Thursday, October 30, 2014
This forsaken ghost town was my favorite memory of the Middle East.
It was our final day of wandering these barren semi-deserts for myself and my newly acquainted Spanish companion Jose. Just 20 km south of the ancient capital city of Nizwa, we arrived at a little known locale called Manah.
I realize that most travelers don't have the Sultanate of Oman on their list, and far less would ever make it to this landlocked but culturally fascinating region of Central Oman. Even for those who do make it, most would only visit the landmark Fort of Nizwa, the Friday goat auction or the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Falaj Daris and Bahla. The ruins of Tanuf, the medieval town of Al Hamra and the mountain village of Misfah are lesser known but still featured prominently in guidebooks. But where is this Manah?
It wasn't until after returning home when I realized the significance of this unheralded ghost town, the subject of international research for its remarkably preserved architecture. We arrived with no expectations, and came away with some of our favorite photos and memories of the trip.
We parked underneath a windswept tree outside Manah's massive fortified walls. There's no ticket booth, no official entrance, and we soon realized ... NOBODY at all! Just a thoroughly deserted and unguarded medieval town, and then us.
This was as close to a National Geographic expedition as it got for my 4-day mini-trip -- an intact town of medieval mud brick houses, skyscraping watchtowers and solemn mosques, all abandoned as if the natives all disappeared overnight. This reminded me ominously of Pompeii, or perhaps ancient Thira.
But natural catastrophes didn't swallowed up the locals ... 20th Century urbanization did. As medieval as these crumbling mud brick dwellings may seem, this was a fully inhabited and functional town until the 1980's when all residents moved to the new town to the north. All the infrastructure from the defensive walls to the watchtowers to the water wells were still in working condition just a generation ago.
The atmosphere was surreal as this ... ahem ... team of Canadian-Spanish explorers combed the labyrinth of courtyards and houses. Some of the private houses appeared entirely livable with small caches of household items left behind by the original inhabitants, from empty earthen jars to mysterious wooden chests that remained locked. As Jose quipped, it was very Indiana Jones.
"Bat, man!" I replied, pointing to the new occupants of these not-so-vacant houses. I managed to flush a few of these bats out of an alcove and one of them hit Jose's head on its flight out the door. All in a morning's adventure.
Thick earthen ramparts and round turrets betray a history of tribal warfare, back in the days of the Ya'aruba Dynasty of Imams when Manah was a highly desired watering stop for desert caravans. Somehow the watchtower over the main gate was built in a rectangular Yemeni style, 1000 km away from Sana'a. These towers were among the best preserved structures in town; some of the private houses had started to fall apart after only a quarter century of abandonment.
Manah is a desert oasis after all, and its ancient houses of mud and straws were never meant to withstand the increasingly frequent rainstorms brought on by 21st Century climate change. The wood-and-thatch roofs were the first to collapse, followed by the fragile walls of the peasant homes. As we entered the town we were careful to avoid the caved-in houses and took extra caution in climbing onto what remained of the upper floors.
The real danger lurking within the deserted town was its system of ancient water wells, still functional and fully exposed to those who wish to gauge their depth with a stone throw. An accidental trip would be deadly ... nobody would likely pass by for weeks even if the victim survives the 15m fall down the shaft.
Among the best preserved architecture in town were several 500-year-old mosques, some of the oldest surviving in Central Oman. While some of the Mihrab are left fully exposed to the elements, one could still identify the intricate geometric patterns carved out of earth and clay. This led to my favorite discovery of the entire trip ...
The mosque had its holiest spot ornamented with the most unusual treasure -- a piece of antique blue china porcelain from medieval China! Arguably more surprising was how the holy Qibla wall became adorned by the image of a Chinese phoenix which, as any devout Muslim know, is considered taboo by Hadith traditions as the portrait of a living creature.
How did this porcelain dish make its 5000 km journey from Ming Dynasty China to this remote corner of Arabia, 6 centuries in the past? Possibly via the Maritime Silk Road from Quanzhou, through the Malacca Straight and the Indian coastline to Muscat, then crossing the desert in a caravan of camels before reaching medieval Nizwa. The full story will likely never be known -- that's just part of the mystery of these ancient towns, and I loved every bit of this.
