Monday, November 19, 2007

Oman: Sinbad's Heirs

In Oman, you realize that water is life. All around you have the salt flats of the Persian Gulf's Arabian shore and the vast rolling sand sea of the Empty Quarter. However, running in a band from the tip of the Musandam Peninsula, through the northern United Arab Emirates, and then along or just removed from the coast until Ras al-Hadd, the Arabian Peninsula's easternmost point, are the Hajar Mountains, a deep brown range which brings the water table closer to the surface it frequently bursts forth in springs to produce Oman's famous wadis, the streams which flow between and beyond the mountains toward the Gulf of Oman, giving rise to vast stretches of greenery ranging from date palms to a midwest American density of grasses and spread throughout cultivated fields by sometimes centuries-old stone channels known as aflaj which local folklore once held to have been built by the order of an amalgamation of Solomon and the mythical Persian ruler Jamshid.

However, Oman's people and much of its history have been shaped not only by the waters which irrigate their land, but by their proximity to the sea, part of the porous membrane between medieval cultures that was the Indian Ocean world. The 1001 Nights character Sinbad the Sailor was based in Basra, but born in Sohar, an Omani port which in the 10th century was among the Islamic world's largest cities, an entrepot for goods and sailors from India, Africa, and even China and the lands beneath the winds which are today the islands of southeast Asia. Among the important goods introduced to the rest of the Middle East via Oman were foodstuffs - the mango, sour orange, possibly the banana, and definitely the coconut. During the 9th and 10th centuries, sailors based in Oman sailed with extra crew to islands in the Indian Ocean, where they would cut down coconut trees, build extra ships, and sail back full of coconuts.

Modern Sohar is regarded as one of the nicest cities in Oman. White is the overwhelmingly dominant color, and as in the rest of the country, building codes keep the architecture very traditional. The skyscrapers seen in other Gulf states are nowhere in evidence. One attraction is the large white 13th-century fort which also houses a nice museum covering natural, cultural, economic, and political history, though due to reduced hours I wasn't able to finish seeing it. The city's main draw, however, is the beautiful, well-kept corniche, where you can walk along the beach where the gorgeous waters of the Gulf of Oman wash up against the smooth sand below the level of a sidewalk lined with light blue light-poles.

I only stayed there for three hours. I would have liked to stay longer, but the afternoon heat was stifling, amplified as it was by the sub-tropical humidity of the ocean shore just north of the Tropic of Cancer. More than any other day of my trip, I spent a lot of time just trying to stay cool. As in Upper Egypt and the northern Emirates, people religiously observed an afternoon siesta beginning between 1 and 2 and lasting until 4, and when I could swing it I finally gave in and just joined them, having figured out that they knew what they were doing. After the fort closed, I slipped into the only one of the seafront biryani shops that was still open along that part of the seafront, and then hiked a short distance inland to a department store called al-Jadida, where I purchased new washcloths, a pair of kitchen scissors, and a new razor before heading back to my base in Muscat.

Between Sohar and Muscat is the Batinah coast, perhaps the most fertile area of Arabia, where wadis eventually meet the sea and a high water table between the mountains and the coast keep the plants growing even some distance away. The surnames spoke to the region's history. Those familiar with my dissertation will understand why al-Yahmadi and al-Farahidi brought to my face a smile of recognition, but one also sees lots of al-Farsi and al-Balushi. The former refers to those whose ancestors were Persian; the latter, to the Baluchs of southeastern Iran and western Pakistan. Both have been part of Oman's cultural fabric for as long as we have records. In ancient and medieval times, some geographers classified Oman as part of India, and the ancient Egyptian reliefs depicting the inhabitants of the provinces of ancient Persian rulers portrayed the Omanis as very similar to South Asians in dress and grooming. For a time Oman even controlled an overseas empire in East Africa and the coast of what is now Pakistan, and if memory serves the last South Asian outpost was relinquished only after Pakistan's independence. Despite this integration into Omani society, however, non-Arab groups retained their own identity through means other than onomastics; a generation ago, Baluchs still usually spoke their own language.

