Inland from the Batinah, Al Dhahirah region is one of the least visited parts of the country, a largely uninspiring and dusty stretch of featureless gravel desert stretching from the UAE border down to the mountains around Bahla. The region’s main town, Buraimi, serves as a convenient entry or exit point if you’re heading to or from Abu Dhabi or Dubai, although it’s also well worth a visit in its own right. From Buraimi, a spectacular road runs over the mountains and down Wadi Jizzi to the coast at Sohar.
Alternatively, the fast and relatively traffic-free Highway 21 arrows south from Buraimi to the little-visited but surprisingly interesting town of Ibri, worth a stop-off for a look at its old fort and souk, and for the extraordinary old kasbah at As Suleif nearby. Beyond Ibri lie the villages of Bat and Al Ayn, home to a fascinating scatter of Bronze Age beehive tombs and other structures, some of Oman’s most important archeological remains.
Highway 7 from Sohar ends at the town of BURAIMI, pushed up right against the border next to the more or less contiguous UAE city of Al Ain. Evidence of human settlement here dates back for some five thousand years, and the Buraimi oasis was historically one of the most important inland settlements in this part of Arabia thanks to its position astride the major trade route between Sohar, Wadi Jizzi and the interior, with a string of villages growing up around the various oases which dot the area. These have now been divided by the modern Oman–UAE border, while Buraimi itself has been comprehensively overtaken by the neighbouring – and now much wealthier and busier – Al Ain. Because of the town’s distance from pretty much everywhere else in Oman and the border hassles associated with visiting it, Buraimi doesn’t feature on many Omani itineraries – which is a shame, given the town’s bustling mercantile atmosphere and pair of fine forts.
A sleepy backwater for much of its history, Buraimi briefly captured the world’s attention in the early 1950s as a result of the so-called Buraimi Dispute – one of the defining events in Oman’s twentieth-century history, and one which neatly encapsulates the Wild West atmosphere of the early days of oil prospecting in the Gulf. The origin of the dispute was the result of Saudi Arabia’s claim in 1949 to sovereignty over large parts of what was traditionally considered territory belonging to Abu Dhabi and Oman, including the Buraimi Oasis. The Saudis (supported by the US Aramco oil company) backed up their claim by referring to previous periods of Saudi occupation dating back to the early nineteenth century, although their real interest in Buraimi stemmed from the belief that large amounts of oil lay buried in the region
In 1952 a small group of Saudi Arabian soldiers occupied Hamasa, one of three Omani villages in the oasis, claiming it for Saudi Arabia and embarking on a campaign of bribery in an attempt to obtain professions of loyalty from local villagers. They also attempted to bribe Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan, governor of Al Ain, tempting him with the huge sum of US$42 million – an offer which Sheikh Zayed pointedly refused. The affair was debated in both the British Parliament and at the United Nations, although attempts at international arbitration finally broke down in 1955. Shortly afterwards the Saudis were driven out of Hamasa by the Trucial Oman Levies, a British-backed force based in Sharjah; for an eyewitness account of this action, read Edward Henderson’s Arabian Destiny. The dispute wasn’t finally resolved until 1974, when an agreement was reached between King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Zayed (who had subsequently become ruler of Abu Dhabi and first president of the newly independent UAE). Ironically, after all the fuss, the area proved singularly lacking in oil.
The dispute gave Buraimi its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, even inspiring an episode of The Goon Show entitled “The Nasty Affair at the Buraimi Oasis”. More importantly, it put a final end to centuries of Saudi incursions into Oman, as well as establishing the legendary reputation of Sheikh Zayed, one of the modern Gulf’s most charismatic statesmen, who succeeded in repulsing the oil-rich Saudis and their American cronies long before Abu Dhabi had found its own huge oil reserves. As one foreign observer put it, “He [Zayed] was very proud that, when he had nothing, he told them to get stuffed.”
East of Ibri, Highway 21 roars purposefully east towards Bahla, just under 100km distance. The area is home to two of Oman’s most celebrated prehistoric sites: the beehive tombs at Bat and Al Ayn. The former is more likely to appeal to dedicated archeologists or students of ancient history than casual visitors, though the latter, with a string of beehive tombs lined up dramatically atop a rocky ridge, is well worth the detour from the main highway.
Some 37km further east from Bat, the small village of AL AYN is home to another superb collection of Bronze Age necropolises. The appeal of the tombs here is their spectacular setting, strung out along a narrow ridgetop and dramatically backdropped by the craggy outline of Jebel Misht (literally “Comb Mountain”, named on account of its distinctively serrated ridgetop), one of the largest of the various geological “exotics” which dot this part of Oman. There are 21 tombs in total, most of them well preserved, and late afternoon is a particularly magical time to see them.
To reach Al Ayn from Bat, follow the directions outlined above. Follow the road to Al Ayn until you reach a T-junction just before the village. Turn left here and you’ll see the tombs up on your left on top of the ridge as you drive into the village, around 500m past the T-junction. It’s a straightforward ten-minute walk from the road up to the tombs, although there’s no obvious path. Cross the wadi bed and scramble up a track roughly opposite the big mosque at the entrance to the village.
Al Ayn is also accessible via two side-roads from the Ibri–Nizwa highway. Approaching from Ibri, take the turn-off at the village of Kubarah signed to Amla. Approaching from Nizwa, take the turning about 13km further down the road by the Al Maha petrol station, also signed to Amla.
