oman produces the world’s finest – and most expensive – frankincense, a substance ancient Egyptians called the ‘Sweat of the Gods’.


The hardy Boswellia sacra tree thrives in the inhospitable terrain of Oman’s southern province of Dhofar. The value of frankincense resin is determined by its colour, clump size and oil concentration. The most valuable grade, known as hojari, comes from a narrow, dry microclimate belt of the Dhofar Mountains just beyond reach of the summer monsoon that blankets the tip of the Arabian Peninsula in mist.


Today, the frankincense trees studding this region, and a number of caravan routes and ports dating from the 4th Century BC, are part of Oman’s Unesco-inscribed Land of Frankincense World Heritage site. According to Unesco’s description, “the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries [was] one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world.”


From here, caravans with thousands of camels and slaves laden with frankincense set off on a daunting 2,000km-long overland journey across the Arabian Desert – destined for the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman Empires – while ships laden with the resin travelled as far as China. Roman polymath Pliny the Elder (23-79AD) wrote that the trade had made the southern Arabians “the richest people on Earth”.

從這里開始,擁有成千上萬駱駝和奴隸的大篷車商隊裝滿乳香,穿越阿拉伯沙漠,長途跋涉2000公里的陸路旅行,前往埃及、巴比倫、希臘和羅馬帝國。而滿載乳香樹脂的船只遠行直至中國。羅馬博學家老普林尼(Pliny the Elder,公元23-79年)寫道,這種貿易使南部阿拉伯人成為“地球上最富有的人”。

The aspirin, penicillin and Viagra of its day, frankincense was considered an effective remedy for everything from haemorrhoids to menstrual pains and melanoma. Greek military physician Pedanius Dioscorides described frankincense as a cure-all wonder drug, writing that the gummy resin could ‘fill up the hollowness of ulcers’ or ‘glue together bloody wounds’. The Ebers Papyrus, ancient Egypt’s most important document of medical knowledge, mentions frankincense as a treatment for asthma, bleeding, throat infections and vomiting, among other things. The Egyptians imported massive amounts for use also as a perfume, insect and vermin repellent, and to mask the rotting odour when embalming bodies. Frankincense ointment was even found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb when it was opened in 1922.

乳香在當時被視為是萬用藥,被認為能治療痔瘡、月經痛和黑色素瘤。希臘軍事醫生迪奧科里斯(Pedanius Dioscorides)將乳香描述為萬能神奇藥物,他寫道,這種樹脂膠可以“填補潰瘍的空洞”或者“粘合血腥的傷口”。埃伯斯伯比書(Ebers Papyrus)是古埃及最重要的醫學知識文獻,提到乳香可以治療哮喘,出血,咽喉感染和嘔吐等。埃及進口大量乳香作為香水,驅蟲劑,并用在尸體防腐時掩蓋腐爛的氣味。1922年圖坦卡蒙國王的陵墓被打開時,人們甚至在其中發現了乳香軟膏。

Burned for purification, frankincense suggested divinity. Its swirling smoke was believed to ascend directly to heaven. Many temples of the ancient world would have been steeped with its unambiguous olfactory stamp.


“We burn frankincense to repel snakes,” said local guide Amur bin Hamad al-Hosni as he led me around northern Oman’s Ad Dakhiliyah region to the 17th-Century Nizwa Fort, whose strategic location at the crossroads of several trade routes led the territory to once be known as ‘The Pearl of Islam’. “And to ward off djinn – evil spirits,” added Maitha Al-Zahraa Nasser Al Hosni, sales clerk in the fort’s gift shop. The shop teemed with a profusion of frankincense essential oils, perfumes and lotions. Bin Hamad al-Hosni’s gold-edged robe was steeped in frankincense fragrance.

