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In spite of the fact that the concept of “Happy Arabia” is usually associated with the ancient development of Yemen, the researchers’ focus should be not on the country, but on the factors which allow for speaking about the Southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula as “happy.” In his documentary Routes of Incense to Those of Black Gold (Des Routes de L’encens à Celles de L’or Noir) (2007), Alain Dayan concentrated on the history of Oman in the context of the country’s progress from being one of the leading traders of frankincense to growing as a state where gas and oil are produced. According to Dayan, currently, Oman is the place where “extravagant cities” grow and develop, but the roots of the country’s progress are deeper, and they are in the history of producing frankincense. This aspect needs to be researched and discussed in detail to understand how the director used media to represent his idea (Sikov 169). Oman is characterized by a long history of developing trade connections with other nations, and according to Dayan, the core of the concept of “Happy Arabia” in relation to this country is the production and sale of incense which has a sacred meaning for not only Muslims but also for the other people in the world since ancient times.
The idea of a journey and a symbol of a route is applied by Dayan in his film in order to represent Oman’s path from ancient trade relations with Africa and India to a modern delivery of oil through pipelines to people in different countries. However, these symbols are also used in the documentary in order to accentuate the direction in the author’s story from discussing different ways followed by the country during its development to accentuating the core of this film: the focus on the role of incense in Oman’s history and progress. Thus, Dayan starts his real and figural journeys from Muscat, the modern capital of Oman. The author goes from Muscat to Nizwa which is the former capital of the country (Dayan). This approach is important to emphasize the direction toward the history of the country to understand what concepts can contribute to its national idea. Nizwa is depicted in the film as a city popular for its large markets and the history of trade relationships during the era of caravans from the Arabian Peninsula to the Eastern and Western countries. While focusing on the principles of the caravan trade, the speakers depicted in the film emphasize the role of frankincense one more time while allowing the author to return to the main idea of this documentary again and again.
In order to draw the audience’s attention to unique environments and the history of Oman, Dayan focuses on representing different regions of the country, and the path from Nizwa is directed to the desert region which is known as Ramat al–Wahiba. According to the author, these lands can accentuate the phenomenon of Oman where people can go from mountains to deserts and then to the coast in several hours. The representation of this desert region and its landscapes is important for Dayan in order to emphasize the role of traditions in this country. It is important to note that the director draws the audience’s attention to the fact that those people who live in this desert area are inclined to follow the principles of living which were adopted many years ago (Dayan). It is possible to assume that the accentuation of the role of traditions can provide some explanation for the phenomenon of using frankincense in this country.
While continuing his journey from the desert region to Wadi Bani Khalid, the author seems to emphasize the impressive diversity of landscapes in this country. Thus, Wadi Bani Khalid, a unique wadi in this region, can be discussed as a miracle. It is important to note that the idea of a “miracle” is one more significant notion that is used in this documentary in association with the concept of “Happy Arabia” (Dayan). Wadi Bani Khalid is located near the coast, a strategic area in Oman. Therefore, while demonstrating the landscapes of the coast, the author of the documentary accentuates the idea that Omanis represent a sailing nation for whom the history of maritime trade always played an important role (Dayan). This discussion is one more opportunity for the author to put emphasis on the role of incense in forming productive trading relations with different countries. It is accentuated in the film that, in spite of the fact that today Omani sailors are focused only on fishing, they have a remarkable history of transporting frankincense by sea.
After providing a detailed background for the discussion of the role of frankincense in the country, Dayan focuses on examining the Dhofar province in the Sultanate of Oman. The reason for concentrating on this territory is that Dhofar is unique in terms of its landscapes, and it is the place where incense is produced. Dayan refers to the Rub‘ al Khali desert observed in this region as “the mythic land of frankincense,” and the audience can conclude that the author’s journey is close to its ending. Much attention is paid to showing sands and unique landscapes typical of this province. Furthermore, it is important to state that the author of the film demonstrates the difficulties of traveling in deserts of the country from the perspective of a person whose goal is to complete a long journey full of challenges in order to find an answer to his question about the sacred frankincense.
It is noted in the documentary that the capital of the Dhofar province, Salalah, is located on the coast. The climate of Dhofar is one more miracle of this region because of monsoons. This climate is discussed by specialists as appropriate for growing trees that are used in producing incense. These desert areas are depicted in the film as the place where the author can find the answer to his question about the secret of “Happy Arabia.” According to the information presented in the documentary, “for thousands of years, it was frankincense that made Dhofar one of the richest regions of ‘Happy Arabia’” (Dayan). Furthermore, developing the idea about miracles which are associated with the production of frankincense in the country, the author draws the audience’s attention to the fact that archeologists discovered a unique temple in this region, and the buildings near the temple were used for storing frankincense.
Demonstrating and discussing archeological discoveries, Dayan aims at accentuating his vision regarding frankincense one more time. Thus, he states that this resin was extremely important in order to support trade relations with the Roman world. Different essential goods were exchanged for incense because this substance remained to be sacred for many people. Therefore, it is possible to note that the examples provided by the author are effective to accentuate the importance of this product in the ancient world. This idea is also supported by Funsch who notes in her book that frankincense was “prized more highly than gold and treasured by priests and kings, pharaohs and emperors” (90). As a result, while demonstrating archeological sites and discussing the history of finding the warehouses which were used for incense, the director creates an image of a unique resin.