As we bid farewell to fascinating Manah we noticed an official-looking signage for the restoration of the old Bilad. I had a queasy feeling about it, but it appeared that the Sultanate was planning to turn this unknown ghost town into a managed tourist attraction.
Having seen the renovated Fort of Fiqain pictured above, I really didn't want to see more restorations that would undoubtedly turn charming mud brick walls into smooth mortar. To any reader intrigued by these pictures of Manah: go now, before it's too late.
We drove by yet another renovated fort at Birkat Al Mawz before taking the highway back to Muscat. Renting a cheap Nissan Tiida was the best decision as the gasoline price of OMR 0.12/L worked out to about CAD$0.3/L, compared to CAD$1.30/L in Canada. My 600km journey from Muscat and back ended up costing only CAD$12 in gas!
The total cost was much more expensive as I received TWO traffic tickets by photo radar along the highway. I still had the time of my life here, navigating the labyrinth-like alleys of a forsaken medieval town and rediscovering a beautiful treasure from a faraway land. To this date the excitement of finding that blue china dish remains vivid in my mind ... it's a little slice of adventure that I rarely taste in my 9-to-5 job.
Friday, October 17, 2014
One bad turn and we're ambushed by an legion of Arabian goats.
It was a most unusual destination for both Jose and myself. Both of our guidebooks touted this remote mountain village as "medieval" or even "stone age," promising of an idyllic hamlet where locals carried on a lost lifestyle from the Middle Ages or beyond.
Misfah. Misfat. Misfah al Abriyeen. Misfat al Abryeen. Or perhaps Abreyeen or Abriyyin or even Abreen. While there seemed to be no consistent Romanization of the name even on the official road signs, the direction was clear enough -- take the winding mountain road into the heights of Jebel Shams and locate the village at the dead end.
No matter how you spell it, the meaning is the same -- it's the home of the Al Abri tribe in this secluded corner of Central Oman, overhanging a sheer cliff on the rugged plateau of the Hajar Mountains. For centuries it's entirely cut off from the rest of the world, until a couple decades ago when a motor road finally established its link with modern Oman.
There's no town gate. There's no ticket booth. There're no signs. You just park your car at the dead-end road in front of the village, and walk through one of the ancient rock arches to time-travel back to the 12th Century.
This is an ancient land that predates history and script, let alone the nation of Oman or even Islam. The 4500-year-old beehive tombs of Bat are in a region to the northwest, and standing guard just above the village is a ruined fort from the old Persian Empire.
Centuries of geographic isolation has fostered a closed society with its own ancestral customs and mentality, similar in theory to Wuyuan Shicheng in China or Shirakawago in Central Japan. But Misfah has only opened up to the outside world in this current generation, and at the time of our visit there was absolutely no commercial activity and seemingly no desire to welcome any form of tourism. I hear that this has since changed with the opening of the first guesthouse, though thankfully the village is probably decades from mass tourism and gentrification.
We've had a glimpse of Omani tribal culture at the Bedouin goat auction in Nizwa, but medieval Misfah was at a totally different level. Whereas the people of Nizwa were generous with smiles, in Misfah we could sense watchful eyes from a distance. As travelers sometimes we can feel it when the locals don't even want to engage in an exchange of "Salam"; this was such an instance.
Gingerly we trod the narrow and claustrophobic alleys while mindfully avoiding disrupting the daily routines of the villagers and especially the local women. Painted stripes of yellow, white and red marked a "suggested" path for visitors, intended less as guidance and more as deterrence against violations of privacy and taboo.
This is your classic mountain stronghold of the Middle Ages, made self-sufficient by a system of ancient underground Falaj which channeled life-giving water to the village and its livelihood of date palms and pomegranates. To modern day visitors like us the canals provided refreshments under the 40-degrees climate, though we had to be extra cautious to avoid the forbidden areas where the local women would wash clothes and carry out their daily chores.
