Three Things Thursday; ancient things of Oman

Q: What do you do if you’re a fast-developing oil economy with outrageously beautiful natural resources caught in a slowdown ?

A: Turn to tourism and hope you can successfully diversify in time to stop it all going down the pan.

Winter Is Coming. And in Oman this is time for great celebration. We can finally venture out of the house during daylight hours without the fear of being burned up like vampires. The Eid holiday at the start of September gave me an opportunity to take advantage of this and head through the Hajjar mountains and into the Interior for a couple of days. In my inimitable “explore-by-random-accident-rather-than-any-conspicuous-planning”style, what I encountered was glorious and wholly unexpected. Wonderful for me, problematic for the country unless it seeks to dramatically expand its capacity and infrastructure for tourism.

With few road signs and little in the way of a comprehensive guide to reaching and enjoying the best of Oman, I cobbled together a great couple of days’ of exploring. In the spirit of sharing, here are three…

… wonderful ancient sights in Oman.

The travelogue

The first misstep which sent us tumbling into this rabbit-hole of wonderment was my complete failure to notice that there are two towns with names which differ by only one letter. One is Ibri: by all accounts a plain and uninteresting industrial (ish) city of around 100,000 people, close to the border with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. If you wanted to take Route 21 from Muscat to Dubai via Nizwa (or vice-versa), you might head right through it. You probably wouldn’t be tempted to stop. Looking it up online, you’re unlikely to find a huge amount of information to attract you. I told a couple of students I was planning to go there and the most common response was an incredulous look followed by, “Ibri? Why?”

The other town is Ibra: a much smaller city of around 55,000 in pretty much the opposite direction on Route 23 from Muscat to Sur. This town is also so small there’s almost no information about it. It’s close to the popular and beautiful wadi Bani Khalid and is known for its antiquity, its castle and historic town, and – the big draw that prompted my road-trip – a Wednesday morning women-only souq.

This mistake may look pretty obvious, but given that even pretty major neighbourhoods of the capital city are romanised in at least four different ways, sometimes on street signs between one set of lights and the next (Bausher, Bosher, Bowsher, or Azaiba, Udaiba) I thought it was just a matter of a mispronounced vowel, rather than a misplaced 200km. At any rate, it was too far into the journey to viably turn around by the time the mistake was realised, and I’d already booked a hotel. Fortunately, we had a road map of sorts, a couple of guide books of varying helpfulness, and a burgeoning spirit of adventure to see us on the journey.

Thing 1 ~ Al Hazm fort

Carved main gate of Al Hazm fortress

the gates of Al Hazm

This was the biggest surprise of the trip and the first stop on the way. Try this: 1. put on your best Jafar-from-Aladdin voice. 2. go and bellow the words, “….al-haZAMMMMM” in peoples’ ears in a sinister way. Now put literally any other nouns in front of that in an equally sinister way and you’ll find that you feel compelled to visit.

“The fortress of al-haZAMMMM.”

“The pop-up vegan organic supermarket of al-haZAMMMM.”

How can you not?

So where and what is Al-Hazm? It is a tiny village on Route 11 from the coast to Rustaq. Look it up on an online map and it’s so small it’s not even named. We followed a scrap of information in the Rough Guide which instructed us to turn right at the town roundabout and drive 1km.

We turned at the appropriate roundabout with misgivings as it looked like we were driving into further kilometres of Nothing, but in fact the fort was surprisingly easy to spot at the 1km mark. It’s solid, crenellated, and looms over the limited number of other buildings in its vicinity. This is fortunate. As with most of Oman’s best attractions, there was no signage, so a DIY attitude to getting about is your best friend.

It was the tail end of the Eid holiday, and we were informally welcomed through the gates by the friendly man on ticket duty. The ticket booth was closed up and instead he had set out a traditional greeting tray of Omani halwa and coffee and invited us to partake. We partook, while he produced a brand-spanking new audio guide and showed us how to use it before we set off on an hour’s exploration of this very hidden gem.

