Far and away the most appealing town in Sharqiya, SUR enjoys one of the eastern coast’s prettiest locations, with the old part of town sitting on what is almost a miniature island, surrounded by a tranquil lagoon and offering views of mingled water and land in every direction. Sur is also one of the most historic settlements in the south, formerly a bustling port and trading centre whose maritime traditions live on in the intriguing dhow-building yard, the only surviving one of its kind in Oman. Further reminders of Sur’s illustrious past are provided by the trio of forts and string of watchtowers which encircle the town and harbour.
Sur’s attractions are quite spread out. The small but lively town centre and souk – a colourful tangle of brightly illuminated shops and cafés – lies at the western end of the island, from where the breezy seafront corniche runs down the coast for 1km or so to reach the old harbour, home to Sur’s dhow-building yard and a trio of watchtowers, beyond which lies the pretty village of Ayjah.
The easternmost major settlement in Oman, Sur has always looked to the sea. Following the demise of Qalhat in 1508, the town developed as the region’s most important port, shipping goods to and from India and East Africa, and also established itself as the country’s most important ship-building centre (vestiges of which remain). A succession of reverses during the nineteenth century eroded the town’s fortunes, including the arrival of European steam-ships in the Indian Ocean, the British prohibition of slavery, the split with Zanzibar and the rise of the port of Muscat. Recent years have seen a modest revival in the town’s fortunes thanks to the opening of the massive OLNG natural gas plant just up the coast.
The Omani dhow
The Omani dhow
Oman was formerly famous for the excellence of its boats and the skills of its sailors, whose maritime expertise – backed up by a detailed understanding of the workings of the local monsoon (a word derived from the Arabic mawsim, meaning “season”) – laid the basis for the country’s far-reaching commercial network, and for its string of colonies in East Africa. Boats were formerly built at centres all along the coast, though only the one at Sur now survives – offering a fascinating glimpse into an almost vanished artisanal tradition.
The word dhow is generally used to describe all traditional wooden-hulled Arabian boats, although locals distinguish between a wide range of vessels of different sizes and styles. The traditional Arabian dhow – such as the large, ocean-going boom – was curved at both ends, while other types – such as the sambuq and ghanjah – boasted a high, square stern, apparently inspired by the design of Portuguese galleons. Traditional dhows were driven by enormous triangular lateen sails (a design which allowed them to sail much closer to the wind than European vessels), although these have now been replaced by conventional engines. Another peculiarity of the traditional dhow was its so-called stitched construction – planks, usually of teak, were literally sewn together using coconut rope, although nails were increasingly used after European ships began to visit the region.
For a fascinating insight into traditional Omani boat-building, seafaring and navigation, read Tim Severin’s entertaining The Sindbad Voyage; Severin’s specially commissioned dhow – the Sohar – was built in Sur and now sits in the middle of a roundabout in Muscat.