Salalah, Oman, is a bit of a conundrum. On one hand, Oman’s second largest city (pronounced Sa-lá-lah) and capital of the Dhofar province has swiftly moved into the twenty-first century, playing a fast game of catch-up with its Arab neighbors. Yet despite the growth, the area exudes an old-world feel, with camels roaming the beaches, traffic-free roads and groves of frankincense trees lining the nearby Dhofar Mountains.
It’s climate, too, has a two-sided story. Although typically a dry, hot desert, Salalah’s summer monsoon season transforms the landscape into a lush, subtropical vacation destination, earning it the nickname “The Garden City.” Residents from other parts of Oman travel to Salalah from July through September to escape the heat and enjoy cooler temperatures.
As we traveled from the port on our way to the Khor Rorī archaeological site, our guide Mohammed talked about Salalah’s growth. He credited Sultan Qaboos – who came to power in 1970 and passed away just weeks after our visit – with “shifting Oman from darkness to light,” creating everything from roads to schools to hospitals. He pointed out gas refineries, limestone quarries and factories that produce plastic, cement and medicine. He explained how frankincense is extracted from trees through a tapping process similar to the way maple syrup is made. And he offered my favorite takeaway from the tour:
“Camels must be home before sunset.”
Khor Rorī Archaeological Site
Khor Rorī is the site of the city ruins of Sumhuram, the ancient capital of Arabia’s frankincense trade. Discovered by English archaeologist and explorer James Theodore Bent in the late nineteenth century, the site was founded in the first century B.C. and grew into a city in the first century A.D. with about 300 to 500 residents.
Mohammed explained that Khor Rorī housed three areas – storage for frankincense, residences and a temple for praying to the moon god Sīn. With its prime location on an inlet to the Arabian Sea, he said it is believed many of the people were fishermen as well as frankincense traders. It is also believed, he told us, that the Queen of Sheba once visited here.
Tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali
Farther down the road outside the town of Mirbat lies the tomb of Mohammed Bin Ali, who was believed to be a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. The tomb’s two white onion-shaped domes appear like an oasis on the horizon against the area’s rocky brown terrain.
It was the cemetery around the tomb that intrigued me the most. Hundreds of old headstones, many toppled over or precariously askew, dotted the landscape. It was a forlorn-looking scene, brown and neglected from the ravages of time. Instead of visiting the tomb in our brief stay, I wandered among the headstones, trying to imagine the stories of the people buried here. Mohammed explained that two stones on top represented a man’s grave and three signified a woman’s grave.
The drive back to Salalah took us along the coast to the fishing village of Taqah and its landmark castle. Built in the 19th century as a private residence for a tribal leader, it later became the property of the government and opened as a museum in 1994.
Walking through the castle feels like visiting a living history museum, with exhibits that showcase life in Oman. The ground floor features a reception hall, guards’ room and storage rooms. The upper floor showcases the family’s quarters and the watchtower.
Salalah: Land of Coconuts!
Before returning to the ship, our driver turned down a road that felt as if we had entered another world. Gone were the brown mountains, the sea and the endless drifts of sand. A tropical scene emerged, with a canopy of palm trees and cascading greenery enveloping the road.
We passed thatched-roof fruit stands overflowing with bananas and coconuts. And then we stopped. “We will now treat you to a drink of fresh coconut water!” Mohammed exclaimed. Nearby, a worker was breaking open coconuts and inserting straws into small holes. Full disclosure: I do not like anything coconut and would have much preferred a banana, but Herb said it was delicious!