I was captivated from the outset. From the beautifully restored carved main gate and obligatory murder-hole, to the internal anti-battering-ram entryway (another main gate placed around a difficult-to-assault corner), to the falaj system funneling precious water into and around the castle. The roof lead to a view of miles of green date palms stretching towards the jagged mountains, and held evidence of the clever systems of water storage and air circulation which made these huge buildings livable. The many levels held living quarters for everyone from guards to Imams, and included social areas for storytelling, a school, and even a prison with some sorry-looking shackled mannequins groaning under gloomy blue light in a tower basement.

Water bottles suspended in front of window to circulate cool air

Original air conditioning

Upstairs, cool corridors benefited from the rooftop ventilation holes and from the earthenware water jugs suspended in front of the windows. The air coming in would have blown over these moistened containers and wafted the cooled air along the corridor. More clever design.

There was of course a date-storage room, one of my favourite discoveries in every fort I visit. In each of these rooms, there is a gloom and a consistent warm, humid temperature which is further testament to the ingenuity of construction in this harsh environment. The wicker storage sacks would have been bundled high around the circular walls of a tower in days of yore, ready to provide the whole household’s calories for months in case of siege. Today, three stuffed sacks lie in a lonely pile to give you the general idea. Grooves in the floor for running off precious date syrup showed signs of use – or was it clever decoration? My favourite history factette is that while Europeans were tipping boiling oil down the murder-holes of their castles, the Omanis were busy tipping down boiling date-juice. At least you would die tasty.

The free and excellent audio guide, well-maintained interactive features, and beautifully put together restoration (the restored fortress only opened in the last couple of years) made this easily the best fort I’ve visited so far in the Sultanate.

Al-Hazm castle is about 1 hour’s drive from Muscat following Route 1 north towards Barka, and turning inland on Route 11. At the Al-Hazm roundabout (keep your eyes peeled) turn right and drive 1km further. You will spot the fort looming behind a small strip of shops, restaurants and houses. Tickets are 500 baisa each ($1.25) at the gate.

Thing 2 ~ As Sulaif mud-brick fortress

This second discovery really saved the day on our Ibri / Ibra mishap. Although our women-only souq adventure was not to be, we did read about a lively livestock market featuring prize camels for the nearby camel racing track. However, we then read about a 300 year-old mud brick village and fortress hidden down the back streets of the town. On balance, the mud-brick village won out.

We had stayed at a hotel next to the police headquarters on Route 21, and As Sulaif was only a couple of kilometres away, just south of the same road heading east out of town. Pinning the directions onto the map in my phone, we set off. An asphalt road sent us south into more nothingness, and a difficult to spot track lead us east again, around a number of new home compounds dotted here and there, and finally to a crumbling mud-brick wall by a date-palm grove. It was quite impressive, but only five minutes-worth of exploring.

Happy with some photos and a stroll, we set off again wondering why such a small site had popped up on our tourist radar. Fortunately, we took an alternate route to leave and as we did we discovered why As Sulaif is special. Continuing on the track we drove through the contemporary village, which still incorporates traditional mud-brick architecture and buildings. On the other side of the village we reached Wadi Al Ayn and were greeted by the stunning view of the ruins of the ancient fort stacked upon  the hillside. Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, whatever knights-and-castles reference floats your boat, this was it.

This is a site which UNESCO are currently involved with and which has benefited from recent restoration. The main gate and wall are new and impressive. There is of course a murder-hole above the entrance. Three of the traditional houses within the fortress have been restored, as have some of the guard rooms and one of the towers. The rest is in the crumbling state in which it was left, possibly not that long ago.

On the day we went we were the only people there. We were again greeted at the gate, this time by a bit of an oddball. He helpfully showed us around and between mime, body language, and tricky negotiation of the bits of language we shared, we got some basic information about the place itself and the ongoing restoration. We also got a lot of photos as he insisted on taking our cameras at every notable view point.

