In the Sultanate of Oman, the landscape is tinted with three colors: ochre, the green of lush palm groves and the white of village houses embracing the mountain walls. Ochre is the dominant color and extends from the mountains to the desert and canyons. For geologists, these ochre lands hold many treasures. How can we resist the lure of these rocks, washed up from the ocean floor 90 million years ago and now lying hundreds of miles inland ? In this open-air museum, the most beautiful ophiolites in the world can be found! The geologists are undoubtedly right, but we travelers will be content to explore the mineral environment of folds and faults in the mountainous region of northeastern Oman. The Jebel Shams (جَبَل شَمْس) « the mountain of the sun », is a must in the Hajar Mountainsand overlooks the Sultanate of Oman from its height of 9,872 feet – the rooftop of the Arabian Peninsula ! Nearby, the gorges of Wadi Ghul / Wadi Nakhr, « the Grand Canyon of Arabia », offer a breathtaking panorama. And when you tire of wandering across ocean bottoms at an altitude of more than 6,562 feet, all without a submarine, you will be able to seek shelter from the sun and to eat delicious dates in the lush palm grove of the village of Misfat Al Abryeen.
Wadi Ghul and Wadi Nakhu: the Grand Canyon of Arabia
The road leading to the Jebel Shams (or Jabal Shams), the highest mountain peak in the Sultanate of Oman and part of the Jebel Akhdar mountain range, oscillates between paved and unpaved. Jebel Shams is a popular mountain gateway about 150 miles from Muscat. The road meanders and climbs amidst impressive reliefs. In this undeniably mineral scenery, cliffs with shades of green and ochre parade before our eyes and accompany us throughout our journey. On this gigantic fragment of oceanic crust, whose colors oscillate from chalky grey to green and from orange sandstone to red, we sometimes come across grey rocks with white veins that seem to flow peacefully like a river.
The drive up to the plateau at 6,562 feet above sea level is absolutely stunning. In front of us the famous Grand Canyon of Arabiaunfolds: the narrow and steep Wadi Ghul joins the spectacular Wadi Nakhr, just below the summit of Jebel Shams. This popular « Grand Canyon of Oman » has nothing to envy its North American cousin. A promontory overlooks this deep fissure that Mother Nature carved between the canyon rims. The abyss is vertiginous. The steep walls are rise more than 3,280 feet. Take a look at the bottom of the canyon. You will see houses below: the weavers’ hamlet of Al Nakhar. At its deepest point, the canyon offers a unique opportunity to see the Jurassic rock peaks and the whole sequence of rocks from the Cretaceous period to the present: a real journey through geological time !
The name Ghūl (ghoul in French) is frequently used to frighten disobedient children, but also makes the older ones tremble because today this name evokes charismatic « villains » like Ra’s al Ghūl, the enemy of the super hero Batman, or the Nazgûl in the Lord of the Rings. I can already see you rolling your eyes at my cinematic references… You’re right: lookup in the sky, and you might see Algol (literally « the demon star ») in the constellation of Perseus. Its name is also derived from the Arabic « Al ghūl ». It is unclear why the village and the canyon have this name. It may have something to do with the jinns of Bahla, a city reputed to be populated by sorcerers and spell casters who practice black magic. Indeed, in ancient Arabic folklore, ghūl belongs to an evil class of djinns (spirits). He is said to be the offspring of Iblīs, the prince of darkness of Islam. The ghouls are also found in the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights. I promise, if we come across an attractive young woman in the canyon trying to distract travelers, we’ll take a deep breath of fresh air and be on our way !
The Balcony Walk: discover the Grand Canyon of Oman on the Cliffside
Let’s go back to our Grand Canyon of Oman. From the plateau, the main road led us to a secondary road, stony and unpaved, to reach the village of Al Khitaym (which is also written Khatayam), a handful of small houses perched on the edge of the canyon. As you get out of your car, you will probably be greeted by women and children, who will offer you colorful small bracelets and key chains woven from the fleece of the long-haired goats that roam the surrounding mountains.
The village of Al Khitaym, 93 miles west of Muscat, is the starting point of the spectacular « Balcony Walk », a trail that runs along the rim of the dramatic gorge. The best way to see the diversity of landscapes in the Sultanate of Oman is simply to walk and hike through the magnificent mountains. The trail is clearly indicated by the familiar red/white/yellow markers. The path moves from rims to balconyoffering breathtaking views of this immense emptiness.
« Life is not about how many breathes you take, but about the moments that take your breath away ».
We enjoy the deep and petrified tranquility of the canyon. No wind, no sound of flowing water, no noise of any kind, only the silent flight of an Egyptian vulture, also known as the white scavenger vulture (Neophron percnopterus). This bird of prey is exquisite in flight, all white with black at the back of its wings. Looking closely, however, its bald, wrinkled bright yellow face and its long and slender bill with the tip of the upper mandible hooked down show clearly that it is a vulture.
