This is the second of six posts on our visit to Oman in March-April 2022.
If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.
Jebel Akhdar and the Saiq Plateau
Our wonderful guide Saqer was waiting for us on some waste land on the edge of Muscat at 9.15pm after our mad 500+ km dash by road from Khasab. Our destination was the Sahab Resort and Spa which is at an altitude of about 2000m. Muscat is more or less at sea level and the road went up and up and up. The surface was good and wide enough for vehicles to pass. It was lit by bright street lights all the way. We passed through a sizeable town Saih Katenah on the plateau, arrived at our hotel about 11pm and flopped straight into bed.
Next morning we found that the hotel was right on the edge of the plateau. There was a stunning view across to mountains and down to some tiny villages some of which were not accessible by road.
View from Sahab Resort and Spa
We also found that there were very few guests in the hotel and so the choice of food was not great although it was fine. We ate outside by the pool on our second night there.
Saqer gave us a lie-in and came for us at 10am. Our first stop was to see more fossils on the top of the plateau then we drove down and parked near Al Aqr the first of three villages which are close enough to each other to walk between them.
There was water nearby and the villagers grow roses for rosewater, which is very popular in Oman, as well as fodder for animals. An elderly couple were tilling a small area and planting it up.
Agriculture, Saiq Plateau
It was interesting to walk round the villages. Sadly many of the old stone houses are no longer occupied but their intricate wooden and metal doors remain. Some workmen were attempting to rebuild one house in a rather primitive way as it would not be possible to get any large machinery there.
Construction work, Saiq Plateau
The walk to the second village Al Ayn was a little tough in parts. It goes down then round a spur and up to reach the village where there are more abandoned houses. It is possible to drive to it and so Saqer took the car to meet us while we enjoyed the walk.
On the trail between the villages
The distance to the third village Al Sheragah is further and likely tougher and so Saqer walked there and back with Martin while I got into conversation with a doctor from Lancaster who was visiting his Omani family.
The Saiq Plateau is just one area within the Jebel Akhdar Massif. Jebel Akhdar means green mountain and there are areas within it which are cultivable. Below the three villages are vertiginous terraces which must once have been used to grow food.
Old terraces by the three villages
We could also see wadis in the valleys supporting green plants. The best known of these is Wadi Bani Habab where you can walk down and actually see some water and plenty of vegetation. The old village of Bani Habab is in ruins lying just above the wadi.
Old Wadi Bani Habab
The modern village lies above the wadi and is described by the Rough Guide as “uninspiring”. It did look out of place.
By the end of our stay with Saqer we decided that he must know every restaurant owner in the area he covers. Every day he would phone ahead – yes there’s a phone signal everywhere we went to – to a restaurant for lunch which usually consisted of chicken, dal, salad, rice and flatbreads which he ordered for us.
After lunch in Saih Katenah we were really introduced to the mountain roads in Jebel Akhbar with a drive up to a view point. The gravel road was just wide enough for our land cruiser. It was twisty with a sheer drop for some of the way.
On the way to Al Suwjara
At the end of the road we parked directly opposite Al Suwjara which is a village built underneath cliffs on the mountain side. There was a steep stony path down and then up to the village. People appeared to be living there.
Al Suwjara under the cliffs
Much further up on the hillside there was a goat pen which Martin managed to capture with the zoom lens on his powerful camera.
When I was writing this I discovered that there is a guest house in Al Suwjara on booking.com and some people had posted videos of the walk to it on youtube. Some locals (young males) were setting off down the path to the village just as we left.
Later in the day there was time to enjoy the wonderful sunset from the hotel gardens. A large building stood out in the distance. We were told that it belongs to the son of the Emir of Qatar.
Sunset from Sahab Resort and Spa
Birkat al Mouz and Al Hamra
Next day we visited several places lower down the Jebel Akhdar mountains. We stopped at the tourist office at the bottom of the long road up to the plateau and were served what turned out to be the usual hospitality offering of coffee and dates.
Birkat al Mouz is a large village on the edge of a huge date plantation. Like many other villages there is a tower built on a hill with a good view overlooking the date palms towards the old village which is mostly in ruins.
View from tower overlooking Birkat al Mouz
We drove through the dates past a stone wall which would interest anyone who lives in the Yorkshire Dales. It was about 5m tall and there was no mortar.
5m stone wall at Birkat al Mouz; spot the person at the end
Near Birkat al Mouz we also saw our first falaj, which is a kind of water channel for irrigation. This one named Falaj Al Khatmein has World Heritage Status. It is decorated with pebbles including its name in Arabic text and there was a tiny decorated building next to it.
Irrigation Falaj Al Khatmein
Our next stop was at Al Hamra. Bait al Safah is a living cultural heritage museum in a house in this village. A lady who spoke fluent English described a demonstration of making Omani flatbreads and coffee.
Making Omani flatbreads
Part of the upstairs of the house was furnished. There was an excellent view from the rooftop but sadly much of the old part of the town is in ruins.