Interesting features were things like the door numbers of the houses in the compound carved into the entry arches. Some were in Arabic and some in Farsi. The clever systems for water management through communal washing areas, a well, and the construction of a channel and water-wheel were also fascinating. On this dry mud-cliff near the mountains, making sure water can get out easily in heavy rains is as important as making sure it can get in to provide for drinking, cooking, and washing.

After an hour or so the sun was starting to bake us through and it was time to head on for the rest of our day’s exploration. We bid goodbye to our guide, left him with a tip for the informal tour, and hit the road.

As Sulaif village is a living, working village and the people who saw us were friendly and welcoming, if surprised. The fort was also free – although I don’t know if this was just because it was a holiday. None of the above is signposted at all, so using GPS or an online map to get there is really helpful. Alternatively, find Wadi Al Ayn on the map south of Route 21 where it heads out of Ibri and bends south and then east, and follow the road south. You will see the fort to the right of the wadi, and the village is across the wadi to the left.

Thing 3 ~ the Al Ayn beehive tombs

Another unexpected treat, but one that has been on my ‘must see’ list for a while, the beehive tombs are a mysterious set of constructions in the foothills of the mountains that are believed to be 4000 – 5000 years old. They are located almost exactly half way between Ibri and our next destination, Bahla, north of Route 21.

Clouds over Al Ayn necropolis

Clouds over Al Ayn necropolis

the ridge of the mountain from the road

Jebel Misht – Comb mountain

As with all interesting sights there aren’t any road signs, so we made use of these really excellent directions left by a generous traveller on Tripadvisor, and of course, online maps. In fact, although it feels like sailing off into the unknown, it’s quite a simple trip. Turn north at the road signed to Amlah, keep driving through the small towns of Amlah and then Ablah. Keep your eye on the emerging ridge of Jebel Misht or ‘Comb mountain,’ and stop at the small mosque 26km along the road. The mosque is next to a signposted date factory, which is where we parked. You will see the tombs lined up on a ridge as you round the bend. It was quite an exciting moment to spot these dark, odd buildings sitting neatly in a row.

To get up to the tombs, walk past the small houses and farms next to the road and you’ll come to what I think is a wadi bed. If you’re approaching the tombs from the front, you’ll spot the very faded UNESCO sign that signals the path. We went a different way and ended up scrabbling over some rocks to approach the tombs from behind. The trails are not marked or easy to spot whichever way you go. Just do your best.

The tombs themselves are squat, bare, dry-stone constructions of perfectly cut stone. It’s up to the visitor to imbue them with the knowledge of their history and antiquity. UNESCO’s listing for them probably gives the greatest degree of detail. However, it’s still unclear as to how anyone knows they were tombs, or who or what was once entombed there. If you like to wander around a necropolis and let your imagination run riot, this is the perfect spot.

The links

The inspiration for the whole trip: an article on a visit to the Interior which included the Ibra women’s souq – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/middleeast/oman/8903833/Oman-Journey-to-a-mountainous-heart.html

A little information on Al-Hazm fort as part of the ‘Rustaq loop’ from Rough Guide: https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/middle-east/oman/al-batinah-al-dhahirah/inland-barka-rustaq-loop/al-hazm/

A little information on the fort from a local tourism company: http://www.oman-tours.com/omantours/sightseeing-overview-oman/forts-oman-fortress-palace/al-hazm-fort-oman/

Map of As Sulaif courtesy of Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/dWxy7o2tnvC2

Super accurate and helpful directions to the Al-Ayn tombs from a helpful Tripadvisor review: https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294006-d324112-r253518025-Archaeological_Sites_of_Bat_Al_Khutm_and_Al_Ayn-Oman.html

UNESCO’s page on the Bronze Age complex including Bat, Al-Khutm, and the tombs at Al-Ayn: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/434

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim McHugh
    Oct 06, 2016 @ 12:48:11

    Does that mean you’ve bought a car?

    Like

    Reply

    • Pieces of 8
      Oct 07, 2016 @ 09:52:42

      Good spot. But no, not yet. We went travelling with a friend. The car will have to wait until the new year now we’re stuck in to our Delta studies again. No more fun for me!

      Like

      Reply

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