“我們燃燒乳香以擊退蛇,”當地導游阿穆爾·本·哈馬德·阿爾-胡斯尼(Amur bin Hamad al-Hosni)帶我來到阿曼北部的內地省地區的17世紀的尼茲瓦堡(Nizwa Fort)。這里位于幾條貿易路線的交叉路口,具有戰略意義,曾經被稱為“伊斯蘭之珠”。“還有為了避開惡靈,”堡壘禮品店的售貨員馬薩·艾-扎赫拉·納賽爾·艾·霍斯尼(Maitha Al-Zahraa Nasser Al Hosni)補充道。這家商店里充滿了大量的乳香精油、香水和乳液。本·哈馬德·阿爾-胡斯尼的金邊長袍浸滿了乳香的芬芳。

During my time in Oman, I was amazed to learn how much frankincense remains an integral part of Omani culture.


In the city of Nizwa, I saw Omanis chewing the edible resin like gum to freshen their breath. “Pregnant women also nibble it,” a storekeeper told me, as expecting mothers believe that its properties will ensure the birth of an intelligent baby. It’s also used in medicines and teas to promote healthy digestion and skin. Omanis perfume their homes to repel mosquitoes, and passing around an incense burner after a meal is considered a mark of hospitality. The type of frankincense used is viewed as both a status symbol and mark of respect.


“Omanis swear that white frankincense ‘tears’ – [clumps of sap] – from Jabal Samhan or Hasik is best,” said Trygve Harris, owner of Enfleurage, one of Oman’s boutique frankincense distillers, and referring to the frankincense harvested along Oman’s south-eastern Dhofar coast. “It’s considered purer, with the most prized aroma. My favourite is oozy black frankincense from the cliffs of Al Fazayah, west of Salalah,” she added. She showed me a room full of old copper alembics in which she coaxes complex and delicate essential oil from the resin. She held out a wicker basket containing small cream-coloured resin tears, and dark brown nuggets resembling large wads of congealed glue. Different soils, microclimates and even times of harvest produce distinct resin colours, and generally, the whiter the resin, the more valuable it is.

“阿曼人發誓,來自薩姆汗山(Jabal Samhan)或哈西克(Hasik)的白色乳香是最好的,”阿曼精品乳香提煉商萃香公司(Enfleurage)的老板特里格夫·哈里斯(Trygve Harris)說。他指的是在阿曼東南部的佐法爾海岸收獲的乳香。“它被認為更純凈,具有最珍貴的香味。我最喜歡的是來自薩姆汗山西部Al Fazayah懸崖上的黑色乳香。”她補充道。她給我看了一間擺滿舊銅蒸餾器的房間,在那里她從樹脂中提煉出復合而精致的精油。她拿出一個柳條籃,里面裝著小的奶油色的樹脂淚滴,還有深棕色的小圓塊,看起來像是一大團凝固的膠水。不同的土壤,微氣候,甚至不同的收獲季節會產生不同的樹脂顏色,一般來說,樹脂越白,價值就越高。

In summer, Harris even makes frankincense gelato, which is quickly scooped up by locals at a stall she rents in the Muscat Souq.


Harris first came to Oman in 2006 to source frankincense for her aromatic essential oil store in New York. “But even in Oman, I could only get Somalia oil, not higher-quality Omani oil. Nobody was distilling it for sale back then. Not even Amouage!” she recalled, speaking of Oman’s top perfume company, which specialises in producing luxury frankincense fragrances (a 100ml bottle of Amouage perfume with frankincense base notes costs £283).

2006年,哈里斯第一次來到阿曼,為她在紐約的芳香精油店采購乳香。“但即使在阿曼,我也只能得到索馬里油,而不是更高質量的阿曼油。當時沒有人把它提煉出售。連愛慕(Amouage,阿曼頂級香水公司)都沒有!” 她回憶道。阿曼頂級香水公司專門生產奢華的乳香香水(100毫升裝的帶乳香基調的愛慕香水每瓶售價283英鎊)。

In 2011, she relocated to Salalah, Dhofar’s capital, and set up Enfleurage. Today based in Muscat, Harris sells to small international perfume houses, essential oil companies and “people who want boutique, high-quality frankincense and who don’t need 1,000kg”. She produces 2kg to 3kg a day of Boswellia sacra essence, worth £555 per kg.


