The misplaced villages of Oman’s Hajar Mountains

The misplaced villages of Oman’s Hajar Mountains

The village had been deserted for about 20 years. However I discovered it troublesome to think about anybody had ever lived there in any respect.

Sab Bani Khamis is ready improbably on a slender ledge of rock within the Hajar Mountains of Oman. Above it, a vertical wall rises to Jebel Shams — “the mountain of the solar” — so-named as a result of its summit is touched by the primary and final beams of the day’s daylight. Under the village looms a roughly 800-metre drop — tumbling sheer into the shadows and silence of an immense canyon. You may look right down to see vultures on the wing. You may chew on dates, spit the stones into oblivion — and by no means hope to see or hear them land.

It had taken an hour and a half for me to stroll the donkey observe to Sab Bani Khamis. It was additionally a journey into one other age. The homes have been small and ancient-looking, with slumped stones and collapsed olive-wood beams. Just a few pomegranate timber nonetheless grew on the previous terraces (a few of the fruit was rotten). Solely the mosque has been nicely stored, with a pristine copy of the Koran inside. A lot of the village is pitched at a 45-degree angle, the gradients seemingly keen you downwards into the abyss. I heard that at one level the younger youngsters who lived right here had heavy rocks tied to their ankles to make sure they didn’t wander removed from their homes.

“The village was a cheerful place,” remembers Suleiman bin Humaid. “No person may ever hassle us up there.”

Stone-built houses set in a crack in a cliff
The village of Sab Bani Khamis is ready on a slender mountain ledge © Alamy

An empty house in one of the Hajar Mountains’ many abandoned villages
An empty home in one of many Hajar Mountains’ many deserted villages © Oliver Smith

The terraced fields of Sab Bani Khamis — with a sheer drop below
The terraced fields of Sab Bani Khamis — with a sheer drop under © Oliver Smith

Suleiman is aged about 90. Born in Sab Bani Khamis, he remembers boyhood summers when villagers sang throughout the fig harvest — and three-day journeys from the mountain to purchase flour from the market. For the dozen or so households resident there, Sab Bani Khamis was a sanctuary: the cliffs of Jebel Shams labored as an umbrella towards torrential rain, the homes sheltered within the cavity behind sudden waterfalls. Tribal wars by no means reached these heights.

However there was a unique hazard. A couple of century in the past, a pair have been pulling corn from the decrease terrace of the gardens — a shelf of rock cantilevered like a diving board over the void under. One plant was mature and hard. The husband didn’t have the energy to tug it, so his spouse confirmed him how. She misplaced her stability when it got here free. I labored out it could have taken greater than 10 seconds for her to fall to the canyon ground, nonetheless clutching the crop.

Map showing key locations in Oman

Ultimately, the inhabitants of Sab Bani Khamis succumbed to the gravity of modernity. Some 400 years after it was based, the village was part-abandoned within the Nineteen Sixties. It was used as an occasional winter residence till 2000, when the spring that watered its crops ran dry and the gardens withered. By that time, the Omani authorities was providing land on the valley ground, and incentives to dwell nearer to facilities and faculties. Many former residents now have massive air-conditioned homes on the plains. Suleiman, in the meantime, lives within the mountain hamlet of Al Khatim — from right here he can nonetheless stroll the donkey observe to his previous village among the many eyries and the skinny air, and go to the pomegranate timber.

A guide walking on the lower slopes of the mountains
Ali bin Suleiman, strolling on the decrease slopes of Jebel Shams © Oliver Smith

A 90-year-old man who used to live in the villages sat in his new modern home
Suleiman bin Humaid, aged about 90, within the new household residence in Al Khatim: ‘I didn’t need to go and dwell on the planet down under’ © Oliver Smith

“I didn’t need to go and dwell on the planet down under,” says Suleiman. “It’s a totally different life. You may’t let your animals roam. There may be not the identical freedom down there.”

Sab Bani Khamis is one among many deserted villages within the Hajar Mountains of Oman. Over per week of strolling right here, I handed a number of settlements clinging by their fingertips to the cliffs — locations of splintered wooden and crumbling clay, hearths blackened by historical fires. They’ve a melancholy magnificence. However their abandonment additionally reveals one thing about Oman, a rustic that has skilled a metamorphosis as dramatic as any over the previous few many years.


