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Wadi Bani Awf Ruwi

15th March 2013

Culture at Nizwa Fort and Souq, Marvels at Jebel Shams and Wadi Ghul, and Ancient Villages

    Just before 8am, my guide for the day turned up, and I went out to greet him, "Assalam alaikum. Sabah ala-kheir. Keif ul-hal?"
    A Japanese girl interceded as we shook hands with, "I am coming too!" Crikey, I thought, the tour company had come up trumps and actually managed to find a fellow passenger for the same trip. This would halve my costs.
    The driver, Abdullah, just confirmed the details first: Nizwa Fort and souq, then Jebel Shams and the Grand Canyon. The girl immediately became agitated, "No, no. I tell the man I want mountains and wadi!" Abdullah and I looked at each other with slight incredulity. With my limited knowledge of the area, I knew that the Hajar Mountains contained thousands of mountains within its massif, and hundreds of wadis. Today's planned trip that I had pulled together covered several mountains, culminating in visiting the highest in Oman, and would traverse many wadis, the ultimate one being Oman's Grand Canyon. I diplomatically suggested this to her. The girl was losing her cool now. "This is last day, I leave tomorrow. I told man I want to see mountains and wadi," she screamed. Hmmm ... I thought, she should have been more specific in her original request. Perhaps she had meant to visit Wadi Bani Awf, the most logical one to specify in this neck of the woods. I asked her if it was Wad Bani Awf she wanted to visit. It took a while for this to sink in through her fiery anger.
    Abdullah called the boss of the company and explained the situation to him, and then I spoke with him too, explaining what I thought her requirements were. He was adamant, "She asked to see mountains and wadis, and she would see them on your trip." I learned early in my working life how crucial it was to always agree requirements up front. I left him to speak to the irate girl over the ether. To cut a 20 minute story short, we left the poor girl seething on the steps of the hotel. Was the boss going to organise a separate trip for her?
    As we headed along the long road to Nizwa high up in the Hajar Mountains, I learned that Abdullah was also a student, studying petrochemical engineering at the Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat. His four year course included a stint of work experience. Although school education for children aged 7-17 was free, further education had to be paid for, and his freelance work went towards that. The fees were dependent upon the course taken; engineering tended to be fairly expensive. Having said that, some quick arithmetic showed that a typical engineering student's fees and accommodation, food and living expenses were about the same as an English student's fees. I learned later that he and Issa were only receiving 1 Rial (1.70) per hour from the boss, and they could not complain to anyone since students in Oman were not supposed to work. As he related all this, we passed a school which he pointed out, "All schools are identical, and they share the same design."
    I was fascinated to learn that as well as free water and no road tax, people do not pay tax in Oman. Even more intriguing was the fact that when people reach the age of 28, they are each given a plot of land for a trivial amount of money, on which they could build a sizeable house, should they wish to do so. A number of adjacent plots would be set up, making it economically viable for services such as water and power to be laid on. Some folk would seize the opportunity and build a property, some would choose to leave the land dormant, and others chose to sell the land to others. Now I began to understand why I kept coming across brand new villages scattered across the seah, these had grown from the plots of land on offer. In essence, "His Highness," as Abdullah referred to him as, was keen to give everybody a kick-start in life. Later we passed a village of identical properties that Qaboos had donated to widows and orphans, another example of the sultan's devotion to his people and excellent P.R. machine.
Fanja - a Fertile Oasis      (please use scroll bar)

Entrance to Nizwa Fort
    As sped along an excellent highway, climbing ever higher up into the Hajar Mountains, Abdullah spotted Fanja, and pulled in. He just wanted to show me how a large town had sprung up along a broad swathe of date palms, bananas and lime trees, which straddled a seemingly bone-dry wadi. High up on a hill overlooking the modern Fanja sat the old village of Fanja.
    As we continued on our climb, I warmed to Abdullah, he was a friendly lad with a good sense of humour. We passed a small group of camels on the way. About a couple of hours later, we were on a high plain driving past some of the highest mountains in the country, the surrounding parched land being baked under a glaring, merciless sun. But the desert like surroundings eventually gave way to a huge palm oasis which stretched for 8km along the course of two wadis, in which the city of Nizwa was sprawled.
    The historic town is a gateway to the historic sites of Bahla and Jabrin, and for excursions up Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) and Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun).
    My first introduction to Nizwa was in Wilfred Thesiger's book, "Arabian Sands". This British explorer was on one of his epic travels across Oman in the mid-20th century, one of the few places left on earth where he could "find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world." Skirting around the southern foothills of the Hajar Mountains, he wanted to make a detour to Nizwa. His Bedouin companions were convinced that he wouldn't survive the ferocious conservatism of the town and refused to let him enter:-

