Lens-Artists,  Oman,  Ruins

Seen better days: the ruined villages of Oman

Not many countries can have seen such rapid change as did Oman in the 1970s. When Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970, Oman was considered one of the most technologically and educationally deprived countries in the world. In the first 25 years of his reign it moved from a largely feudal society to a rapidly developing modern one.

Although oil had already been discovered here in the 1960s, under the old sultan’s repressive regime the people of the country did not get any real economic benefits from the early years of oil production.

Replica of the type of home lived in by ordinary Omanis as recently as 1970, in Taqah in the south of the country, and a replica animal shelter

In 1970 the country had just three schools (all private) with a total of 900 students (all boys). By 1995 it had more than 1,002 schools with 481,100 students, of whom nearly half were girls. Literacy climbed from near zero to 41% (much higher among the under 30s).

In 1970 Oman had six miles of paved roads. By 1995 there were 22,800 miles of paved roads, including multi-lane highways making it possible to drive in a single day from Muscat to Salalah. That’s a journey that would have necessitated two weeks by camel caravan a quarter of a century before.

One result of this rapid pace of change was that people started to want to live not just in a modern country but in a modern home. But because the existing houses were so old, and lacked ‘all mod cons’, many found that the easiest way to achieve this was to up sticks and start again. As a result the countryside is dotted with abandoned ghost villages, half in ruins and wholly photogenic. They have certainly seen better days, so struck me as ideal subject matter for Tina’s Lens Artists Challenge on that theme.

Al Minzafah

The ruined village of Al Minzafah adjoins the more modern town of Ibra, of which it was once the centre. Near the entrance gate are the remains of Al Qablateen Mosque, the third oldest mosque in Oman; although little remains now apart from the mihrab and the well for ablutions.

Entrance gate and remains of the mosque

This is one of the oldest cities in Oman and was once a centre of trade, religion, education and art. Many of its buildings are former mansions once owned by the prosperous merchants of the early 19th century during the reign of Said bin Sultan Al-Said. At that time Zanzibar was ruled by the Sultanate of Oman. There were strong trade links between Ibra and Stone Town; so perhaps it is not surprising to find that the village has many beautiful carved wooden doors. It was the details of both wood and stone carving that I loved the most here.

When Said died in 1856 his kingdom was split into two. His third son, Thuwaini bin Said, became the Sultan of Muscat and Oman; and his sixth son, Majid bin Said, became the Sultan of Zanzibar. As the empire declined and trade between Oman and Zanzibar decreased, so these once stately mansions fell into ruin.

With no investment in the country and no modernisation, their decline intensified to the point that people felt there was no point in trying to rebuild – until now.

While Al Minzafah and Oman’s other villages have definitely seen better days in the past, they may also be about to see them again in the future. Recently people are starting to discover the charm of the older properties (especially in relation to tourism) and to restore and reoccupy them. We saw a small number here either undergoing restoration or fully restored and inhabited.

Al Hamra

This is another more or less ruined village; when we visited in 2019 only one of the houses had been restored to serve as a guesthouse, and we noticed another restoration in progress. But for the most part the old houses, many of them 400 years old, have been left to crumble.

Here the houses were all built of adobe rather than the stone we saw used elsewhere. Many are tall, up to four storeys in height, with ceilings made of palm beams and fronds topped by mud and straw. The village was built on a tilted rock slab and narrow lanes wind up between the houses; it reminded me a little of Italy’s hilltop towns. My featured photo was taken as we walked up to the village.

Exploring Al Hamra with our guide Said

Because the structures are of adobe there is none of the carving on walls that is such a feature in Al Minzafah. The most striking features therefore are the many ornately carved wooden doors and some interesting small windows, some with balconies.

A few more ruins

The mountains of Oman are strewn with similar villages. In Jebel Akhdar, the ‘Green Mountain’ massif in the heart of the Hajar mountain range, we looked down on Wadi Bani Habib. The ruins nestle among terraces where pomegranates and walnuts grow; although the pomegranate trees were yet to come into leaf in February.

In Wadi Ghule, a green valley in the foothills near Jebel Shams (the country’s tallest mountain), we enjoyed more distant views of the abandoned village ruins of Riwaygh as-Safil. The village houses blended into the rocky mountain; it was hard to make out except where flags had been hung from the crumbling walls.

I wonder if the flags are a sign that the local people haven’t totally abandoned these ruins? Will they too soon see better days again?

I visited Oman in 2019


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