The place where I was staying was right along the shore, in Muttrah at the Fish Roundabout along that corniche there. In everything the Omani government has tried to balance openness with concern for tradition, and by a deliberate policy they have tried to price themselves out of the range of backpackers whom they fear would bring moral corruption. As a result, this was the only place in the capital where you could find cheap accomodation, with "cheap" meaning about $45 a night for a room similar to what you'd get at an American Econolodge or Super 8. Fish Roundabout was near the fish market, and as you left in the morning you were usually greeted to the strong smell of fish from nearby. The seafront also had an array of coffeeshops and eateries. Most of these were more of the standard Arab sheesha joint than Starbucks-style, though you did see the latter here and there in other parts of town.

The one night I didn't stay in Muscat was spent down at Sur, Oman's easternmost major city near the easternmost point on the Arabian peninsula. It's general area, where the Gulf of Oman/Persian Gulf commercial zone opens out into the broader Indian Ocean region, has probably always had a major port of some description. Thirteen miles up the coast from modern Sur are the ruins of Qalhat. Books routinely say it dates back at least to the 1st century, but I suspect they're getting that from a primary source they shouldn't be trusting on that point. In any case, you can at least get it back to the early Islamic period archaeologically. Today there is a village by the name based economically around an oil and natural gas refinery; the ruins of the historic Qalhat are on a bluff overhead. Rising at Sohar's expense, the city was at its height during the 13th and 14th centuries when it was the main Arabian city of the Hormuzids, a client dynasty of the Mongol Ilkhanate.

Getting there today is probably harder today than it was 700 years ago, as the coast road between Sur and Muscat isn't fully paved, and many taxis won't even bother. On the way back to Sur, my driver told me that technically it was illegal for taxis to drive there, but the police were that rigorous about it. The city completely destroyed by the Portuguese for resisting their rule, and most of its buildings are down to their foundations. I was only able to orient myself with the aid of a topographical study by Paolo Costa which I had brought from Jerusalem. The exception is the Mausoleum of Bibi Maryam. Local tradition claims it is the tomb of the Queen of Sheba, but it is almost certainly the mausoleum constructed for the Hormuzid Baha ad-Din Ayaz by his wife, frequent deputy, and probable successor, Bibi Maryam. That folklore, however, may be why the Portuguese left it alone.

Sur ultimately replaced Qalhat as the main port of this region, known as the Sharqiyya. As usual, the buildings are almost entirely white. Although a large fort about 250 years old overlooks a nice lagoon into which ships of old were guided by three lighthouses, I think in modern times fishing is a bigger maritime industry than international trade; as the sun sets, you see a number of fishing boats heading back home to prepare for the next morning's market. These fishing boats are all dhows, the most important vessels in this part of the Indian Ocean, and Sur is famous for dhow-building to this day. I saw the yards along the lagoon, but as with Ras al-Khaimah, I was not there when anyone was actually building a dhow. In any case, their two most notable characteristics are the lateen sail, the triangular sails mounted at an angle to the mast also used on Nile feluccas, and the fact that they are sown together rather than nailed, which proponents claim adds valuable elasticity to the frame.

Before I finish, I can't resist mentioning the Magan Boat Project, which works out of Sur. The object of this group, which is associated with Qalhat excavator Tom Vosmer, is to try and solve mysteries about the construction of Bronze Age sailing vessels by building replicas, sailing them until they sink, and then comparing the debris with the remains we have from the Bronze Age. In 2006, it was reported that they determined that sailors during the Bronze Age probably tried to plug leaks in the bitumen with bits of rope, as there was a good match when the crew of scholars did that on their most recent voyage. Eventually they hope to actually complete a voyage from Oman (ancient Magan) to the Indus delta in what is now Pakistan.

The larger point of all this is that the sea has been one of the most important factors shaping Oman, and today represents an important element of the ideology of its heritage. Another important part, the desert, mountains, and wadis of the inland region, I'll go into later.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home