Jabal Akhdar, Oman’s preserved sanctuary
Jabal Akhdar, Oman - Until a few years ago, entry to Jabal Akhdar — the “Green Mountain” — the most spectacular spot in Oman’s Al Hajar mountain chain, was forbidden to foreigners and Omanis who did not live there.
At 3,009 metres above sea level Jabal Shams is the tallest peak in the Arabian peninsula. The area was the cradle of a 1950s rebellion against the rule of Sultan Said, the father of current ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said.
The once barely accessible mountainous area, 150 kilometres from Muscat has since become an easy ride, following a major urbanisation development on Sayq plateau at 2,000 metres, which led to the rise of a modern village, Sayh Qatanah.
The new setting is equipped with modern infrastructure, including asphalt roads, electricity, water, internet connections, schools and clinics — a total change from the lifestyle of the past.
“We moved from our village in the wadi 17 years ago,” Musabbah al-Shraiqi said. “Many people did the same, resettling on the plateau, where life is much more comfortable. They would never go back to their previous lifestyle.”
Shraiqi is among hundreds of inhabitants who left villages along the wadi at the foot of the majestic mountain. The villages there had terraced fields planted with pomegranate, date and peach trees, which provided income for the residents.
Many of the gardens there are now in disrepair because much of the new generation find it difficult to work the land, especially when access to the hamlets is possible only by mule or by walking on ancient donkey trails that take at least two hours to traverse.
Shraiqi, however, is among the exceptions.
“I will never let the gardens of my ancestors die,” said the 32-year-old from Masirat al-Shreeqiyeen, a spectacular village built into the rocky mountain on the edge of a cliff.
“Together with my younger brother, Nasser, we come every weekend to take care of the trees and to repair the walls of the terraces when they are damaged from the rains or other natural reasons,” Shraiqi said while planting garlic.
“We are proud of what our grandparents built and we are not ready to leave it,” said Nasser al-Shraiqi as he showed his organically grown sweet potatoes, pomegranate and banana trees.
“The pomegranates of Jabal Akhdar are the best on Earth! Our neighbours from the Gulf countries are crazy about the Omani pomegranates and it is a good income for us during the summer,” Nasser Shraiqi added.
In the last few years, the region has increasingly opened to visitors. Consequently, the number of tourists from Gulf countries, seeking a cooler summer climate, increased. Temperatures on the plateau rarely exceed 30 degrees Celsius in summer.
Musabbah and Nasser al-Shraiqi sell a lot of their produce to tourists visiting Sayh Qatanah, now home to 2,200 inhabitants, former residents of the wadi villages.
The exodus from the wadi took place gradually over more than 20 years, as urban development took shape, Musabbah Shraiqi explained.
Until the end of the 20th century, the inhabitants of Jabal Akhdar divided their time between the wadi and the mountain tops. “During winter, they would stay in the villages in the wadi because it is less cold but in summer they move to the high mountain spots, seeking the cool weather,” Musabbah Shraiqi said. Today, they are settled permanently on the plateau.
Most young people from Jabal Akhdar, which was the bastion of the 1958 “Green rebellion” that rejected the sultan’s rule, are enrolled in the country’s police force and army.
“I work for the Sultan’s armed forces, a secure job which ensures me a salary at the end of the month,” said Yaacoob al-Jamoudi, 20, from Aaqabat al Biyout. “My parents moved to the mountain when I was a small child, after the government built the road and brought the electricity to the plateau.”
Home to some of the world’s oldest trees, including 3,000-year-old juniper and olive trees, Jabal Akhdar was declared a protected natural reserve in 2011. It has a pleasant Mediterranean climate in which grapes, peaches, pomegranates — fruits otherwise not found in the country — flourish.
The region is also famous for its roses, from the petals of which rosewater is distilled in late April and May.
A walk through the terraced fields along the narrow walls of the falaj (ancient water canal) is a unique experience. A fantastic view over the surrounding mountains opens up before visitors, giving an instructive insight into the life of the people in this remote region.
“Come on! Bring more stones,” a voice barked. An old man shouted orders to his grandchildren while showing them how to build a wall on the side of the road in Aaqabat al Biyout.
“They have to learn how to build and how to farm. This new generation is so lazy! At their age we were even capable of building houses and walls for the garden from stones,” said the man, pointing at his 12-year-old grandson.
“If they continue in this direction, we will lose our identity, we will lose our wealth in the wadi,” he added.