Nizwa Fort's Round Tower
    "Yasir came back at sunset. He had several Arabs with him. He told us that on his way to Nizwa he had met a party of horsemen sent by the Imam to arrest me. He had persuaded them to return to Nizwa, and there, after much angry argument, he had induced the Imam to authorise my journey back to Muwaiqih. The Imam had sent one of his men with Yasir as his representative ........ I had no further cause to worry."
                                                                Arabian Sands
                                                                     Wilfred Thesiger

    The seat of factional imams until the 1950s, Nizwa, or the "Pearl of Islam" as it's sometimes called, is still a conservative town, but is now the second-biggest tourist destination in Oman. As we approached the centre of the city, we passed through a large car park which was bustling with activity. It served the dual purpose of acting as a market too, with trailers full of goats and other livestock for sale parked up next to cars, and many parked cars had their boots open displaying fruit and vegetables for sale; a novel concept.
Defending Canon
    The major pulling power of Nizwa is its 17th century fort, built by Sultan bin Saif Al Ya'rubi, the first imam of the Ya'aruba dynasty. This impressive fort dominated the city centre.
    In the interior of Oman, Nizwa served as the nucleus of a powerful defensive system based on line of sight principles. Nizwa Fort's height and strategic location enabled surveillance of the trade and travel routes that passed through Dama'il in the west, Wadi Tanuf to the east, and the desert territories to the south. The northern routes were naturally protected by the towering Hajar Mountains, which were also incorporated into the network.
    The fort structure, which took approximately 12 years to complete, consisted of an enormous, earth-filled stone tower overlaid with traditional cement (saruj). The tower had a diameter of 45m, and rose to a height of 34m on massive foundations that extended a further 30m below ground. Access to the tower was by way of a dark, narrow, zigzagging staircase which prevented the use of battering rams and limited the number of marauders climbing up simultaneously. At each turn of this killing ground, one of seven heavy wooden doors defended against the threat of an assault. The doors were more than 10cm thick, and over the lintel of each lay an opening, known as a "murder hole" for pouring boiling oil, date juice or heavy objects onto marauding enemies directly below.
Fort Horizontal Roof Platform and Curtain Walls. The Narrow Slits on the Floor are "Murder Holes"      (please use scroll bar)