Around 30km east of Ibri, the small village of BAT is home to a remarkable array of Bronze Age tombs, towers and other remains, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 (along with those at nearby Al Ayn). The site dates back to between 2000 and 3000 BC, forming, according to UNESCO, “the most complete collection of settlements and necropolises from the 3rd millennium BC in the world”. To the untrained eye, it’s difficult to make much sense of the remains you see on the ground, although the sheer scale of the ruins is impressive and the whole place is particularly beautiful towards dusk, when the light turns the surrounding hills a rich russet, their ridges dotted with the enigmatic remains of one of Oman’s most ancient civilizations. If you want to have a look at the tombs before visiting, there are a couple of nice 360-degree panophotographs of the site (and also of nearby Al Ayn) at wworldheritagetours.com.
Getting there is the first challenge. From Ibri, follow the road to Yanqul for about 15km then take the signed turn-off on the right to Bat and follow the road as it loops through a small village, past a mosque, straight on across a small roundabout and then turn right along the unsigned road in front of Al Dreez Modern Market. From Yanqul, take the signed turn-off on your left to Bat then the left turn signed to Al Wahrah, which brings you to the road in front of Al Dreez Modern Market. Follow the road past Al Dreez Modern Market for about 13km to reach a turning on the left signed to Al Banah and Al Hajar – this is the road on to Al Ayn.
Ignore this turning for the moment and continue straight ahead for a further 2km to reach a blue sign on the left saying Wadi al Ain 23km and pointing down a dirt track. Follow this track for about 1km (you’ll see the remains of a prominent white tower up on the hillside to your left) until you reach a ruined tower in a fenced enclosure next to the track on your right; park hereabouts. You’re now pretty much at the centre of the archeological site, stretching for a couple of kilometres in every direction, although there are no signs or marked trails to guide you. There are some four hundred tombs scattered around the surrounding hills, although virtually all have collapsed and now look essentially like large mounds of rubble.
From here, it’s a 5–10 minutes’ walk up to the remains of the circular white tower you probably saw on the drive in, halfway up the hill overlooking the wadi. This is one of a number of such structures dotted around the site, now standing about 1m high after restoration (although they may originally have been up to 10m tall), with a distinctive triangular door, walls formed from beautifully carved and carefully fitted pieces of stone and an interior divided into two “rooms” by a single wall down the middle. The exact function of this and other similar towers around Bat – or, indeed, what they originally looked like – remains unknown.
Two further towers stand next to one another in the wadi below; one has been restored using white stones, and the other using ochre, which makes for a nice photo, although the underlying archeological reasoning behind two-tone restoration remains unclear. Continue walking up the wadi for another ten minutes to reach an enclosure protected by a green wire-mesh fence (padlocked at the time of writing). Inside are three neatly restored beehive tombs (very similar to the towers, though a little smaller), one constructed out of white stones, the other two out of ochre, along with half-a-dozen other tombs in various stages of collapse. The remains of further partially intact beehive tombs can be seen along the ridgetop beyond.
Strung out along Buraimi-Nizwa highway (Highway 21) more or less in the middle of nowhere, IBRI sees few foreign visitors, although it boasts a surprisingly absorbing cluster of traditional sights including a fine fort, interesting souk and one of the region’s most memorable walled mudbrick villages at nearby As Suleif. The town was formerly a stronghold of Ibadhi conservatism, though modern Ibri derives its importance from its proximity to Fahud, where Oman’s first oil was discovered in 1964.
The main sight in town is the large and carefully restored fort. Inside, the spacious gravel courtyard is surrounded by an interesting jumble of buildings and towers. To the right of the entrance stands the main defensive tower, an impressive three-storey structure; to the left, the remains of a mudbrick mosque with a deep well built into the platform alongside; and, on the far side of the courtyard, a residential building. Head left across the courtyard, through a second gateway, to reach a subsidiary courtyard, where steps lead up to a sizeable mosque, one of the largest in any Omani fort and still in use today, although kitted out with eyesore modern glass windows and metal pillars. This is actually only half the fort; the rest, beyond the mosque, remains closed to the public.
The area around the fort is significantly less manicured, but ultimately much more memorable, with dozens of imposing mudbrick houses (and a particularly fine ruined mosque opposite the fort) in various states of ruin, dotted here and there with little patches of dead oasis with decapitated palm trees. It’s a perfect picture of the physical passing of old Oman – intensely atmospheric, and rather sad. Pressed up hard against the west wall of the fort is the town’s attractive old souk, including some neat little arcaded sections.
On the southern edge of town lies Ibri’s most absorbing attraction, the remarkable walled village of As Suleif, a huge clump of collapsing mudbrick buildings which crown a small hill next to the main Nizwa highway. Like so many settlements in Oman, the old mudbrick village was abandoned a couple of decades ago in favour of the modern concrete villa development which now stands beside it, and the original settlement is now slowly crumbling into picturesque ruin – see it now before it collapses completely.
The entire village is impressively fortified, with high walls at the front and sides, and a string of watchtowers stuck like candles into the massive rock outcrop at the back. Inside is an incredibly labyrinthine, kasbah-like tangle of old roofless houses and other structures including a mosque, jail, various wells, majlis, food stores, a room for pressing dates and a “hanging tower” at the summit of the rock where unfortunates were taken to be executed. The remains of various inscriptions moulded onto arches or inscribed on rocks can also be seen. The resident guardian will meet you at the entrance and show you around. There’s no admission price, although a couple of rials should suffice.