I had introduced with me Jan Morris’s e book Sultan in Oman, the author’s 1957 account of travelling with Sultan Mentioned bin Taimur on his marketing campaign to claim sovereignty over the Hajar Mountains — then underneath the management of the rival Imamate of Oman. The Sultan’s forces have been backed by the British (who, in flip, have been backed by highly effective oil pursuits eager to drill the Omani inside). Morris’s e book is open-eyed to this cynical play late within the British imperial chess recreation. However it is usually a lyrical portrait of a spot then barely identified to the western world — “till now [the Omani interior] had been a populated Atlantis,” she wrote, “an island of rumour between the desert and the ocean . . . much less acquainted than Greenland or Tibet.”

Morris’s accounts describe communities of cave-dwellers, walled cities whose mighty gates closed with a ceremonial gunshot at nightfall, distant areas the place tribes prayed in direction of the solar. The prose feels onerous to sq. with in the present day’s affluent oil-rich nation of multi-lane highways and high-speed web. However often her descriptions resonate — in mountain villages, on sure lonely shepherds’ trails, in a wadi that my information suggests we keep away from as a result of the djinns (invisible spirits) there get nervous round human beings.

Of explicit curiosity to Morris have been the aflaj (singular: falaj) — the man-made water channels that course by way of the mountains of Oman, trickling into terraced gardens. She noticed that to travellers in these parched landscapes, “water had an nearly mystical high quality, as gold or uranium do to folks of different circumstances”.

The falaj in Sab Bani Khamis was dry and damaged — solely ants streamed alongside its stones on my go to. However the falaj within the close by village of Misfat Al Abriyeen is a vigorous, wholesome jet, feeding lush plantations of dates and mangoes, winter crops of tomatoes and garlic. Misfat itself continues to be a village thrumming with life, busy with guesthouses and little museums. After sunburned hours strolling by way of arid mountains, the place the one factor flowing is the sweat in your forehead, listening to the gurgling of its falaj heralds the entry right into a type of paradise.

“Water is the supply of life,” says Yaqoob Al Abri, proprietor of Misfah Previous Home B&B. “The mountain is sort of a big tank that provides us water even when it has not rained — thanks be to God!”

A channel for water to run down in one of the villages
A conventional falaj irrigation system within the mountain village of Misfat © Alamy

Aflaj could have been in existence in Oman for the reason that Bronze Age — although their creation is historically credited to King Solomon, who on a thirsty journey by way of Arabia summoned djinns to conjure water from the earth. The falaj at Misfat is a form that collects water from the innards of the Hajars by way of a deep, bat-haunted tunnel. Rainwater which may have been percolating by way of strata of rock for hundreds of years streams into daylight, then programs by way of an intricately engineered irrigation system, lapping at junctions dammed with previous rags and stones, cascading down a delta of clay and concrete into the gardens. Not like a river by which tributaries consolidate and collect energy, it’s extra like a beating coronary heart, pumping life by way of arteries that divide and subdivide.

In addition to irrigating crops, aflaj are used for laundry dishes, laundry and human our bodies. One night I wandered upstream alongside the falaj in Misfat — the mom channel speeding mercury-like underneath moonlight — to see somebody performing ablutions earlier than prayers within the mosque. Silhouetted towards the constellations are watchtowers constructed to protect the channel from saboteurs. Frogs ribbit within the puddles of the overflow.

“Whenever you first see the water speeding down the channel, it’s nearly as whether it is alive,” says Yaqoob. “Each falaj has its personal order. It’s designed to present all people an opportunity.”

The ruins of a house surrounded by palm trees
An previous home within the village of Misfat Al Abriyeen, surrounded by date palms with the valley within the background © Alamy

Entry to aflaj is thru a timeshare system — your share of water have to be inherited (or bought from an current proprietor; €4,000 will purchase you half an hour each eight days for eternity in Misfat). Historically, the rotation of the water went in tandem with the flip of the heavens. Excessive on the cliff above the village are eight cairns — when sure stars touched the rocks, dams have been opened to change the movement from one backyard to a different. Sundials ruled the clockwork changes of the falaj by day. Today the rotation of aflaj is usually accomplished by alarm clocks and WhatsApp teams. However spending time in Misfat you develop accustomed to the candy sound of the water altering course — which appears like music shifting from one key to a different.