Date Sacks made from Palm Leaves
    A horizontal platform at the top of the staircase provided a 360 degrees sightline above the rooftops of Nizwa to shimmering date palm plantations and vast and silent wastes beyond, defended by 23 encircling cannons. Curtain walls rose 10m above the platform, providing a circular walk for musketeers who were able to fire from behind the protective safety of the crenulations.
    Abdullah left me to explore the fort at my own pace. The lowest level of the fort contained a museum containing both artefacts and display boards relating the history of the fort and its environs. At the horizontal platform, where the narrow openings to the "murder holes" could be seen, three sets of staircases up the curtain walls provided access to superb viewing points across the old city, new city and the souq.
    Large quantities of dates were stored inside the fort as a defensive measure in case of a long siege. There were two date stores, the smaller of the two could accommodate 2.5 metric tons of dates at one any time. For long-term storage, dates were packed in palm-sacks using an iron or wooden truncheon to eliminate air spaces. A single date sack could weigh as much as 70kg.
    Date sacks were stacked in rows, one on top of another. Pressed under their own immense weight, the dates oozed thick, honey-like juice, which was channelled into jars on the floor. In peacetime this juice found everyday use in the fort kitchens, but when danger threatened it was heated in large copper boilers and made ready to pour onto attackers through the "murder holes".
    Dates for everyday use were stored in a large, earthenware jar. Such jars had narrow necks to minimise exposure of the contents to sunlight, dust and pests.
Nizwa Souq Pulses
Musket Stall
Silver Khanjars
Mandoos - Wedding Dowry Chest
Nizwa Souq Pots
    On my return to ground level, Abdullah took me on a guided tour around the old East Souq and the New Souq where men stood by their stalls selling woodwork and jewellery, rugs and ceramics, and chatted on their mobile phones. The walled souq of Nizwa is one of the most important markets in Oman, and encompasses an area of around 7,500 sq. m.. Partially restored in the 1990s, it was zoned into different sections for the sale of specific commodities, such as fruit and vegetables, fish, dates, crafts and DIY goods. Bordering the main selling areas were rows of temporary vendor stalls, artisan workshops and a large, palm-shaded ring for the parading of livestock.
    Nizwa Souq was much more than a trading place. It was a living social phenomenon, reaching far beyond the local community to promote interchange between distant villages, mountain settlements, and the Bedouin tribes of the desert territories. Within its protective walls artisanary and industry flourished, alliances were formed and the latest news was exchanged through the ebb and flow of daily commerce. Here, life moved in time with the past. These people still valued leisure, courtesy and conversation.
    We extracted ourselves out of the souq, the air outside at this altitude being a cool 28 degrees, but it seemed much warmer for some reason. As we headed out of town I noticed on a flat stretch of ground on the outskirts of the city, patterns of rocks deliberately laid out on an otherwise cleared surface. Abdullah explained that these marked tombs. A single rock defined a female tomb, and a pair of rocks marked out a male tomb.
Wadi Ghul at Ghul with Ancient Ghul behind, and More Ruins on Ridge Summit
Ancient Ghul
    A few kilometres out of the city we pulled of the road to take a look at the village of Ghul, located at the junction of Wadi Ghul and Wadi Nakhal in the southern flank of the Oman Mountains to the west of Nizwa. Wadi Nakhal follows the foot of the mountains and was in the past the main connection to Dhahirah via a pass known as "Akabat al Barak". Wadi Ghul cuts deep into the southern flank of the Oman Mountains near Jebel Shams, its highest point, and this spectacular gorge is known as Arabia's Grand Canyon.
    In the wadi before me, a verdant swathe of cultivated land lay. A patchwork of small fields played host to growing rice and corn, surrounded by date palms. On the eastern side of the mouth of the wadi, high and dry on an alluvial gravel terrace stood the modern settlement. On the other side of the wadi, the old abandoned village perched against the cliffs, just above the palm grooves and fields flanking Wadi Ghul. This thousand-year old settlement, being built out of local available limestone, was almost perfectly camouflaged. A large wall snaked from the ruins up the spur to another set of camouflaged ruins that nestled on the summit, effectively creating a defensive triangle between the wall and Wadi Ghul in front and Wadi Nakhal at the back. There hung an ancient and decaying scent of old civilisation.
    Abdullah told me how the old village was regarded by locals as being possessed by spirits, and they refused to enter it. Story had it that outsiders who once entered it came out insane. I didn't chance it, I'm mad enough. Having a long gaze at the crumbling ruins, with their colours dry and burnt like the colours in pottery, and the sun-baked sand surrounding me, a poem I knew sprang to mind, which seemed quite appropriate to the sight in front of me:-


