Oman’s Mountains and More… Exploring Bahla and Nizwa

Hajar-mts-1Slip away from Muscat and drive inland where tranquility reigns supreme. Here the copper green and iron red hued mountains have swallowed up most signs of nature and wildlife. Sweeping views of the Hajar Mountains are ever present on our 2 ½-hour excursion en route to our trek through time.

Mountains constitute a large percentage of Oman’s environment. Hajar, Arabic for stone mountain, is the highest mountain range in the eastern Arabian Peninsula separating Oman’s low coastal plain from the high desert plateau. The vegetation changes with altitude, of course, and with no roads heading to higher ground, I have to take the word of what I’ve read about the wild olive and fig trees thriving at higher elevations and then junipers at the peak. My roadside views are limited to only sparse shrub and desert trees.

We pass scattered white-washed villages splashed in soft pastel yellows and oranges with an occasional light blue or green house for color nestled at the foot of the mountains amid shrubs and a mostly silent desert. A variety of free range goats wander aimlessly over rock laden terrain oblivious to vehicles speeding along the modern blacktopped highway.

Every historical town has its own unique identity. We are closing in on two towns whose depth of history runs deep. Nizwa, one of Oman’s oldest cities, is the first town we reach. A center for date growing and a regional marketplace, it was once a center of trade, religion, education and art. The mountains surround Nizwa from every side providing a picturesque backdrop.

Constructed in the 17th century, the large round tower of the ancient fort in the center of town – simply known as the Round Tower Fort – is the largest circular tower in Oman and one of the largest in the Gulf. It is Oman’s most visited national monument. The fort was the administrative seat of authority for the ruling imams during times of both peace and conflict.

The tower is believed to have taken a dozen years to build, and was constructed above an underground stream. Its gun ports command a 360-degree field of fire; a reminder of the town’s significance through turbulent periods in Oman’s long history. With Nizwa’s abundant natural wealth and strategic location at the crossroads of vital trade routes, the fort was a formidable stronghold against raiding forces.

Unfortunately, the day we visited coincided with the Eid al Adha holiday, and the fort was closed. The souq, however, was open and doing a brisk business.

Situated within the walled fort and souq confines was an indoor area known as the “live animal souq”, which we cautiously entered. The livestock market is a popular Friday morning spot as local farmers bring their cows, goats and sheep to be inspected, auctioned and sold to the highest bidders. Although I have never been in the market portion of a souq, I have heard stories of the smell, sights and uncleanliness of animals being butchered. This was my chance to prove/disprove the tales for myself.

The auction portion was over and butchers had mostly finished their work, with some meats still in open air cases for sale when we arrived. Goat carcasses hung on heavy hooks suspended from the ceiling with pools of blood and discarded body parts splattered on the floor. The conditions were extremely unsanitary compared with U.S. standards. Some of the butchers wore gloves, others did not. Flies flew around freely, and despite the rooms being air conditioned, the smell of dead animals unmistakably filled the air. I did not linger; my worst fears confirmed.

Also located within the fort walls is the Nizwa Souq. Here shops display an array of products, most notably clay pottery and handicrafts. Nizwa is renowned for its silver jewelry, which many consider to be the best in Oman, as well as masters in making khanjar’s (the famous curved Omani dagger) that is recognized for its distinctive style and patterns. Other popular items sold in the souq were copper ware, coffee pots, swords, leather goods and lots of pottery. Historically, Nizwa was known for producing mats from straw.

We located a small restaurant nearby for lunch, which unfortunately I could not recommend to eat at. Soon after, we were back on the road headed toward Bahla.

Bahla is the ideal location to reconnect with simplicity. The small community of Bahla is also known as the Oasis town because of the water system within its confines. When the city walls were constructed, rulers made certain that the entire oasis settlement was enclosed. The location of this man-made irrigation channel system water source allowed the town to thrive during the late medieval period. In fact, the area is rich with date palm plantations fed by the ground water and supported by wells.

The Bahla Fort is Oman’s largest fort. The enormous defensive structure is far from simple, however, with its massive mud stone foundations. It was listed on the UNESCO Heritage List in 1987 and recently renovated.

The fort is hailed as an outstanding example of a fortified oasis settlement dating to the medieval Islamic period. The pre-gunpowder style fort with its rounded towers and slotted parapets, along with the perimeter wall of stone and mud brick technology, according to historians, demonstrates the status and influence of the ruling elite of the day. A newly refurbished structure off to one side of the fort boasted mud walls interlaced with straw replicating its original construction.

Off in the distance, original city stone walls extending six miles – the largest in Oman – surround the town proper and reach a height of 30 feet in places. Only three of the seven original gateways survive, but 36 watchtowers remain as defensive features, as well as some sentry walks. The walls and the way they surround the oasis shows how precise and creative the builders were in constructing a unique defensive fortification, according to documentation. These original walls sometimes extended over hills and crossed over water. They were equipped with towers, guardrooms, stairs and entrances so as to deter invaders at any portion along the walled system.

Neglected wrecks of infrastructure across from and behind the fort are in dire straits. Habited and uninhabited dwellings lean side by side sharing narrow stone alleyways too tight for a vehicle to squeeze through. This landscape history is fascinating. Mud stucco roofs collapsed or caved in years ago, yet left as is.

These old and dense dwellings are one of the more notable aspects of Bahla. Clustered around the base of the fort as core settlements, they were closely packed together to conserve valuable land. The maze of walls and narrow alleys are unified by the mud brick and archways used in their construction.

The remains of these mud brick family compounds indicate a distinctive settlement pattern related to the location of the main irrigation channels.

clay-ruinsDuring fort and dwelling reconstruction, remains of carved and decorative wood doors, shelves and window screens indicated a rich, thriving craft tradition. Clay and pottery are significant Bahla contributions. Information indicates that Bahla has literally hundreds of potters and the region has always been considered a market leader when it comes to this cottage industry. The clay is abundant near the water oasis around the city. To make it pliable enough to be worked on a potter’s wheel, men trample upon it first. Kilns originally were small dome-shaped ovens little more than three feet wide, but with technology, they now have large stackable kilns. Many of these potters have upgraded from simple backyard businesses to thriving industries.

The small souq in Bahla, located across the road and to the west of the fort, reportedly sells an abundance of various types of pottery. It had not opened yet for the evening business when we visited, but parts of it looked very run down and in need of repairs.

Very old and very interesting; the depth of history in these two towns definitely runs deep.

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