Inland from Muscat, Highway 15 winds up into the craggy Hajar mountains, Oman’s geological backbone, which extend all the way along the east coast of the country, from Sur to the Musandam Peninsula. The region southwest of Muscat is home to the Hajar’s highest and most dramatic section, often described as the Western Hajar, or Al Hajar al Gharbi (as opposed to the somewhat lower and less extensive Eastern Hajar, covered in chapter five). The area is also sometimes referred to as Al Dakhiliya (literally, “The Interior”), one of the seven administrative regions into which Oman is divided and which encompasses the towns and mountains of the Western Hajar, as well as a large swathe of desert to the south.
The main focus for most visits to the region is the famous old town of Nizwa, the pre-eminent settlement of the Omani interior and formerly home to the country’s revered imams. Nizwa also provides a convenient base from which to explore other attractions around the hills, with its mix of rugged mountainscapes and dramatic wadis along with historic old mudbrick towns and idyllic date plantations bisected with traditional aflaj. Leading attractions include the spectacular massifs of the Jebel Akhdar, east of Nizwa, and Jebel Shams, to the west, the highest summit in Oman. There are also memorable traditional villages at Al Hamraand Misfat al Abryeen plus a number of the country’s finest forts, including those at Bahla, the largest in the country, and Jabrin, perhaps the most interesting.
Some 40km west of Nizwa, the small town of BAHLA is famous for its gigantic fort and its distinctive earthenware pottery – and it also has a certain reputation as the favoured haunt of mischievous jinns and other supernatural phenomena – a kind of Omani Glastonbury. Unfortunately the town’s fort, one of the most splendid in Oman, is closed indefinitely for repairs, although you can still enjoy fine views of the exterior, while the atmospheric old town and city walls are also worth a look, as is the engaging little souk.
There’s nothing subtle about Bahla’s fort. One of the biggest in Oman, its immense walls and irregular skyline of assorted towers, bastions and crenellations loom massively above the modest modern town, looking like some kind of gigantic medieval factory. As with many of Oman’s forts, Bahla is believed to have been established in pre-Islamic times, though the present structure dates back to the days of the Banu Nebhan, the dominant tribe in the area between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, although the fort was largely rebuilt during the seventeenth century. During the twentieth century the fort fell into an advanced state of disrepair and was in danger of collapsing entirely until, in 1987, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and closed for the huge renovation works which continue to this day, and with no scheduled end yet in sight. If you want to have a (virtual) glimpse inside the fort, check out the 360-degree panophotographs at wworldheritagetours.com.
While you’re here, it’s also worth exploring the area running down to the wadi below the fort on the western side of town. Start at the mosque sitting directly in front of the fort on top of a large raised terrace – a plain, mudbrick box. The mosque’s terrace offers probably the best view of the fort in town, as well as a bird’s-eye view over the extensive remains of old Bahla, a dense cluster of mudbrick houses in various states of disrepair, bounded by a couple of old gateways and the remains of old defensive walls and towers. Some of the buildings are surprisingly grand, including a number of very fine, but very decayed, three-storey houses, many of which retain their solid original wooden doors (or colourful modern metal replacements). The houses are largely uninhabited now and, as with so many similar places throughout Oman, it’s difficult to imagine the ruins surviving for much longer.
Continuing away from the fort brings you to even more considerable remains of Bahla’s city walls, which stretch for some 12km around the fort, town and surrounding date plantations. The best-preserved section is down along the wadi. Walk down along the main road towards Jabrin until you reach the bridge over the wadi, look left, and you’ll see an impressive line of fortifications stretching away in the distance, well over 5m high in places. There’s also another stretch of walls on your right as you drive into town from Nizwa, shortly before you reach the fort.
One of the most distinctive sights in the Omani mountains is the falaj: the traditional system of narrow, mud-walled water channels used to irrigate fields and date plantations, and to provide villages and towns with reliable water supplies. The origins of the system go back into the mists of prehistory (the name itself perhaps derives from an old Semitic word meaning “distribution”; the true Arabic plural is aflaj, although “falajes” is often used instead). One theory holds that it was introduced by the Persians – who had developed a similar irrigation system, know as the qanat – in around the sixth century BC, although there is evidence that falaj-like irrigation systems were present in Arabia even before then.