The bleating of a goat in the distance is a sudden reminder that you are not the only visitor. With their thick fur and horns, these seemingly stocky goats are nevertheless as agile as a tightrope walker. They are not afraid of heights, and they easily make impressive leaps between rocks, landing on their two front legs.
« How pretty was Mr. Seguin’s little goat ! How pretty she was with her gentle eyes, her non-commissioned officer’s beard, her black and shining hooves, her zebra horns, and her long white hairs that made her a splendid coat ! »
(Alphonse Daudet – Mr. Seguin’s goat)
Even young goats defy gravity by crawling up the mountain and climbing trees to find fruit. Goats usually live in herds led by females. The older male goats are solitary and act as sentinels around the herds. If the goat is not there to watch over the herd, the shepherd is never far away.
Misfat Al Abreyeen: an old hillside village
Perched at 3,280 feet above sea level and about four miles from the main town Al Hamra, the old village of Misfat Al Abreyeen is solidly anchored in the rocky mountainside. The stone and adobe houses, some of which are more than 400 years old, dominate hanging gardens and agricultural terraces. Misfat Al Abreyeen has incredible traditional mud houses (soil mixed with straw), often two floors with palm-frond roofs. However, the know-how to preserve this architectural heritage has gradually been lost in Oman, and the sultanate has called upon foreign craftsmen (mainly Moroccan) to renovate these characteristic houses. The old village is a maze of narrow cobbled alleys and steep stairwells where the visitor might encounter a donkey loaded with goods, a few children running around or a native slowly returning with his harvest from his tiny plot of land.
Terraced farm fields stand at the entrance to the village in an oasis of lush date palms, papaya trees, banana trees, and pomegranates in the barren landscape of Jebel Shams Mountain. The pomegranate (Punica granatum) has been cultivated since ancient times for its edible fruit. It is harvested over a period of 45 days beginning in September. The tree has a productive lifespan of 50 years. After 50 years, it gives less fruit and must, therefore, be replaced. Very ornamental with its silvery bark, its flowering is spectacular. The flowers are long, thick tubes of a beautiful, bright orange-red color. After this bright red bloom, the flowers give way to fruit the size of an apple between 2 and 5 inches in diameter. Pomegranates are filled with seeds surrounded by a fresh, transparent, sweet pulp. However, the juice obtained from the seeds is sour. Did you know that this pulp is the basis for grenadine syrup… unfortunately, today, a blend of different red fruits, colorings, and synthetic aromas has replaced pomegranate pulp.
« Aflaj » irrigation systems in the Sultanate of Oman
A pomegranate leaf floats over the water of the falaj, this ingenious early irrigation system dating back to 2,500 B.C. Swept along by the natural flow of water of an irrigation canal typical of the Sultanate of Oman, the leaf slips between plots of land, then tumbles down among the terraced crops and disappears, swept away by gravity. The orchards spread out on the bottom of the canyon a few hundred feet below. Everything seems to grow effortlessly in this Garden of Eden ! It is a real pleasure for children to wander among the plots. The canal meanders between the orchards, passes under a rock and crosses over a small gorge. Walking like on a tightrope we move along the rim of the canal, occasionally jumping over the water. Our passage seems to puzzle a striated bunting (Emberiza striolata), recognizable by its two-tone yellow and black beak. Water from underground springs or wadis is channeled through pipes and canals several miles long to supply the cultivated land. Many watchtowers have been built to guard the water systems. These watchtowers, still standing, bear witness to the great importance of the aflaj for farmers for domestic and agricultural use.
On our way back, we run into an old man with a generous smile, a white beard, and a turban wrapped around his head. Could it be the « wakīl », the village water officer? Each farmer owns a share of water, depending on the size of his plot of land. The beneficiaries of the aflāj share the water, which flows continuously through the canals, on a rotating basis. The wakīl opens and closes the canal gate, and water flows in for a half-hour or more depending on the landowner’s number of shares, and then moves on to the next. Traditionally, farmers have used sundials in the daytime and astronomical observation at night for these precious half-hour waterings. The half-hour time share of water is called « athar » and can be bought and sold. Each farmer owns a variable number of athar, which are inherited among family members. Each day is divided into 48 athars. The wakīl is responsible for the fair and efficient sharing of water, for maintaining the canals and for settling disputes over the sharing of water, if necessary.
« Water, thou hast no taste, no color, no odor; canst not be defined, art relished while ever mysterious. Not necessary to life, but rather life itself ».
(Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – Wind, Sand and Stars)
Immobile, we observe the old man with curiosity… He lifts stones and old clothes allowing for the irrigation of the plot. Then, we hear the sound of joyful water cascading and flowing from terrace to terrace. The charm of the Omani oases still works even if today the timing has been automated, and cement has replaced the adobe of aflāj.