The moment we turned back from the Falaj and stepped into the rocky outcrop at the rear of the village ... Whoa! ... we're entirely surrounded by this flock of village guardians! And just as we established that we weren't in danger of being edged off the cliff side ...
... a little girl started yelling and hurling stones at us two camera-toting outsiders, and with alarming accuracy. That's when I had to advise Jose to pack away the camera out of respect for the locals and work on our diplomatic skills. The girl eventually stopped and retreated inside and we resumed photographing her flock.
To be honest I'm not entirely convinced by general claims of Misfah as an exhibit of untouched medieval life as promised by many of the guidebooks, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide among them. While timeless (and occasionally antagonistic) customs still persist, many houses have been modernized into ugly concrete complexes and the overall visual impact couldn't quite match nearby Al Hamra in my opinion.
On the way down we stopped for a panoramic view over the desert plains of Ad Dakhiliyah. This was the most rewarding day of sightseeing in my entire Middle East trip, covering Nizwa, Tanuf, Al Hamra, Misfah plus the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Falaj Daris and the Fort of Bahla, all in 12 hours. We would return to Nizwa for dinner and overnight stay, still stoked about our favorite photos at Al Hamra earlier in the day. At this point we had no idea that we would soon discover our favorite spot in Oman the next morning, at the deserted ancient oasis of Manah.
Saturday, October 04, 2014
This was one of my most memorable and satisfying afternoons of the trip, rummaging thru ancient mud-brick towns at the edge of an Arabian desert.
The excitement was due only partly to the breathtaking medieval townscape at these exotic locales. It was also fun to start a journey with my newly acquainted friend Jose, whom I met merely 2 hours ago at the wild and spectacular Friday goat auction of Nizwa.
I'm Canadian; Jose's Spanish; and we crossed paths at this ancient crossroad of desert caravans in Southern Arabia. Both of us were relatively seasoned as backpackers, and we're both seeking that perfect image of genuine Omani culture through our camera lenses.
Having arrived for a couple of days, Jose was familiar enough with the area to act as my co-driver (i.e. human GPS). I on the other hand had a rental car and could take him to places he couldn't access on his own. It was a natural fit and together we had a great time exploring Central Oman.
Neither of us had a set itinerary in mind. Jose carried a copy of the Rough Guide to Oman and I possessed only a few photocopied pages of the Bradt Guide. We knew that we wanted to explore the historic small towns around Nizwa, and I wanted to stop by the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Falaj Daris and Bahla Fort. Aside from these, we really had no idea what we would encounter on this day.
But first, finding lunch proved to be a challenge as the entire city of Nizwa closed down for Friday worship at the Grand Mosque. Luckily we found one roadside restaurant -- run by non-Muslims of course -- serving the local Indian community which enjoyed the Friday afternoon as a de facto holiday.
Our first stop was the legendary Falaj Daris, an ancient feat of civil engineering in which miles of underground aqueducts were chiseled out of bedrock to channel water from underneath the Jebel Akhbar mountains towards the oasis of Nizwa. Its UNESCO World Heritage Site status apparently doesn't stop it from becoming the community swimming pool, occupied this Friday afternoon by ethnic Indian immigrants while the Omani Muslims congregated at the Mosque.
Some 20km northwest of Nizwa we came across the charming ruins of an ancient town once known as Tanuf. The name is still well-known today for its namesake brand of mineral water bottled nearby, but to the older generation it symbolizes the price paid for peace and unity of Oman as a nation.
There was a time before Saddam Hussein became Saddam Hussein, when Sultan Said of Muscat was the original madman of the Middle East, reigning over one of the world's last feudal states where he was still served by slaves. Traveling within his country was forbidden even for his own peasants, and foreigners like myself would have no chance of visiting even Muscat, let alone Nizwa and the interiors.
Back then existed the Imamate of Oman, ruled in effect by the conservative tribal leaders of the interiors separately from the rich and moderate Sultanate of Muscat. Muscat was Muscat and this landlocked region of barren deserts was the original Oman, where Bedouins roamed the wilderness and sparse settlements existed in this form of mud-brick villages.