Estimates of the total number of aflaj in Oman vary from five thousand to well over ten thousand, of which perhaps as many as four thousand are still in use. Traditionally, the reliability and size of the local falaj was the key factor underlying the size and prosperity of settlements in Oman. Nizwa, for instance, flourished thanks to its abundant water sources, including the mighty Falaj Daris. By contrast, if a falaj ceased flowing, it usually spelled the end of the village that relied on its water. Mosques can also often be seen near important sections of a falaj, offering a reliable source of water for ritual ablutions before prayers, while most of the country’s larger forts also boasted their own dedicated falaj, often flowing from an underground source directly into the building and guaranteeing a steady supply of water in the event of a siege. Aflaj remain an integral part of the traditional Omani date plantation or village – even today, many locals still use them to wash clothes in or even, in larger ones, to take a bath.
The communal effort and expense involved in constructing and maintaining a falaj was a heavy burden on traditional Omani society, although it also helped foster social cohesion and a sense of shared responsibility. Locating a suitable water source using the services of a specialist water diviner was the first challenge. There are two basic types of falaj: a ghaily falaj, drawn from a water source above ground such as a river bed or mountain spring, or, more commonly, an iddi or daudi falaj, drawn from an underground well, anything up to 50m beneath the surface – many aflaj start with extensive tunnels before they emerge into the light of day. Creating such subterranean conduits was obviously a major engineering feat, as was constructing the channels themselves. In order to make sure the water keeps running, these are built on a constant, if often imperceptible, downward gradient from source to destination (although in places – such as the mountain villages of the Saiq Plateau – you’ll see channels tumbling steeply down the hillside between layers of agricultural terracing).
The operation of the typical falaj is another highly developed part of the Omani social fabric. Aflaj are collectively owned, with villagers holding shares which give them the right to a certain amount of water. Water is diverted into adjoining fields by unblocking holes in the sides of the channel for a certain amount of time (traditionally calculated by the movement of stars at night and by sundials during the day, although nowadays most people just use clocks). Large villages usually employ a full-time manager (aref) to oversee the running of the falaj, assisted by an agent, who looks after repairs and maintenance.
Approaching from Muscat, take the exit off Highway 15 signed Izki and Qaroot al Janubiah then follow the main road into town for about 2km until you see a sign saying “Izki 4km” on your left. From Nizwa, take the road through Birkat al Mawz towards Nizwa, passing through about 5km of built-up straggle to reach the “Izki 4km” sign (on your right). Turn right/left (depending on which direction you’re approaching from) at the sign and follow the road for about 3km through mostly open countryside until you reach a roundabout. Take the (unsigned) right-hand turning here. This road runs alongside the oasis then veers right, narrowing as it passes through the oasis, and then climbs the ridge beyond, which is where you’ll find the old town and fort.
It’s around 140km from Muscat to Nizwa, an easy drive along the fast, modern Highway 15 which is now dual-carriageway virtually the whole way – a fine drive up into the mountains, or an even more exhilarating downward swoop when descending from Nizwa towards the coast.
The route covered by the modern highway is one the most significant in Omani history, winding through a gap between the towering uplands of the Jebel Akdhar on one side and the more modest peaks of the eastern Hajar on the other. This was once perhaps the most important commercial conduit in the country, and the principal trade artery between the highland capital of Nizwa and Muscat on the coast, its former importance signalled by the extraordinary surfeit of forts, watchtowers and fortified settlements which still flank the modern highway. These include the massed watchtowers and hilltop village of Fanja, the fort at Bidbid, the walled town at Izki, and the oasis-smothered valley and massed fortifications of Sumail, all of which offer rewarding diversions from the main road up into the hills.
The small town of JABRIN (also spelled Jabreen, Jibreen, Gabrin, Gibrin and so on) is best known for its superb fort – if you only visit one fort while you’re in Oman, this is probably the one to choose. The fort dates mainly from around 1670, one of several built during the Ya’aruba building boom of the later seventeenth century, constructed at the behest of the future imam Bil’arab bin Sultan (reigned 1680–92), who lies buried here in a crypt beneath the fort. Further alterations were made to the castle during the eighteenth century by imam Muhammad bin Nasr al Ghafiri (reigned 1725–27), and the whole thing was restored between 1979 and 1983.