In the second part of the film, Dayan combines the concepts of “route” and “frankincense” in order to describe specific caravan frankincense routes which were used in order to spread the product in Africa and the Western countries. An extremely high role of this product in regulating trade relations during that period is accentuated by the example that “for centuries, the Egyptians and the Assyrians fought for control of frankincense trade” (Dayan). In spite of the fact that the role of frankincense became limited in the world outside “Happy Arabia” as a result of changes in trade relations and priorities for nations, “for the inhabitants of Dhofar, frankincense is still very much a part of their lives” (Dayan). Thus, the author pays attention to the idea that, although modern tendencies in the world influence traditions in Oman, the ritual of burning frankincense is very important to accompany different events, festivals, and special occasions in Omanis’ lives.
In his documentary, the importance of frankincense is accentuated with the help of showing this resin presented in local markets in many cups and jars. Frankincense is regularly bought by Omanis because they cannot imagine their life without this substance which contributed to creating the image of the country in the world. This idea illustrated in the film with the help of images of typical sellers and buyers of frankincense in Oman. Furthermore, this idea can also be found in the work by Funsch who states that “with its seductive fragrance wafting through the interiors of public buildings and private homes, welcoming both family and visitors, it provides a poignant reminder of Oman’s glorious past” (91). Thus, one of the main messages of the film is that the widespread use of frankincense by Omanis demonstrates their respect for the past and accentuates these people’s belief in the unique qualities of this sacred resin.
The travel made by the authors of the film would be incomplete without visiting Wadi Dawkah which is famous for parks with the frankincense trees. The culmination of the journey demonstrated in Dayan’s documentary is the presentation of how Omanis can extract frankincense which is regarded as a sacred substance for them. In this final part of the film, the focus is on activities of a frankincense harvester, a person who is responsible for extracting this incense, as well as on the Boswellia sacra. The author chose to name the frankincense tree, Boswellia sacra, only in the final part of his documentary (Dayan).
This particular tree was treasured during ancient times, and it is preserved by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) today. The author of the film accentuates the idea that these “several hundred years old” trees are usually sacred for Omanis, and frankincense harvesters are among those people who realize the unique role of incense in the history of the country (Dayan). These people take care of these trees and gather the product which “looks like a pearl” for them (Dayan). The frankincense harvester depicted in the film states, “the frankincense tree is very important to me, it is a rare special tree that allows earning a living,” and he also continues, “it is like a treasure, but this treasure is not mine alone, it belongs to everyone, it is a sacred tree” (Dayan). It is important to note that the idea of treasure in relation to incense is referred to in the film several times. In his documentary, Dayan tends to represent the Boswellia sacra from different angles in order to demonstrate these respected trees from all possible perspectives and put emphasis on their distinctiveness.
The journey ends with the trip to Ubar, the city in Oman which was well-known among traders even during ancient times. This background is important for the author to represent his main conclusion in this film: frankincense is not only a sacred resin, but it is also a source of Oman’s progress and the core concept is the idea of “Happy Arabia.” According to Funsch, who discussed this notion in her book, “the name seems particularly apt considering the relative prosperity of the merchant tribes of this region by the standards of the day” (91). Those people who lived on the Arabian Peninsula could be discussed as rich and prosperous centuries ago because of using frankincense as the gift that made this nation blessed. The uniqueness of this substance is emphasized by the author in all parts of the film in order to support the idea about its role in Oman’s development even today. Even if it is possible to doubt the use of frankincense in the market economy of the country, it is almost impossible to ignore the fact that people continue using this incense in their daily life.
As it is stated in the film, for ages, “the frankincense routes that crossed the desert sands were the envy of different nations of antiquity.” However, today, “the Arabian Peninsula draws its wealth from oil. Even though this black gold is the new treasure of ‘Happy Arabia’, it will never stir the same passion and enthusiasm as that miraculous resin transported by the ancient caravans” (Dayan). These words are provided as the conclusion for the film, and they are important to illustrate the Omani people’s perception of frankincense. This respect for the incense is based on the understanding that this unique resin helps the nation grow and develop according to its specific traditions and without forgetting ancient times which were the period of the country’s prosperity.
It is possible to claim that this documentary is an interesting example of the discussion of the role of traditions in the social and economic development of the country with reference to its past. Dayan provides many arguments which are helpful to conclude that frankincense played an important role in contributing to the country’s development. Moreover, these conclusions are in line with the ideas provided by other researchers in the field. According to Funsch, “with a near-monopoly on this precious commodity, Oman was catapulted onto the world stage in antiquity, establishing its preeminence in the global marketplace” (90). From this point, the film can also be viewed as the illustration of Oman’s history in the context of the “Happy Arabia” notion. The film should also be analyzed with reference to the modern progress of oil production in Oman with its pipelines which can resemble tracks that were used for the caravan trade in ancient times.
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In his documentary, Dayan proposes a step-by-step description of the journey in Oman. On the one hand, the purpose of this journey seems to be the representation of the country’s different regions with the focus on the accentuation of their diversity because of climates, landscapes, and environmental conditions. On the other hand, the purpose of the trip is to find a way to the sacred lands where mythic frankincense was found and produced. This journey is not a simple trip to the province of Dhofar with the aim of demonstrating the parks where the Boswellia sacra can be observed. The purpose of the author’s travel is to demonstrate how the sale of frankincense during ancient times influenced the development of the country, and how this resin is important today in spite of the progress of gas and oil production in Oman. The secret of “Happy Arabia” seems to be not in building oil pipelines, but in respecting incense which guaranteed an important role of Oman in trade relations with other countries during ages. From this point, the author of Routes of Incense to Those of Black Gold emphasizes the uniqueness of “Happy Arabia” with reference to the role of frankincense in its progress.
Dayan, Alain, director. Routes of Incense to Those of Black Gold (Des Routes de L’encens à Celles de L’or Noir). Découvertes, 2007.
Funsch, Linda Pappas. Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization. Springer, 2015.
Sikov, Ed. Film Studies: An Introduction. Columbia University Press, 2010.