Then one day, some 50 years ago, 1000-pound bombs rained down on this ancient town of Tanuf, dropped by the British RAF at the behest of the Sultan of Muscat. These medieval walls of mud-bricks and round stones were utterly destroyed, leaving the centuries-old houses in their current crumbling state.
Whatever survived the bombing -- heavy wooden doors, window frames and roofing material -- had long been cannibalized by neighboring villages over the decades. The precarious arches and half-collapsed walls are all that linger as reminders of that one-sided civil war between Muscat and Oman, won mainly by a foreign force with petroleum on its sight.
But abandonment of the town wasn't fully complete –- at least one devout local was returning to worship at this thousand-year-old mosque that had been reduced to nothing but walls. The Mihrab on the west-facing wall survived and continues to point towards the direction of Mecca, and hence the ancient ritual of worship carries on.
It's a haunting scene with beautifully poignant and yet untold stories -- the suicidal defiance of the Omanis, the young British pilot shot down and buried nearby, and innocent lives in an idyllic medieval village caught in the crossfire. All were merely pawns in a grand game of politics and profit.
After visiting the crumbling ruins of Tanuf we drove further west towards an equally medieval but much better preserved oasis settlement. Navigating through unmarked village roads based solely on directions from the locals wasn't easy, but we knew from the moment we arrived that it was well worth the effort.
This old town of Al Hamra was the classic Omani oasis that we'd been searching for, an intact community of mud-brick complexes congregated beside an ancient system of Falaj still in everyday use. Lush groves of date palms still surround the old town, itself built atop a gigantic slab of rock on a gentle slope, right where the Hajar Mountains start to rise out of the desert.
The best part about the medieval town was that it's still partially inhabited to this date. Locals could be seen herding a few goats down the narrow alleys and electricity wires were the only giveaway that we're in the 21st Century.
The tribesmen here weren't so different from those of nearby Tanuf in opposing the influence of secular Muscat and governance by Sultan Said. But rather than being bombed out of existence, Al Hamra survived the civil war intact and witnessed the ousting of the Sultan by his own British-educated son.
Whereas the old Sultan muzzled the interior Omanis with an iron fist, the new Sultan Qaboos earned their trust with capital projects from his oil-funded wealth. When the townsfolk of Al Hamra cried of harsh living conditions in their 400-year-old houses of mud and clay, the Sultan gifted them new modern homes at the top of the town. Many of these medieval houses were abandoned in various states of decay, and time is still frozen in the 1980's.
But a number of peasants still live out of their ancestral homes, many dating from the Ya'aruba Dynasty and beyond. Partially sustaining these local families to this date are the ancient professions of date farming and goat herding, after Al Hamra lost its function as a major caravan stop with the arrival of motor vehicles in the mid 20th Century.
Jose and I had a great time exploring the now-vacant houses and deserted streets under the warm glow of the afternoon sun. Even in the murderous heat of early August the temperature stayed around 40 degrees Celsius in the shadows of the Hajar Mountains, which was much more comfortable compared with 45-plus degrees at humid Muscat or Dubai.
Nobody seems to know what the future holds for this atmospheric medieval town. While the government knows of its potential as a tourist draw, the town is also encroached on three sides by the new Al Hamra. Unless specific efforts are undertaken to repair and preserve the deteriorating walls after the region's infrequent but devastating flash rainstorms, we may be witnessing the slow and painful death of a historic spectacle.
On our way out we're passed by two local children, no older than perhaps 7 or 8, who would absolutely put me to shame in terms of riding skills. Watching from his new house across the street was their English-speaking father who was also pampering his own ride, an American muscle car with 250 horses. "Toys for the children," said the rich dad as he pointed at the horses, sounding as normal as buying a video game console for his kids.
That may be the reality of 21st Century Oman -- a newly affluent nation shaking off its past as the lazy backwaters of the Arab world. With all that petroleum reserve the Sultan is certainly bringing rapid modernization to his vast and sparsely populated homeland. As a traveler though I just hope that heritage sights such as Al Hamra and Tanuf will be well-protected in the course of progress. After all this is where Oman beats the ultra-modern metropolises of the UAE hands down. Why else would I travel here all the way from Dubai?