Sumhuram, Oman

The ancient frankincense port of Sumhuram is 40km east of Salalah. As part of the Frankincense Route, Sumhuram was once a thriving trading town, of whose past only ruins remain today.

Anyone who visits the ancient site of Sumhuram (also known as Samhuram or Samharam) in southern Oman is immersed in the bygone world of the Arabian Incense Route. Sumhuram is that port which appears in Greek writings as "Moscha" on the "sachalite coast". Sumhuram, along with other sites on the Frankincense Route, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the designation "Land of Frankincense".


History of Sumhuram

Sumhuram (also known as Samhuram or Samharam) was founded in the 5th or 4th century BC by Lliazz Yalt I, king of the great ancient Arabian empire of Hadramaut (present-day Yemen). With this storage place and export port, the ruler wanted to control the incense trade from Dhofar to India, which also ran via the ports of Mughsayl, Mirbat, al-Bhaleed and Raysut, without any gaps.

The king's plan worked, the frankincense route was then completely in his hands and the ruble was rolling. Soon Sumhuram developed into an important spice port until it was conquered by the Himyars about three to four hundred years after Christ and finally abandoned.

Discovery of Sumhuram

The king of what is now Yemen had Sumhuram founded a few centuries before Christ in order to control the incense route without any gaps. - © Byelikova Oksana / Shutterstock
© Byelikova Oksana / Shutterstock

Before the rule of Sultan Qaboos, which began in 1970, Oman was completely isolated from the rest of the world and hardly any foreigners were in Oman. Therefore, research teams tended to focus on surrounding countries such as Yemen or Iran. The first archaeological finds in Oman were only made by chance in the 1950s by European oil workers or soldiers.

It was only after the accession of Sultan Qaboos, who wanted to make Oman a modern and progressive country, that the first institute for the study of Omani history was founded. Besides Sumhuram, other archaeological sites have been discovered, such as the ancient incense port of al-Bhaleed, the beehive tombs of Baat and Al Ayn or the legendary city of Ubar near Shisr.

During the first excavations in the 1950s and 1960s, among other things, the inscription tablets with Old South Arabian letters emerged, which suggested the founding history of Sumhuram. The inscriptions can be seen today in the Salalah Museum. In 1997, the excavations were continued by an Italian research team.

Sumhuram Sightseeing

Sumhuram translates roughly as "the complex is imposing" and indeed the double-walled remains of the Arab city of Sumhuram still bear witness today to the former grandeur of the trading city.

The stones with which Sumhuram was built are only moderately hewn, which indicates that Sumhuram was built in a hurry. The once snow-white limestone blocks are now almost black in colour. The ruins of Sumhuram are less impressive than those of al-Bhaleed, but more meticulously restored and set in a picturesque environment.


Sights of Sumhuram

Sumhuram is surrounded by a city wall up to 3m thick, which was 10m high in the city's heyday. Immediately behind the entrance gate, the view falls on a large building. This temple was probably dedicated to the moon god Sin, who was worshipped in Yemen at that time. The remains of water installations and sacrificial altars can still be seen today. The remains of columns at the southern end of the hill once supported enormous storerooms where the supplies of incense and other precious spices were kept.

The paths through the Sumhuram Archaeological Park are marked with explanatory panels and a brochure with background information can be purchased at the entrance. The excavation site also offers a good view of the idyllic Khor Rori estuary, which is populated by a variety of birds and is one of the most beautiful lagoons in the Dhofar region.

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