Tracing Oman's world heritage sites

Walking Through History – Oman’s World Heritage Site, a 183-page coffee table book, with a sizeable number of photographs and compact passages by Oman resident Tony Walsh, succinctly traces the history of Oman's important natural and architectural heritage sites, its archaeological treasures and the elaborate aflaj irrigation system.

Historic fort and mosque at bahla

During the rule of the Abbasid Dynasty, which had Baghdad as its capital, the town of Bahla was the seat of Oman's governor. Another interesting revelation in the book is that Bahla was a

centre for Islamic learning. Abu Mohammed al Selimi al Bahlawi, an Omani intellectual, established the Madrasa Ibn Baraka in the village of A’Darh in Bahla. As a result, many scholars from the Ibadhi sect of Islam, not only from Oman but as far away as North Africa, came to Bahla.

Bahla fort comes in for special praise from Walsh. He quotes S B Miles, a British army officer who visited the fort in 1885 and described it as “a large, substantial and handsome edifice.”  Miles noted, “I think [it is] the loftiest structure I have seen in Oman and I was careful to photograph it.” The photographs taken by Miles were key reference during the fort’s restoration.

The fort shares its hill with the ancient great mosque of Bahla. An inscription on a column within the building is the earliest date found in this mosque of 528AH/1133AD. Coins belonging to the period of Imam Al Khalil bin Shadhan al Kharousi, one of Oman’s earliest Imams who died in 424AH/1033AD, have been unearthed from the mud flooring of the mosque.

 

Archaeological sites of Bat, Al Khutm and Al Ayn

Near the town of Ibri in northwestern Oman are the tombs and settlements of Bat and Al Ayn, which, according to UNESCO’s

International Council on Monuments and Sites, are ‘the most complete and best-known sites of the third millennium BC’.

Walsh says that buildings associated with Bat were constructed during a period when commerce was developing. The trade route stretched from the mountains of northeast Oman, across the Sea of Oman to the Indus Valley, and north into Mesopotamia.

He says that Oman, while adjacent to three of the world’s most important ancient civilisations, was ‘terra incognita’ to the archaeological world until the early 1950s. He adds that despite its antiquity and links to other civilisations, no mention of Bat or any other individual Omani site of its period is made in ancient texts.

Over 20km to the east of Bat on the edge of Wadi al Ayn is the village of Al Ayn. Walsh says the wadi was formed by flooding from the western slopes of Jebel Shams, down past Amlah towards Ibri.

 

Land of frankincense

Frankincense, an aromatic resin obtained from trees, which grow in the great arc of the Dhofar Mountains around Salalah, was traded throughout the ancient world from Rome to China.

The sites associated with frankincense cultivation were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List on December 2, 2000.

Walsh says that ancient Egyptians believed drops of frankincense resin were tears from Horus, the god of the sky.

Wadi Dawkah

Wadi Dawkah was selected as the site to harvest frankincense resin in ancient times as it is an intact natural landscape and close to the main Salalah-Muscat highway.

Frankincense trees dominate the vegetation at the Wadi Dawkah site and are scattered over an area of approximately 5sq km.

 

About 1,200 trees are within the wadi, writes Walsh. Trees are supplied with water by drip-feed irrigation.

Khor Rori/Sumhuram – The hidden harbour

Khor Rori is considered the largest natural inlet on the entire Dhofar coastline and has at its heart in the ancient town of Sumhuram.

 

Quoting Dr Alessandra Avanzini, who has been excavating the town of Sumhuram since 1996, Walsh says that it’s the most important pre-Islamic settlement in the Dhofar region.

 

The lost city of Wubar

Shisr in Dhofar is often called the lost city of Wubar (also referred to as Iram and Ubar). The New York Times on February 5, 1992 wrote, ‘In the Q’uran, Iram and possibly Wubar is described as a ‘many columned city whose like has not been built in the entire land.’ Bordered by Wadi Ghadun and the desert of Rub al Khail, Shisr was a key water source in a region known for its aridity. The area provided access across the Rub al Khali to eastern Arabian markets as well as frankincense routes to the west.

 

The port of Al Baleed

The medieval town of Dhofar, now called Al Baleed, was a wealthy port.

The monsoon season in Salalah, which draws winds from the south-west Arabian Sea from May to September, enabled travellers like the Moroccan Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, to travel from Kilwa in East Africa to Al Baleed. The journey of over 3,300km could be accomplished in ten to 14 days.

Renewed interest in Al Baleed has resulted in extensive archaeological examination. The town was included in the inscription of the Land of Frankincense World Heritage Site on December 2, 2000

 

Aflaj Irrigation Systems

Northern Oman’s aflaj (singular, falaj) have played a key role in the development of society and agricultural economy. UNESCO listed five of Oman’s aflaj systems in its list of World Heritage Sites on July 11, 2006.

 

According to Walsh, there are nearly 4,100 (aflaj systems) in Oman, of which around 3,017 are still functioning.

 

Falaj al Jeela

In the eastern Hajar mountains is the village of Al Jeela which is over 1,200m above sea level. Water flows down from the mountains, percolates into the rocks and flows down towards Wadi Shab.

 

Falaj al Khatmeen

Falaj al Khatmeen, the falaj of Birkat al Mawz was constructed by Imam Sultan bin Saif bin Malik al Ya’rubi, a ruler of Oman who died in 1680. The entire water supply was intended for the ruler’s property. However, during the construction the main tunnel collapsed and seven workers died. Their families demanded that if work was to continue, a share of the water supply should be given to the local population. Today the waters of Falaj al Khatmeen are divided, with 60 per cent for use by the state and charitable endowments, and the remainder by private individuals.

 

Falaj al Malki

The peaks of Jebel Akhdar which soar above the town of Izki are the source of water for Wadi Halfyan, one of Oman’s great wadis. Flowing past Izki, the ancient river that created the wadi carried on through the central stony plain of Oman and entered the Arabian Sea at Mahawt.

 

Falaj Daris

Falaj Daris is Oman’s most renowned aflaj, located on the edge of Wadi al Abydh, in the wilayat of Nizwa. The main tributary for Wadi al Abydh is the great Wadi Tanuf, which cuts deep into the heart of Jebel Akhdar.

 

Falaj al Muyassar

Falaj al Muyassar in the wilayat of Rustaq is the only UNESCO site on the northern slopes of Oman’s mountains. The source water for this wadi is the impressive gorge of Wadi Bani Auf, some 10km away.

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