Not every country can boast one, never mind four! We are talking about Oman’s World Heritage Sites which the global community has honoured for their significance to the present and for posterity. Having just one World Heritage Site is something any country can be rightfully proud about. So to have four such sites is truly a feather in the cap of this dynamic, culturally significant land. The four sites in Oman are the Bahla Fort, the Land of Frankincense, the Aflaj irrigation system and the Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn settlement and necropolis.
What is a World Heritage Site?
A World Heritage Site (WHS) is one listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) as a place having special cultural or physical importance. Each WHS belongs to the country where it is located, but it is also understood that it is in the interest of the international community to preserve these sites. There are 840 WHS in 148 countries.
In order to comply for World Heritage status, a country must first make an inventory of its sites of cultural and physical importance and nominate a particular site for evaluation by the World Conservation Union and the International Council on Monuments and Sites. There are 10 selection criteria and to be chosen as a World Heritage Site, the site must comply with each one.
Why do they matter?
The criteria for a place of cultural significance includes an example of human creative genius, such as an example of traditional human settlement or land use which has become vulnerable over time. It also might reflect the interchange of cultures over a span of time, and especially any culture that has since vanished from the face of the earth, or is in danger of doing so.
Criteria for natural or physical World Heritage significance reflect examples of exceptional natural beauty that represent major stages in the Earth’s history, as well as areas of outstanding importance in terms of biological diversity and endangered species.
Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn
This is a wonderfully complete example of a third millennium BC necropolis site. Together with fortification towers, settlements and irrigation installations for agricultural cultivation, it is a rare example of the way an ancient culture lived. Part of the reason for its being accorded World Heritage Site status was its superb example of Bronze Age funeral practices. Situated in Ibri, some 300km south-west of Muscat, the northern part of the site consists of bee-hive tombs while the southern part contains cemeteries of the Um al-Nar period’s style, between 2700BC and 2000AD. The site used to stand at the intersection of ancient trade routes, and exploratory work has revealed several tombs which date back to the Iron Age. Visitors cannot fail to be struck by the realisation that the site points to the existence of an advanced, well-ordered civilisation 5 000 years ago in Oman. Archaeological work has also unearthed well-designed red pottery pieces decorated with horizontal black lines. An archeological tomb dating to the Um al-Nar period and some chambers of the main tower in the settlement have been renovated. Visitors cannot fail to be struck by the realisation that the site points to the existence of an advanced, well-ordered civilisation 5 000 years ago in Oman that must have enjoyed a flourishing economy and contact with other parts of the world! The construction of the tombs suggests a specialist knowledge of stonemasonry as well as a thriving architectural community.
Oman has been described as “the land of 1 000 forts” and it certainly seems wherever you drive across the Sultanate that there are forts on every hilltop. However, only one made it into the ranks of World Heritage Sites. Bahla Fort is one of four historic fortresses situated at the foot of the Jabal al Akhdar highlands. Its stone foundations and immense adobe walls and towers were built in the 13th and 14th centuries, and reflect the power and vision of the dominant tribe in the area at the time, the Banu Nebhan. Some of the walls are 165 feet high. Reconstruction work is ongoing at the Bahla Fort. To the southwest is the Jaamea Mosque with a 14th-century sculpted mihrab. Bahla Fort is about a two-hour drive south-west from Muscat towards Nizwa.
Aflaj Irrigation System
This World Heritage Site refers to the ancient system of water irrigation that is believed to have been in use in Oman since around 2500BC, and is still in use in some places. Five actual sites were selected by the World Heritage Committee to represent the more than 3 000 sites in Oman. These are Falaj Al-Khatmeen, Falaj Al-Malki, Falaj Daris, Falaj Al-Jeela and Falaj Al-Muyassar. The system works by letting gravity channel water from underground springs to crops and human settlements. Such mastery of engineering allowed communities to grow crops in extremely arid areas, and allowed for equitable and effective allocation of scarce water resources throughout the community. A tour of these sites is an absolute must to better understand Omani culture. Look out for the gradual change in water usage, from collection for drinking through male and female ablution areas, laundry and finally into the date fields. Sun dials were also used traditionally to time the distribution of water.
The Land of Frankincense
Many visitors to Oman will have heard of frankincense from the Bible, it being one of the gifts from the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus. However, many will not have actually seen a frankincense tree, much less one being harvested. The frankincense trail, on what has come to be known as the Incense Road, actually consists of four designated areas, the archaeological sites of Shisr, Khor Rori and Al-Balid, and the Frankincense Park of Wadi Dawkah. These places straddle an ancient caravan route that took frankincense from here to different corners of the world. A tour of this World Heritage Site with leave visitors with a glimpse into one of the most important luxury trading activities of the ancient world. In addition, the Oasis of Shishr and the structures at Khor Rori and Al-Balid are outstanding examples of medieval fortified settlements.