The fort is located around 5km south of Jabrin town, a picture-perfect structure nestled amid palm trees. The fort’s main building is surrounded by high walls and a gravel courtyard, home to a small mosque; you can also see the deep falaj, which formerly provided the castle with water (and which flows right through the building), to the rear. The interior is absorbingly labyrinthine, with dozens of little rooms packed in around a pair of courtyards. Essentially, the building divides into two halves, which, for the sake of clarity, are described below as the northern and southern wings, although you won’t find this terminology used in the fort itself.
Walk through the entrance and you’ll find yourself in the fort’s extraordinarily deep and shady central courtyard. A right turn here brings you immediately into a second courtyard at the centre of the northern wing, centred around a similarly narrow and deep courtyard, with beautifully carved windows and wooden balconies above. Rooms on the ground floor are devoted to practical matters. These include a huge date store (with distinctive corrugated stone floor; sacks of dates were stacked up here, and the resultant juice collected in the channels running across the floor), a kitchen area (with the adjacent falaj providing constant running water), and a guard room with a microscopic jail sunk into the floor, like a cupboard in the ground.
From next to the date store, steep steps lead directly up to the rooftop, passing an entrance into the low-ceilinged guard tower en route. Emerging onto the rooftop, note a second flight of steps immediately to your right which descend back into the fort, and to which you’ll return in a moment. The rooftop itself is covered in a further jumble of buildings and towers. The largest structure is a fine pillared mosque, with traces of old painting on its arches and a finely painted ceiling. Steps lead up onto the roof of the mosque, the highest point of the whole fort, with superlative 360-degree views. A Qur’anic school (madrasah) stands next door.
Take the steps mentioned above back down to reach the fine set of rooms on the first floor, signed as “Conference Room, Dining Rooms & Courtroom”; all unusually spacious and high-ceilinged compared to most apartments within Omani forts (as are similar rooms in the southern wing). These include the large courtroom, with scales of justice hanging from the wall and a small opening at the far end of the room through which those convicted were forced to crawl out before being taken away for punishment. Next door is a dining room and the so-called “conference room”, a curious translation for what is simply a traditional majlis, or meeting room, with carpeted floor, cushions around walls, shelves lined with old swords, pots, kettles and a fine pair of wooden doors and painted ceiling hung with three big brass lamps. The high ceiling and line of floor-level windows keep things pleasantly cool, even without air conditioning. Close by on the same floor you’ll find a horse stall in which the imam was wont to stable his favourite steed. Continuing down the stairs from here you’ll pass a women’s jail (a standard feature of Omani forts) – not especially inviting, although it’s at least a bit less claustrophobic than the men’s jail a few steps below.
Continue to the bottom of the steps and you’ll find yourself back next to the central courtyard. Turn right at the bottom of the stairs to enter the fort’s southern wing, home to the finest sequence of interiors of any fort in Oman.
Once again, rooms on the ground floor have a practical emphasis, including soldiers’ quarters, an armoury and yet another jail (entered via a tiny hole in the wall). Climb the stairs around the back of the soldiers’ quarters to reach the first floor, home to a further superb pair of majlis (signed “public reception rooms”) embellished with richly painted ceilings – the red, black and gold ceiling in the second room is particularly fine. A library stands on the opposite side of the stairs with two-tiered windows with rustic little wooden shutters.
A further flight of stairs, framed with delicately moulded arches, leads up to the second floor, formerly the inner sanctum of the ruling imam and home to a suite of even more lavish rooms. These include the so-called “Sun and Moon” room, with yet another richly painted ceiling, the imam’s beautiful private majlis and, finest of all, the imam’s personal “suite” (as it’s described), a pair of rooms with intricately carved, rather Indian-looking filigree stone arches and wooden shuttered windows, although only one small section of the original painted ceiling survives. Steps continue from here up to the top of the fort, emerging opposite the rooftop mosque.
Return to the entrance into the central keep and head through the door on your right to reach the crypt-like grotto beneath the northern wing. Here you’ll find the wonderfully atmospheric tomb of imam Bil’arab bin Sultan bin Saif, who is said to have died by his own hand at Jabrin in 1692 at the end of his unhappy thirteen-year reign. The tomb is surrounded by arches carved with Qur’anic script and with the falaj flowing beneath. Yet another flight of stairs heads up next to the tomb, leading to the public reception rooms on the first floor.
