The major city in northern Oman, SOHAR boasts a long and eventful history, and a leading place among the nation’s seafaring exploits – according to local tradition, no less a personage than Sindbad hailed from Sohar, while for a number of centuries the town served as the capital of Oman, and was the centre of an extensive trading network stretching up and down the Gulf.
Sadly, despite its lustrous Arabian Nights heritage, modern Sohar is a somewhat anodyne place. Nothing remains of the old town, while its major attraction, the imposing Sohar Fort, was closed for extended renovations at the time of writing. The best reason to come here is to crash out for a few days on the beach at the attractive Sohar Beach Hotel. Otherwise there’s little cause to visit unless passing through en route to the UAE border crossings at Buraimi and Khatmat Malahah, or as a jumping-off point for the scenic road up to Yanqul and Ibri in the Dhahirah.
Sohar is one of the oldest towns in Oman, and was for many centuries the most important port and commercial centre in the country, until the rise of Muscat from around the sixteenth century onwards. The Sohar region has enjoyed continued prosperity for at least six millennia, probably forming part of the legendary country of Magan, which once supplied Sumer with many of its raw materials. Copper was mined in the nearby Wadi Jizzi as far back as the fifth century BC, and Sohar developed as a properous centre for smelting and mining, as well as a major agricultural centre.
By the time Islam arrived in Oman, Sohar had established itself as the capital of the region, and remained so until the beginning of the second imamate in 793 AD, when the seat of the imams was moved for security reasons to Nizwa, which was judged, correctly, to be less vulnerable to attack.
Sohar retained its pre-eminent commercial position, nonetheless – “The hallway to China, the storehouse of the East”, as the eminent tenth-century historian Al Muqaddasi described it. Unfortunately, the city’s wealth also attracted less welcome visitors, usually hailing from neighbouring Persia. In 971 and again in 1041 a Persian fleet overran and sacked the city, while around 1276 the city suffered at the hands of almost five thousand Mongol raiders from Shiraz, although it had at least partly revived by the time Marco Polo visited around 1293.
Worse still was to follow the arrival of the Portuguese, who occupied Sohar in 1507 and controlled the city until 1643, when they were finally evicted by the Omani forces of Nasir bin Murshid. The Persians returned to Sohar yet again in 1738 under the command of Nadir Shah, but were beaten off by Ahmad bin Said, the city’s brilliant governor and future ruler of Oman, who endured another nine-month-long Persian siege in 1742 before finally capitulating to the far larger forces of his attackers.
Sohar remained an important city following the establishment of the Al Bu Saidi dynasty, but was gradually eclipsed by Muscat as the country’s major seaport and slipped increasingly into the sidelines of Omani history – apart from a brief moment of notoriety in 1866 when Sultan Thuwaini was murdered by his son Salim in the city’s fort.
Sohar has enjoyed something of an economic resurgence over the last few decades – during the 1980s, the old copper mines of Wadi Jizzi were reopened by the Oman Mining Company for the first time in over a thousand years, with further large new deposits being discovered inland around Yanqul and Ibri. More recently, the vast new Sohar Port, opened in 2004, may yet restore the city to its maritime pre-eminence.
The city also leapt briefly into the international headlines in early 2011 when it became the focal point of nationwide protests against the government.
There are an estimated eight million date palms (Phoenix dactylifera; in Arabic, nakhl) in Oman, and travelling around the Batinah you’ll rarely be out of sight of the endless plantations which blanket the coast. Dates have been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years; the wood of the date palm also provides an important source of building material, while leaves and fronds are used to make baskets, ropes and medicines – a remarkable variety of uses which has led to the date palm’s popular description as the “tree of life”.
The date palm is one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees in the world. They are believed to have been grown since ancient times from Mesopotamia to prehistoric Egypt, possibly as early as 6000 BC – one of the first human efforts at systematic agricultural cultivation. The date palm is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Mohammed urged his followers to “cherish your father’s sister, the palm tree”, and Muslims still traditionally break their Ramadan fast each night by eating a date.
Dates also underpinned the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Omani interior, providing a small, light, concentrated and long-lasting source of nutrition which was perfectly adapted for the Bedu’s itinerant lifestyle. Dates are something of a self-contained nutritional super-fruit, and an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Their high sugar content (40–80 percent) also protects them against bacterial contamination and makes them extremely durable – dried dates can last for years. They can also be pressed for their juice, used to make wine, syrup and vinegar; in earlier times, boiling date syrup was used as an offensive weapon poured onto attackers below fort walls.
According to a traditional saying, the date palm “needs its feet in water and its head in fire”, a combination provided in Oman by intensive falaj irrigation and the country’s burning summer temperatures. Date palms grow rapidly, up to 40cm per year, reaching heights of up to around 30m. Trees can live for around 150 years, producing over 100kg of dates annually. Over forty varieties of date are grown in Oman, with over 150,000 tonnes of fruit produced annually – easily the largest crop in the country, and, until the discovery of oil, far and away the most economically important.
Dates take around seven months to mature. Unripe dates range in colour from green through to red or yellow, becoming darker and sweeter as they ripen. There are hundreds of different varieties, ranging widely in size and colour — the best are highly prized by local connoisseurs, much as fine wines are in France. There are three basic types: soft (such as the popular Medjool variety), semi-dry (such as Deglet Noor) and dry. Only the female date palm produces fruit, however. In the wild, trees are entirely wind-pollinated, and yield little fruit. Cultivated date palms are pollinated by hand, with flowers from male date palms being sold in local souks and then strategically placed in the branches of female trees (although wind machines to blow pollen onto the female flowers are also sometimes used). Most fruits are harvested between August and December. In many places, dates are still handpicked, although mechanical shakers may be used in larger plantations.
Sohar is often claimed to be the birthplace of the legendary Sindbad (or Sinbad), hero of the “Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor”, one of the most famous tales in the One Thousand and One Nights, subsequently recycled into countless films, cartoons and books. It’s a nice story, given Oman’s historic seafaring prowess, and one you’ll probably see recycled a few times in local tourist literature, although sadly it has little basis in fact – attempts to claim the legendary sailor as a local Sohari appear to be simply an attempt to acquire prestige by association, rather as the English have adopted St George (who was actually a Roman soldier from Palestine).
Sindbad himself is clearly a mythical figure, a composite hero whose legendary adventures derive from centuries of seafaring folklore and assorted travellers’ tales derived from a wide variety of sources. According to the One Thousand and One Nights, Sindbad was a merchant from Baghdad, who set sail from Basra, although the stories of his seven voyages most likely derive from Persian sources, or perhaps from the famous collection of Sanskrit fables known as the Panchatantra. The name Sindbad itself is Persian rather than Arab, and may even be derived from Sindh (now a province in Pakistan), from which the names of both the Indus River and, ultimately, India, derive.