Aflaj have been as soon as a relentless from cradle to grave — youngsters learnt to swim within the reservoirs with banana tree trunks as buoyancy aids; the our bodies of the just lately deceased have been cleansed within the cool water. Certainly, the nationwide character has been formed by the administration of aflaj — in line with Jeremy Jones and Nicholas Ridout’s A Historical past of Trendy Oman “aflaj . . . has given Omani tradition a robust materials foundation for co-operation . . . non-confrontation and consensual choice making”.

However even aflaj should not resistant to the creep of modernity. A latest UN report confirmed that they’re now being operated by an ageing demographic. In Misfat, I’m advised many younger locals aren’t considering farming any extra.

“As soon as youngsters used to race little boats down the falaj,” says my information Nawaf Al Wahaibi. “However, in fact, now they’ve video video games as a substitute.”


Two years after Jan Morris revealed Sultan in Oman, British and Sultanate forces laid siege to the final stronghold of the Imamate on Jebel Akhdar (the Inexperienced Mountain). This mountain massif actually resembles an immense fortress — its ramparts of rock crenellated with limestone crags, scored with gloomy caves like arrow slits — all of it enclosing a central basin like a fort courtyard. Jebel Akhdar witnessed the ultimate act of a conflict that helped create in the present day’s Sultanate of Oman — the Particular Air Service defeating the Sultan’s enemies, as RAF jets bombed the traditional aflaj.

Right this moment this historical past is little spoken of — Jebel Akhdar’s lofty heights are actually busy with five-star resorts and vacationers who come to flee the summer time warmth of the Gulf. However dotted concerning the canyons, out of sight of the honeymoon suites and infinity swimming pools, are extra phantom villages deserted within the social upheavals of the twentieth century. Right here and there are the scars of the conflict.

My final stroll takes me two hours down a steep canyon to achieve the village of Masirat Ash Shirayqiyyin — deserted within the Nineteen Nineties, when its residents left for brand spanking new houses beside tarmac roads with mains electrical energy. Amongst its huddle of mud-brick homes is the flotsam of previous lives: a rusted iron cot, a hurricane lamp, two bottles of Scotch whisky. Tiny home windows look over the mountain ridges as soon as patrolled by the SAS, now stomped by goats. I’m prepared to show again, when my information, Mentioned al Riyami, suggests we stroll a little bit additional, into the village gardens.

An abandoned mountain village
The village of Masirat Ash Shirayqiyyin . . .

A reservoir of clear blue water used to feed the village supply
. . . and the reservoir for falaj water © Oliver Smith

They’re, unexpectedly, essentially the most lovely gardens I go to in Oman — a falaj spilling on to emerald terraces shaded by towering palms, coursing by way of banana groves the place the air quivers with butterflies. We cease and swim in a reservoir of cool mountain water, extra good than any resort pool. We steal a few of the water to boil cardamom espresso and replicate on the strangeness of this dwelling backyard for a useless village — the place the ghosts of the latest previous really feel close to at hand.

“I’m 40,” says Mentioned. “So I’ve seen each the previous method and the brand new lifestyle. The previous life was lovely. However cash has modified folks.”

These gardens are, we agree, an earthly paradise. Maybe in our unconscious is an previous story about one other backyard earlier than mortals make the error of departing. However in a way it’s a delusion. The movement of Gulf cash sustains these distant gardens within the canyon at Masirat Ash Shirayqiyyin. Migrant staff from Bangladesh are paid to do the back-breaking harvesting that locals is not going to. Helicopters periodically come to drop fertiliser and accumulate sacks filled with dates. Three many years in the past, the homeowners of the gardens selected to dwell in a spot the place they’ll get water with the flip of a stainless-steel faucet.

With this thought, I prepare to depart. However earlier than I do, I tear a web page out of my reporter’s pocket book and make a couple of right-angled folds. I forged my paper boat out on to the falaj. It catches the water mid-current, and its tiny white sail swoops beneath the palms.

Oliver Smith’s e book ‘The Atlas of Deserted Locations’ is out now (Octopus, £20)

Particulars

Oliver Smith was a visitor of Wild Frontiers (wildfrontierstravel.com), which may organize tailored journeys all through Oman, together with walks within the Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar ranges. An eight-day bespoke tour, together with guided strolling within the areas described, prices from £4,085 per individual; Wild Frontiers’ 17-day “full Oman” non-public tour begins at £7,585 per individual. For extra on the nation, see the vacationer board web site, experienceoman.om

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