Hugging the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, the province ofDhofar(in Arabic, Zafar) can seem like a world away from the rest of Oman. Separated from pretty much everywhere else in the country by a thousand kilometres of stony desert, the region’s history and identity have always been largely separate from that of the rest of the Sultanate. Fabled in antiquity as the source of the legendary frankincense trade, Dhofar boasted one of Arabia’s oldest and most cosmopolitan cultures – whose remains continue to exercise historians and archeologists to this day. The region was only finally brought under the control of the sultans of Muscat in the mid-nineteenth century, while the Dhofaris continued to assert their independence until as recently as the 1970s before finally being brought into the Omani fold.
Centrepiece of the region is the laidback city of Salalah, capital of Dhofar and by far the biggest settlement for hundreds of kilometres in any direction. This is Oman with a distinct, tropical twist: endless white-sand beaches line the coast, while coconut and banana palms replace the ubiquitous date trees of the north and neat little pastel-painted houses stand in for the fortified mudbrick mansions found elsewhere in the country. The differences are especially striking during the annual khareef (June to August/early September), when the rains of the southeast monsoon brush along the coast around Salalah, turning the area to a fecund riot of misty green which has no equivalent anywhere else in the Arabian peninsula. During this period Salalah is thronged with visiting Omanis and other Gulf Arabs, who flock here to experience the unusual pleasures of rain – an attraction that might well be considered overrated by most visitors from outside the region – although the magical explosion of green, accompanied by the bursting into life of seasonal waterfalls and streams, more than compensates.
Numerous attractions dot the hinterland of Salalah, enclosed by the arc of the scenic Dhofar Mountains, including the rugged Jebel Samhan and Jebel al Qamar dotted with wadis, gorges, sinkholes, blowholes and other geological curiosities. Down at sea level, the coast is lined by huge, and largely deserted, strips of pristine white-sand beach, picture-perfect khors (creeks) and a string of further attractions including the quaint old town of Mirbat and the ruins of ancient Sumhuram. Beyond the mountains you enter the vast stony desert which stretches from here to Muscat, where you’ll find the slight remains of the legendary Ubar and, further on, the enormous dunes of the majestic Empty Quarter.
The history of Dhofar is quite separate from that of the rest of the country, looking west towards neighbouring Yemen rather than north towards the Omani heartlands. The region as a whole rose to prominence, and economic prosperity, much earlier than most other parts of Oman, thanks to the lucrative local frankincense trade. Frankincense was traded through the region from Neolithic times onwards, gradually developing into the so-called Incense Route, one of the ancient world’s most extensive and important commercial networks. Frankincense was transported by sea from the coast of Dhofar westwards up the Red Sea to Egypt, Africa and Europe, and east into the Arabian Gulf and on to India. By land, caravans headed up via Shisr across the Empty Quarter to Bahrain and, westwards, into Yemen and then north to Medina, Petra and, ultimately, Egypt.
A string of ports developed along the coast of Dhofar to service the frankincense trade, including Sumhuram, followed by Mirbat, Sadh, Hasik and Zafar (the forerunner of modern Salalah, and the origin of the name “Dhofar”). The internal politics of the area remain obscure. The kingdom of Hadhramaut, in what is now southern Yemen, appears to have enjoyed some control over the region, while the influence of the Persian Parthians may also have been strong at various times. From around 300 AD onwards, the international frankincense trade went into a gradual decline, although Mirbat and Zafar, at least, continued as major commercial centres, exporting horses and spices in addition to frankincense and attracting many foreign visitors, including Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.
The region was only finally brought into the Omani fold in 1877, during the reign of Sultan Turki bin Said (ironically, just as his own capital in Muscat was coming under increasing threat from the marauding Sharqiya tribes). Outside control was minimal to begin with, however, and in 1896 the local tribes rebelled, overran the sultan’s fort in Salalah and murdered the garrison. Muscat eventually reasserted control, though its authority rarely ran much further than the immediate environs of Salalah itself, with the mountains remaining more or less autonomous under the patchwork of competing tribes.
There’s some rewarding – and still relatively little-known – diving in Dhofar. The main attraction here is the splendid sea life, including huge rays, moray eels, parrotfish and turtles, all attracted by the nutrient-rich waters close to the shore. There’s also some good coral – Dhofar is one of the few places in the world where you find corals and kelp growing together due to the cold waters produced during the khareef.