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

                Percy Bysshe Shelley

    Leaving the spirits in peace, we now started climbing in earnest up to Jebel Shams. As we zigzagged up one range of craggy mountains, we were confronted by other sets behind them. At this altitude, great, yawning expanses of absolutely nothing stretched in all direction, just a vast rubble-and-sand wasteland, rolling away to monolithic mountain peaks in the distance. Canyons of unknown depth snaked away across gigantic beds of rock. A complete mountain of once flowing fiery basalt rested frozen in time, just as it was when it cooled millennia ago. Its glossy black surface contrasted dramatically with the warm ochres and browns that butted up against it. Twisted strata and huge fissures bore testament to the tortured formation of these mountains. Man had not let this stark beauty go to waste; small dams could be distinguished in some of the cathedral-like fissures.
    As we gained height rapidly, the sealed road gave way to a gravelled section. Apparently rains had once destroyed the sealed section. Climbing forever up to the far flung reaches of the universe, over a dusty, bumpy, track, Abdullah told me of an old man he once met up here. The hermit had been so isolated he was not even aware that Sultan Qaboos was in power. The old man had blood-red eyes (probably due to malnutrition) staring out above an enormous bushy beard, spoke a strange dialect, and could neither read nor write. He would collect rain in a large stone covered tank, that would sustain him, his goat and hens, and all waste fluids would be recycled to irrigate his meagre terraces of plants.
    Abdullah often camped up in these mountains with friends on hiking trips, and encountered all kinds of individuals who shunned the easy life on the coastal plains, and managed to survive the hostile conditions. There was a farmer he met up here, who wanted material for one of his robes. The farmer thought nothing of spending three weeks walking to Muscat to buy the material, and then walk for three weeks back.
    We slid around a corner, stones and dust being thrown out by spinning wheels, and passed a group of children, some of them tots, waving woven, woollen bookmarks, desperately hoping for a sale. We negotiated more hairpin bends and accelerated past a struggling, grumbling water-tanker lorry. The sheer scale of Oman's landscapes was awe-inspiring, not least because so little that is man-made interrupts the spectacle.
    On a high plain that seemed suited to tumbleweeds and Clint Eastwood, we passed some walled compounds. Seeing my puzzled expression, Abdullah informed me that a certain plant could only be grown in this unique cool environment, and it was cultivated for its use in the pharmaceutical industry. He was annoyed with himself because he couldn't remember the name.
    Then, we rounded a corner and wow, the view was stunning. This was the key reason why people came all the way up to Jebel Shams (Mountain of the Sun). There stretched below was the Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia, and the source of the wadi I had seen at the village of Ghul. The empty slopes of the Hajar Mountains soared up towards the vast cerulean sky, and here 1000m high cliffs cascaded down from the rims to a narrow canyon floor far below.
Wadi Ghul or Grand Canyon
Another View of Wadi Ghul with a Settlement Far Below
    The stunning view immediately evoked memories of Arizona's Grand Canyon. The Wadi Ghul was nowhere near as long, wide or deep as the Grand Canyon, but nevertheless it was barren, wild, and truly spectacular. Arizona's Canyon took 6 million years in its formation; that's how long it took the mighty Colorado River to carve it out of solid rock. Here, apart from when it rains, there is only a trickle on the canyon floor, so I was deeply intrigued to how it was formed, and over what time span. The colour here was a fairly uniform slate-grey all the way down. This mountain range heaved into existence some 60-100 million years ago when Earth movements forced the Eurasian plate over the Arabian plate. Rocks formed deep within the Earth's mantle (ophiolites), deep sea limestones and other sediments now lay hundreds of metres above sea level. There, opposite me, rising 3,075m high, soared Jebel Shams, the highest part of a range which extends unbroken for 640km from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. A military radar station was based on its summit, rendering it out of bounds. The air was different up here, as clear as a glass of water; a light sweet breeze brushed my face. Round us was a silence in which only the winds played, and a cleaness which was infinitely remote from the world of men.
Sap Bani Khamis at Head of Wadi Ghul
    The head of the canyon ended abruptly at a rock face. Here, the high plain dropped vertically 30m down an upper cliff to a slope of debris. A spring emanated from the bedding plane at the foot of upper cliff, and flowed over small ledges down the debris before cascading over the main limestone overhang for hundreds of metres to the canyon floor. The highlight of this spectacle was the village of Sap Bani Khamis, crouched in the debris zone under a small overhang left of the stream, with carefully crafted field terraces to the right of the stream. Sap Bani Khamis was the ultimate defensive site, established when there was almost perpetual fighting between neighbouring village tribes. It once held about 15 families, and the last moved out just 30 years ago, in favour of a more relaxing environment.
    On the rim where we were standing, girls stood in a shelter selling striped red and black goat-hair rugs. Apparently, the girls lived in buildings on the canyon floor, and would make the perilous journey up to the rim in order to work and sleep in the shelter for two days, before returning down to the floor while they were replaced by another group of girls. Abdullah looked over the rim's edge and pointed out the buildings where they lived and wove their wares.
    We proceeded along the canyon rim taking in various viewpoints, Abdullah constantly checking for scorpions and snakes. He had a deep phobia for these creatures. At one viewpoint, a narrow trail could be seen weaving its way down to the canyon floor. Abdullah had once hiked down and it had taken him six hours to descend and much longer to climb back up.
Tombs by Trail to Wadi Ghul Floor
    Having had our fill of this wondrous sight, we started the long and winding road back down towards the coast through great coffee-coloured wastes of nothingness and then, suddenly, a house or a village, or a gentle curve of palms, their green leaves shockingly vivid against the pallid backdrop, tracing the banks of a wadi, or dry river bed. On the way down Abdullah mentioned he had a special surprise for me. As we swung off the road and pulled in to a car park, I guessed it could be surprise time. Next to us stood a bird tower, a form of giant stone dove-cote, now deserted by the migratory birds. However, the piece de resistance lay below in front of me. There at the foot of the Hajar Mountains nestled Al-Hamara. A broad oasis of date palms ran down a wadi, and immediately behind it sat one of the oldest villages in Oman. A row of deserted well-preserved two- and three-storey mud-brick houses, built in Yemeni style, abutted the palms. Behind them stood more modern houses that now formed the modern village of Al-Hamara.
    When Abdullah first told me it was Al-Hamara, I twigged immediately why he wanted to show me his special place. On our way up to Nizwa he told me his family came from Al-Hamara, and they still had a family home here which they visited regularly. His grandfather still lived here, and his ancestors had once lived in the old mud-brick houses. I could tell he was quite moved in showing me this place so close to his heart.
    Two wells served the oasis. The 2000+ large swathe of date palms was equally shared out between the residents.
Al-Hamara with Misfat up in the Hills Behind      (please use scroll bar)