Bahla Fort and Jabreen Castle
The town of Bahla is dominated by a huge fort, visible from some way away and said to be one of the best in Oman. After another excellent lunch we tackled it on a very hot afternoon.
There was evidence of some earlier buildings inside. Steps lead you up and down to different areas. You can also climb up on to a roof for a view of the surrounding area (somebody did).
On the roof of Bahla Fort
This fort dates back to the 12th-15th centuries but it was rebuilt during the 17th century and has been renovated very recently, giving a relatively new appearance. Inside the ceilings are wooden and many of the doors have wooden surrounds.
Inside Bahla Fort
It was all spotlessly clean. Bahla Fort is really visited for its size – you could easily get lost in it going up and down the many steps. Just a few objects are on display in the interior.
Not far from Bahla, Jabreen Castle is a rather different structure being tall rather than sprawling. It dates from about 1670 and the interior is more elaborately decorated than Bahla Fort. Many of the interior rooms which surround a courtyard contain large pots, cooking implements and even furnishings.
Inside Jabreen Castle
We were intrigued by the date store where the floor consists of corrugated channels. Dates were piled up on the floor allowing their juice to collect in the channels.
Date store in Jabreen Castle
Parts of the interior have intricate decorations, some made of wood. Some of the wooden ceilings are very highly decorated. The ceiling above one staircase is decorated in Arabic writing carved in relief.
Arabic writing decoration inside Jabreen Castle
Our next overnight stop was at Nizwa which is the historic old capital of Oman. This is a much larger town and on the way into it I managed to photograph a huge mosque.
Mosque at Nizwa
In Nizwa we stayed at the Antique Inn which really lives up to its name. We wanted to experience the local way of living and had asked ETG specifically to put us there rather than in a modern hotel some way from the old town centre. The Inn is very close to the fort and the souqs (markets). We slept on a traditional mattress on the floor, but we also had a nice private bathroom and the wifi worked very well.
The sitting room at the inn is furnished with carpets and with cushions around the sides for seating. Our dinner and breakfast were mostly Omani food and were served on a rooftop terrace.
Sitting room, Antique Inn, Nizwa
Nizwa was our first experience of local souqs and we spent some time on our first evening wandering round buildings which were surprisingly modern and air-conditioned inside as well as some older market stalls which were more like those we have seen in other countries.
Spices and nuts in Nizwa souq
Even in the old part all notices and advertising are displayed in English as well as Arabic.
Old style shop, Nizwa
The Nizwa souqs are definitely not just for tourists. Plenty of locals were shopping there. In the date souq a display board showed thirty-nine kinds of dates.
Choose your date
There is a huge market in Nizwa on Fridays when locals come from miles around to sell livestock and other goods. But we were there on a Thursday. The goat market building was empty and we missed the opportunity to buy a camel. We did see two camels in a pickup truck parked outside the market area presumably ready for market day.
Camels on the way to market
There were more tourists in Nizwa Fort than we had seen elsewhere but it was not crowded.
A band was playing in one of the rooms just off the courtyard near the entrance.
Band playing inside Nizwa Fort
The present fort dates back to the late 17th century and is in a similar style to the previous ones we had seen with crenellated battlements. A huge circular tower was designed to stop undesirables from entering.
The displays in the museum inside the fort are excellent, being well-designed and very informative. One large and very detailed display board has a cut-out view of the tower and illustrates the gory details of the various traps for invaders.
Display board: traps for the unwary in Nizwa Fort
A “murder hole” was designed to allow rocks to be dropped and boiling date syrup to be poured down on anyone who should not be there. There are true pitfalls where invaders would fall into pits through gaps in the staircases. These have all been preserved and glassed over for tourists to see them.
Murder hole: detail from the Ancient Omani Fortification board
The museum inside the fort contains more excellent information boards including quotes from two British travellers. A British Naval lieutenant James Raymond Wellsted visited Nizwa in 1835. He was finally admitted to the fort and noted seven massive iron doors and that “a guardian behind each inquired the purport of our visit; and being told that we were servants of the Sooltan, he removed several locked bars and chains, and then we passed on.” In his Arabian Sands published in 1948 Wilfred Thesiger described the view on a clear day of the entire length of the Jebel Akhdar ridge from his camp just outside Nizwa.
Another board provides a detailed description of date palms and their uses and yet another one of trade routes on a well-illustrated map.
Decorated doors are a characteristic of Omani buildings and photos of 19 of the best ones in Nizwa are displayed on another board.
Doors of Nizwa: in Nizwa Fort Museum
The juxtaposition of old and new is very apparent in Nizwa. Several of the old buildings near the souqs and fort are in ruins. It seemed odd to see 4WDs parked next to them and within sight of much newer construction. But it was good to see that plenty of the old traditions remain and how well the display boards in the museum in the Fort promote the history and culture of the area.
We were sad to leave Nizwa but it was time to move on to the desert and then the coast.
Leaving Nizwa Fort
Picture gallery: Oman Part 2: Mountains and Villages
Click to enlarge