During the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program on Oman, the Sunday Shopper feature in the Washington Post profiled a product familiar to everyone in Oman – the incense burner. Thousands of visitors to this Festival in Washington picked up an incense burner and a little bokhur (incense) as a keepsake of their visit to the festival and perhaps as their first introduction to Oman. Most of the tourists who come to Oman do the same – the incense burner or mijmar as it is commonly called is about the most popular souvenir to carry back from the country. What people take back with the mijmar is a slice of Arabian civilization – the mijmar has been around in Oman from the years of the first millennium B.C.

In Oman, the mijmar is taken for granted and every household owns a couple of them. The incense burner in this role is just a household item of daily use and shares the same status as the ladles and spoons in the kitchen. Walk into a mall or the Souk Muttrah and the mijmar is a tool for marketing. The slow curling smoke arising from the mijmar can lead one blindfolded to a shop selling fragrances and bokhur. In government offices, the fragrance arising from the mijmar vies with the smell of freshly brewed khawa (coffee).  The mijmar is a part of office equipment in both government and private establishments.

Mijmars may have evolved in design and become more decorative or progressive. HowThe Spice with a Taleever, their basic design has undergone little change from the days when it was first conceived and put into use thousands of years ago. Every excavation that has taken place around Dhofar has thrown up ancient samples of incense burners. The Khor Rori Report I (part of the  collection Arabia Antica) has a chapter written by Alessandra Lombardi devoted to Small Finds From the Gate Complex at Sumhuram in the Dhofar region. The report says that the Khor Rori was a port of Hadramawt which was constructed near one of the most important incense producing areas of the time. The author adds: “Among the stone finds, we have been able to identify some objects which may be interpreted as incense or aroma burners, definable because of morphology and marked traces of burning in the used area.”

What did these early incense burners look like? At Sumhurum archaeologists have found simple round limestone incense burners with three or four legs and the classical small cubic or rectangular basins. Some of the earliest incense burners even had incised decorations on the outside walls. Tub-shaped, stone incense burners with truncated pyramidal shaped bases supported a parallel piped tub with various religious motifs and symbols on the outside. Illustrations of these early burners show them to be of rough manufacture. Some of them have a functional stub as a handle and all have extreme structural compactness. Excavations in the Dhofar region have brought out limestone incense burners and a few made of basalt as well. Historians conclude that the limestone mijmars were fashioned from stone found in the Dhofar region while basalt mijmars were probably brought into the area on one or other of the myriad ships that plied the incense trade. Each of these finds also showed traces of burnt incense in the low hollow cavity of the burner. These early incense burners are from the pre-Islamic era and from the days when Sumhuram and Khor Rori flourished as centres of trade.

To this day, the design of the incense burner remains robust. One has never heard of a traditional Omani pottery incense burner toppling over or falling apart because of an unstable base or weak sides. A traditional burner sits firm on the surface, has sides that protect the coal and also has an open space between the base and the burning area.  A few design changes in the mijmar have been introduced to make them look more appealing and decorative. Shopkeepers are quite aware of the fact that visitors to Oman who buy the mijmars do so to add to their collection of travel memorabilia. There are models that are tall and slim and others that are fine glazed and many that are lined with a stainless steel sheet inside to collect the ashes. Most mijmars are decorated with bright colours all around the sides. The most progressive design complement to the incense burner is the addition of an electrical fitting that enables the user to plug it in and do away with the bother of live coals or the special start-up lighter bricks.

In parts of the Middle East, the incense burner is also known by the name mabkhara . Modern versions of the mabkhara are made of shiny plated sheet metal and decorated with mirrors and coloured metal. While the Omani mijmar is squat and sits firm on the base, the mabkhara is tall and slim in design. Both mijmar and  mabkhara come in different sizes – some small enough to fit into carry on baggage and others large enough to serve as a container for a festival gift of dates or chocolates.

There are other designs of incense burners too. Well to-do families in Oman have for ages used silver incense burners. The most common design among these come with a cup-shaped silver bowl fixed to a silver tray and topped with a perforated hinged silver lid that allows the fragrant smoke to permeate the area. A small length of silver chain on the side holds the bowl and the lid together. A scaled up model of this can be seen standing out like a hydrographic marker at the Riyam Park in Muttrah.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has some fine samples of incense burners that go beyond the traditional. One bronze piece from the first millennium B.C. from Southern Arabia features two intertwined snakes and an ibex. The head of the ibex serves as a handle for the metal burner. Another is a lion-shaped burner in which the head can be lifted out to place incense in the cavity. The metal body and neck of the animal are perforated to enable the fragrances to float.

Incense burners have been used from ancient times to provide pleasing scents and to cleanse the environment. A visitor to Oman in the 18th century mentions that visitors are greeted with perfume sprinklers, dates and coffee. However, he adds that after a meal the incense burner is taken around the room and it is a signal for those present to say their farewells and leave.

The time-tested design of the mijmar has been used extensively for civic aesthetics. Planters shaped like the traditional Omani incense burner may be found all over the country and in all sizes. The incense burner in the centre of the Wadi Kabir roundabout is a landmark that few can forget. At night, the coals in the burner glow at the base and give passers by a quick picture of ancient traditions that Oman is keen to preserve at all cost. The rose water sprinklers all around the incense burner complement each other as two of the symbols of Omani hospitality.