Yemen & Oman - Jan 2008
Yemen and Oman
There can’t be many places left in the world that could make
God smile, but Yemen is one of them.
Inhabited almost forever Yemen is, in many ways, the
birthplace of all our lives. In days past, the sons of Noah knew
it as the land of milk and honey Gilgamesh came here to search
for the secret of eternal life, wise men gathered frankincense
and myrrh from its mountains and, most famously, a woman
known simply as Sheba said Yemen was her home.
Legend tells how one day God decided to check out how his
creation was fairing: London, he decided, had changed a lot,
Egypt was nothing like he remembered it but Yemen, ‘well’, he
smiled ‘that hasn’t changed since the day I created it’.
One of the main attractions of Yemen, Wadi Hadramawt is the
largest wadi - or valley - in Arabia. 160km long, this strip of
fertile land with a year-round supply of groundwater supports a
population of around 200,000 in an otherwise arid area. By far
the most striking feature of Hadramawt is the traditional mud-
brick architecture of the towns, and Sayun, the largest town,
has some of the most beautiful minarets in the country. The
Sultan's Palace is an imposing building of bright white plaster
and pale blue window decorations, positioned above the main
souks. At the centre of Sayun is the turquoise Tomb of Habshi,
and the 16th century Mosque of al-Haddad lies nearby.
One of the most striking cities anywhere, Shibam has been
dubbed 'Manhattan of the desert' due to its collection of mud-
brick skyscrapers rising to 8 storeys in height. 500 of them lie
jammed tightly together on a slight inclination of the wadi floor,
with each roof level with the next. Surrounded by an earth wall,
Shibam is an extraordinary sight; entering the main square you
encounter the citadel which dates from the 13th century. Many
of the tall, thin houses have ornate wooden lattice screens over
the windows, and there are seven mosques within the city
walls, including the White Mosque of Sheikh Ma'ruf, which is
400 years old.
Muscat, Oman’s capital, is a relaxed coastal city with a
dramatic mountain backdrop and an attractive blend of modern
and traditional. It is made up of a series of districts, once
separate villages, stretching for 35 kilometres from the airport
at Seeb to the Old Town.
Muscat means ‘anchorage’ and the historic heart of the city is
arranged around the harbours of Muttrah and the tiny inner city
of Muscat. A walk along the Muttrah Corniche, lined with old
merchant’s houses and teeming with life, is highly
Mountain Road Via Hatt & Wadi Bani Awf
This truly spectacular road over the Western Hajar Mountains
affords some of the best views in Oman. Although the mountain
part of the route is only 70km long, it takes about four hours to
drive and a 4WD is essential to negotiate the sustained off road
descent into Wadi Bani Awf. This route passes through remote,
rugged country and you should take the necessary precautions.
Nizwa lies on a plain surrounded by a thick palm oasis and
some of Oman’s highest mountains. About two hours from
Muscat, along a new highway, the town is a gateway to the
historic sites of Bahla and Jabrin, and for excursions up Jebel
Akhdar and Jebel Shams. Nizwa fort, built in the 17th century,
is famed for its 40m-tall round tower. It’s worth climbing to the
top to see the date plantations encircling the town and the view
of the Hajar Mountains.
Jebel Shams & Wadi Ghul
Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Shams (mountain of the sun;
3075m), is best known not for its peak but for the view into the
spectacularly deep Wadi Ghul lying alongside it. The straight-
sided Wadi Ghul is known locally as the Grand Canyon of
Arabia as it fissures abruptly between the flat canyon rims,
exposing vertical cliffs of 1000m and more.
Opened in 2006, the cave is richly embellished with stalactites
and stalagmites and well worth a visit.
This venerable village at the foot of the Hajar Mountains is one
of the oldest in Oman, and is interesting for a wonderfully
preserved row of two-and three-storey mud-brick houses built
in the Yemeni style.
Without a guide or some information Jebel Akhdar (green
mountain) may seem something of a misnomer to the first time
visitor. Firstly, Jebel Akhdar refers not to a mountain as such,
but to an area that encompasses the great Saiq Plateau, at
2000m above sea level. Secondly, the jebel keeps its fecundity
well hidden in a labyrinth of wadis and terraces where the
cooler mountain air (temperatures during December to March
can drop to –5 deg C) and greater rainfall encourage prize
pomegranates, apricots and other fruit
Nakhal is a picturesque town dominated both by the Hajar
Mountains and one of Oman’s most dramatic forts. Built on the
foundations of a pre-Islamic structure, the towers and
entranceway of the fort were constructed in 1834. There are
excellent views of the Batinah plain from the ramparts and the
majlis (seating area) on the top storey of the fort and makes for
a cool place to enjoy the tranquility. The windows are perfectly
aligned to catch the breeze, even in summer.
With an attractive cornice, two forts, excellent beaches nearby
and a long history of dhow building, there is much to command
Sur to the visitor. In addition to its attractions, Sur is a
convenient base for day trips to Wadi Tiwi and Wadi Shab, the
turtle reserve at Ras al-Jinz and the desert camps of the