The Saiq Plateau – the small village of Al Aqr in particular – is famous for its rose gardens, probably brought to Oman from Persia, where rose cultivation has a long history. The damask rose (Rosa Damascena) flourishes here thanks to the plateau’s temperate climate; the gardens are at their most colourful for a few weeks in April, when the flowers come into bloom.
Aesthetics aside, the Saiq Plateau’s rose gardens are also of considerable economic value thanks to their use in the production of the highly prized Omani rose-water. The petals of the fully grown roses are carefully plucked (usually early in the morning, when the weather is coolest, to help preseve their intense aroma) and then taken off for processing. This remains a largely traditional affair. The petals are stuffed into an earthenware pot with water, sealed up in an oven (traditionally heated using sidr wood, although nowadays it’s more likely to be gas) and boiled for about two hours. The resultant rose-flavoured steam condenses into a metal container inside the pot, which is then repeatedly filtered to produce a clear liquid. Demand for the area’s rose-water usually outstrips supply. Genuine Omani rose-water is itself an important ingredient in Omani halwa, while it can also be added to drinks and food. Locals believe that it’s also good for the heart, and can ease headaches if rubbed into the scalp.
The Western Hajar boasts virtually limitless trekking possibilities, with spectacular mountain scenery and a well-established network of trails – many of them along old donkey tracks through the mountains. Many of these paths have now been officially recognized as public trekking routes by the Oman government; some have been waymarked with yellow, white and red flags painted onto rocks en route to assist with route-finding, although you may still prefer to enlist the services of a specialist guide to make sure you don’t get lost in what is often inhospitable terrain. The high altitude of many of the treks means that temperatures are pleasantly temperate, although it’s wise not to underestimate the possible challenges of even relatively short hikes. Carry ample supplies of water and warm waterproof clothing at all times – weather conditions can change with spectacular suddenness up in the jebel.
For an excellent overview of some of the most rewarding routes, pick up a copy of Oman Trekking, published by Explorer, which details some of the country’s finest hikes, including ten in the Western Hajar, and one through Wadi Tiwi in Sharqiya. Unfortunately, virtually all the treks are linear rather than circular, meaning that you’ll either have to retrace your steps or arrange for transport to collect you at the end of the walk. The following are the best of the Western Hajar routes.
(9.5km; 5–6hr one-way). This extended and challenging hike follows the sheer cliffs ringing the top of Wadi Nakhr (Oman’s “Grand Canyon”) to the summit of the country’s highest mountain, with views into Wadi Sahtan and Wadi Bani Awf en route.
(3.5km; 1.5hr one-way). Probably the most famous walk in Oman, popularly known as the “Balcony Walk”, this spectacular trek follows an old donkey trail inside the rim of Wadi Nakhr to the abandoned village of As Sab (aka Sab Bani Khamis). Links up with route W6a.
(6km; 3–4hr one-way). Moderate trek following an old donkey path above the southern end of Wadi Nakhr. Links up with route W6.
(5km; 3–4hr one-way). Challenging high-level walk which climbs from the beautiful village of Bilad Sayt up the northern flank of the Western Hajar above Wadi Bani Awf. Links up with routes W9 and W10h.
(9km; 5–6hr one-way). Long trek along old donkey trail starting at the beautiful village of Misfat al Abryeen, with views into Wadi Bani Awf en route. Links up with routes W8 and W10h.
(3.5km; 1.5–2hr one-way). Relatively easy high-altitude walk from the village of Sharaf al Alamayn along the top of the mountains. Links up with routes W8 and W9.
(4km; 2hr one-way). An easy but spectacular walk through the traditional villages lining the edge of the Saiq Plateau, following the rim of the cavernous Wadi al Ayn.
(14km; 7–10hr one-way, 10–13hr circular walk if combined with Route W24b). Challenging and extremely exposed high-altitude trek around the northern edge of the Jebel Akdhar above the Ghubrah Bowl. Links up with trek W24b to form a circular route, just about doable by very fit walkers in a single day.
(4km; 2.5–3hr one-way). Short but challenging walk through a trio of mountain villages.