The dive season runs from late September or early October through to the end of May, interrupted by the arrival of the khareef, during which the water becomes too rough for diving. It’s possible to dive straight off the beach here – the best dive sites are around Mirbat – while there are also offshore sites around Mughsail. The two best local operators are Sub Aqua (t9989 4032, wwww.subaqua-divecenter.com), based at the Hilton Salalah Resort, and Extra Divers, based at the Marriott hotel in Mirbat. Both places can also arrange snorkelling trips, while Sub Aqua also run fishing and dolphing-watching expeditions.
Ethnically and linguistically, the original inhabitants of Dhofar – an intricate patchwork of mountain and desert tribes of which the Qara, Mahra and Bait Kathir are perhaps the most notable – have far more in common with the people of neighbouring Yemen to the west than with their fellow Omanis to the north. Jan Morris, writing during the mid-1950s in Sultan in Oman, described “tribes of strange non-Arab peoples, often living in caves, almost naked, speaking languages of their own and maintaining their own obscure manners and customs.” Other distinctive cultural traditions persisted until recent decades. The Qara, for instance, refused to eat chickens or any kind of egg, while their women were forbidden from touching the udders of the tribe’s cows (the cow being considered generally superior to a mere female, whose touch might offend it). Their religious beliefs also appeared somewhat unusual. As Morris described it, “They were nominally Moslems … but their theological principles seemed to be a trifle hazy: whenever I saw any of them praying during my stay in Dhufar, they were turned not towards Mecca, but towards the sun.”
Modernization and rising prosperity mean that physical reminders of traditional Dhofari life are now increasingly rare (and virtually extinct in Salalah itself), although up in the hills you may spot occasional examples of the region’s traditional round stone huts with straw roofs, or come across elderly Dhofaris wearing the distinctive indigo-dyed robes which have been replaced everywhere else by the white Omani dishdasha.
The original Dhofari tribes are also interesting from a linguistic point of view, speaking a range of South Arabian Semitic languages closer to Amharic (one of the languages of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea) than Arabic, and offering a living link with the region’s pre-Islamic history. The most important of these are Shehri (also known as Jebali – literally, “mountain”), spoken by the Qara, with around 25,000 native speakers, and Mehri (or Mahri), spoken by the Mahra, with an estimated 50,000 native speakers. All Shehri and Mehri speakers are also fluent in Arabic.
West of Salalah lies the Jebel al Qamar, one of the most dramatic sections of the Dhofar Mountains, which rear up out of the sea at the village of Mughsail (home to an impressive trio of blowholes) and march along the coast in a sequence of dramatically sculpted crags and sea cliffs, best appreciated from the tiny coastal village of Fizayah. Beyond here the road rides the top of the mountain plateau to the Yemeni border at Sarfait, although the border itself remains closed.
Heading west out of Salalah, the main road is dual carriageway to the edge of the city and the vast Raysut Industrial Area and Salalah Port, one of the largest in the country, whose mass of towering gantries rises away to your left. Thereafter the road reverts to single carriageway, running across the rocky coastal plain beneath the mountains. The sea itself remains out of sight until a few kilometres before Mughsail when road and water finally come together, offering superlative views down the coast, with a long white-sand beach backed by the dramatic limestone mass of the Jebel al Qamar plunging sheer into the sea – reminiscent of the fjords of Musandam, at the opposite end of the country.
The tiny village of MUGHSAIL (also spelled Mughsayl) itself is little more than a clump of houses on the hillside above the road. Turn left opposite the Al Maha petrol station down the road signed Al Marneef Cave and continue 1km to get to Mughsail’s blowholes, reached by a path beyond the parking lot and the Mocca Cafe (a good place for a drink). The blowholes comprise three small holes in the rock through which jets of seawater shoot into the air. They’re particularly impressive during the khareef, when they spout plumes of water up to 30m high, regularly drenching unwary hordes of screeching tourists. Outside the monsoon they are less memorable, and during the driest parts of the year they cease to blow altogether, although the subterranean groaning of wind and water, eerily amplified by the blowholes themselves, is still strangely impressive. Al Marneef Cave itself is not actually a cave, but a kind of open-sided rock shelter at the base of the weathered limestone outcrop which towers up to the rear of the blowholes. The overhanging rocks here provide a convenient source of shade and shelter, and the “cave” is usually thronged with picnicking local day-trippers.