    We drove down through Al-Hamara, and wound our way up the hillside behind it to the mountain hugging village of Misfat. This 400-year old village appeared to be organically growing out of the rocks on which it was built. People still lived in parts of the village, behind random selections of doors. Windows were rectangular holes protected by metal grids, and the odour of centuries of dates being stored still hung in the air. A concession to modern times, a telephone pole, stood in the middle of an ally, with cables forming a web in the air before joining a web of power cables clinging to walls like ivy. As in many parts of the mountains, water was delivered by 5cm diameter black, flexible plastic pipes strung about in the air with the power and phone cables. I learned that the water pipes only appeared in the last few years.
Misfat Street      (please use scroll bar)

A Walk around Misfat
    We continued walking down a sun-dappled ally that time had passed by, and emerged from under an arch into dazzling daylight. In front of me was a very large concrete cistern, around the top of which a spring fed falaj in full flow circulated. The falaj skirted the base of the village before circulating the cistern, and then dropped bubbling away down the hillside. On the flat ground adjacent to the cistern, papaya, pomegranates and bananas grew, and dropping away down the hillside a forest of date palms stood, the dates appearing as small yellow bunches which would mature during the summer. It really was an idyllic sight. While gazing out, Abdullah told me more relatives of his lived here in this rocky village; he was very proud of his heritage.
Bunches of Young Dates
    Sadly the time had come for us to move on. We pulled into a small settlement on our way down to the flatlands for a very late lunch. "What sort of food would you like?" asked my guide. "Omani food, please," was my immediate response. He laughed, the Indians had got the market sewn up, and so it was yet another biryani.
    We entered an aging plastic, tacky restaurant. "You can wash your hands there," said Abdullah, pointing to a hand basin. An invisible veil brushed my hands betraying an ancient spider's web hovering over the basin. Hmmm.... a long time since this was last used.
    Like all Muslims, Abdullah ate with his right hand only, but unlike Issa, Abdullah was not averse to using cutlery.
Misfat Water Coolers
    The drive from here back to Ruwi was a long drag, and my poor driver was clearly tired after the long drive. Over a ten hour trip he had driven 500km. The hordes of sleeping policemen kept him on his toes. He found it hilarious that I should call these speed arrestors "sleeping policemen", but then he told me the Omani equivalent name was "sleeping Sudanese", and then he had a fit of giggles. Shortly before he dropped me off, he received a call from the boss - could he do the same trip again tomorrow?
    I got on well with the young man, and was touched by his desire to show me his connection with the mountains and villages, which he could rightly call his. Sharing his affection for these places really brought it alive. I showered him with "Shukran"s, shook his hand warmly, wished him well with his studies and career, and urged him to pursue his dream of travelling. And then he was gone.
    Oh, the Japanese girl, she had really wound the boss up, so he told her to forget it and look for another operator.

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Wadi Bani Awf Ruwi
Last updated 19.4.2013