Virtually all Omani frankincense is harvested from Boswellia sacra trees that grow wild in the searing Dhofar desert, and are owned by the local tribes. The harvest begins each April as rising temperatures cause the sap flow more easily. Workers cut small incisions into the bark, causing it to ooze a white, milky sap that dribbles down the tree like candle wax. The sap is left for 10 days to solidify into a gum. After the ‘tears’ are scraped off, farmers cut the same spot again. They repeat this process several times, with the final autumnal harvest producing the palest and most valuable resin. After about five years of tapping, the tree is not touched for the next five years.


However, in recent years Oman’s rare Boswellia sacra trees have been threatened by rocketing global demand. “Renewed interest for frankincense in essential oils and holistic medicine in the international market has added to the stress on the natural Boswellia habitat," said botanist Joshua Eslamieh, author of Cultivation of Boswellia: Sacred Trees of Frankincense.

然而,近年來阿曼稀有的阿拉伯乳香樹受到全球需求激增的威脅。植物學家,著有《博斯威利亞的栽培:乳香圣樹》(Cultivation of Boswellia: Sacred Trees of Frankincense)一書的約書亞·埃斯拉米耶(Joshua Eslamieh)說:“國際市場上對乳香精和全人醫療的興趣重燃,給博斯威利亞的自然棲息地增加了壓力。”

Boswellia sacra is now listed on the international Red List of Threatened Species as ‘Near Threatened’, and a recent study published in Nature claims the tree is dying off so quickly that frankincense production will diminish by 50% in the next 20 years. Another report warns that production has already fallen from an average of 10kg per tree to only 3.3kg, and found that the population of Boswellia sacra trees in Dhofar’s Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve has declined 85% in the past two decades.

阿拉伯乳香樹現在已經被列入國際瀕危物種紅色名錄中的“接近威脅”。 最近發表在《自然》(Nature)雜志上的一項研究聲稱,這種樹正在迅速消亡,未來20年乳香的產量將減少50%。另一份報告警告說,產量已經從每棵樹10千克降至3.3千克,并且發現在過去的20年里,佐法爾的薩姆汗山自然保護區(Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve)的乳香樹數量已經下降了85%。

Scientists have pinpointed drought, overgrazing, insect attacks and illicit harvesting by armed Somali smugglers as reasons for the resin’s decline – which has led the Sultan of Oman to employ armed guards to protect the valleys in recent years.


Yet according to the Environmental Society of Oman’s project manager, Dr Mohsin Al Amri, unsustainable harvesting is the plant’s biggest threat. “Less experienced, part-time workers are damaging the trees by forgoing traditional harvesting techniques,” he said. Smaller, immature trees are being tapped, mature trees are being overharvested to meet soaring demand and fewer Boswellia seedlings are surviving to become saplings and mature trees.

然而,根據阿曼環境協會(Environmental Society of Oman)項目經理穆赫辛·艾·阿姆里(Mohsin Al Amri)博士的說法,不可持續的采集是該工廠最大的威脅。他說:“缺乏經驗的兼職工人放棄傳統的采集技術破壞了樹木。”未成熟的小樹被開采,成熟的樹木被過度采伐以滿足日益增長的需求,越來越少的乳香樹樹苗能長成幼樹和成熟樹木。

I would never have known it, watching the tide of Omanis inspecting mountains of frankincense nuggets in Mutrah Souq, sorted and priced according to colour and source.


The bazaar’s warren of alleys eventually led me to spill onto Muscat’s harbourfront Mutrah Corniche promenade, curving along the shoreline of the Arabian Sea. It was dominated, exquisitely, by the Mutrah Central Mosque’s turquoise dome and minaret. Traditional dhows bobbed in a bay wrapped by mountains coloured burnt henna. The ululations of imams called the faithful to prayer, and the air was redolent with the unmistakable fragrance of Oman’s signature scent.

集市擁擠的小巷最終把我帶到了馬斯喀特的海濱長廊,沿著阿拉伯海的海岸線蜿蜒而行。有著綠松石圓頂和尖塔的穆特拉中央清真寺(Mutrah Central Mosque)坐落正中。傳統的單桅帆船在赭紅色群山環繞的海灣里短暫停留。伊瑪姆們的召喚著虔誠的祈禱者,空氣中彌漫著阿曼標志性的香氣。