Oman: A Search for the Lost Mosque
A Journey to Nizwa, Oman’s Capital and New Tourist Mecca
By Habeeb Salloum
“I can’t believe it! Today, we’ll be traveling into Arab history.” My daughter Muna was excited as we left our hotel, one of the top abodes in Muscat, Oman’s spread-out capital. In a few minutes we were on a wide avenue on our way to Nizwa, the most important city in Oman’s history. Our journey would take us through the Hajar Mountains to this town that is still the throbbing heart of Oman.
It was pleasant driving along the 35 km (22 miles) long thoroughfare that joins the greater Muscat area. Both sides were lined with well-tended greenery and beyond, sparkling white villas and other structures, incorporating the best of traditional and modern architecture, created a magical atmosphere.
“It’s a fairytale town!” Muna remarked as we passed Muscat’s International airport, some 20 km (12 mi) from our hotel. A moment later, we turned left at the impressive Clock Tower Roundabout, then made our way westward along a superb four-lane highway.
Soon we were in the foothills of the bare Hajar Mountains. Even though the hills did not indicate any vegetation, they diffused a kaleidoscope of colors. From grey, green, red to golden-yellow, it was a delightful lunar-like landscape made for an artist’s brush.
While admiring the scenic view, I was startled to hear my daughter call out, “Look! The gas tank is almost empty! Do you want us to walk? It’s a barren land! We’ll never find a gas station!” She had barely finished chiding me when the town of Fanja came in sight. Her panic attack had been quickly allayed.
The bustling town of Fanja, like all small or large Omani urban centres had very clean and paved streets, well-kept homes and striking heritage monuments decorating the sides of the avenues. The reincarnation of its villages and towns has been a great achievement for a nation which less than three decades ago had only 8 km (5 mi) of paved roads, virtually no electricity and towns with poorly built homes surrounded by littered streets.
Through Barren Mountains
A short distance after Fanja, the four-lane highway tapered down to two lanes, cutting through barren mountains that glimmered in the sunlight and diffused a never-ending series of interchanging colors. Many centuries ago, copper was mined extensively in these hills — exuding with an aura of a green patina. The copper of Magan (the classical name for Oman) was well known in the ancient world. A poet once described these hills as ‘purple beaded mountains, one rising behind the other’.
Along the roadside, in the valleys, here and there were scattered villages ringed by spots of greenery. The vast escarpment of Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain), part of the Hajar Mountains, looked down on these barren lowlands, barely decorated with trees and shrubs.
As we drove along, every once-in-a-while we would see hills, crowned with ancient watchtowers. We had often noted these towers along the Omani coast where they were employed to spot enemy ships. Around Ghaylah, surrounded by palm groves, the number of these watchtowers increased. Apparently, in the past, instead of looking for enemy ships, they acted as sentinels to spot marauding tribes looking for plunder.
After the Sumail gap, we drove through some dozen wadis (dry river beds), which, due the heavy rains in the previous few days, were now rushing streams. The water, in many places, was flowing over the road, at times, near a foot deep. I feared that our small Ford Tempo would stall in the running water. However, on both journeys, going and coming, all went well.
At Izki, noted for its large military base, we turned right toward Nizwa. In about 20 minutes, we entered its outskirts on an avenue lined with palms and architecturally stunning modern buildings. On our left rose the old city with its magnificent restored fort, dominating the skyline. Turning toward the walled city, we crossed a wide-shallow stream where people, taking advantage of the unusual flowing water, were washing their autos. Past a large blue and gold-domed mosque, the main landmark in town, we parked our car on the main street of this former capital of Oman.
A city of 85,000 Nizwa is, after Muscat, the country’s most popular tourist destination. Like us, few visitors to Oman leave the country without at least making a day’s trip to explore this historic city, important since the dawn of Islam.
In the 7th century, it was one of the first towns in the region that received the Muslim emissaries, sent by the Prophet Muhammad and led by ‘Amr Ibn al-‘As. Later early in Islamic history a sect calling themselves Khawarj broke away from mainstream Islam. Later, a section of this sect, led by Abdullah ibn Abadha, established their own type of Islam, which became known as Ibadhi after its leader. They made Nizwa their holy city and it remained a stronghold of their Imams (religious leaders) until a few decades ago. ‘
Copper Caravan Routes
For centuries, Nizwa was an important hub on the prosperous incense and copper caravan routes. However, in the ensuing centuries, the city and. surrounding countryside became lawless and until a few decades ago, travelers if they wanted to visit the town took their life into their own hands.
The famous Arab traveler Ibn Battuta who visited the city in the 13th century, describing its people, wrote: “They are a bold and brave race and the tribes are perpetually at war with each other.” Today, like all towns and cities in Oman, it is one of the safest cities in the world.
As we walked on our way to explore the old town, a young man approached us, “I’ll show you the city”, he smilingly volunteered. Introducing himself as Nassar, he continued, “I don’t want anything. I have nothing to do.”
Listening to him, I thought, “This is my chance.” One of the main reasons for my journey was to visit the oldest mosque in Nizwa that reportedly has three mihrabs, the earliest facing Jerusalem. It was erected before the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation that Muslims had to face toward Mecca when praying. The young man said that he knew this mosque and also other important tourist sites.
Touring the Souk
Accompanied by Nassar, we toured the souk (market), built in an attractive Omani style and offering the best of Omani jewellery, traditional daggers, scimitars and other wood and metal handicrafts for which the region has long been famous. However, we did not buy any of these artisan products – the prices were higher than those in Muscat.
After exploring the next-door air-conditioned fruit and vegetable market, impressive by its tidiness and cleanliness, we climbed to the top of the restored cylindrical Nizwa Fort. Built in 1860 by the Imam Sultan bin Said al-Yarubi as a bastion for the Ibadha Imamate, it served as a seat of government and a prison. From its ramparts there was a superb view of the finest date plantation in Oman – stretching for 8 km (5 mi).
With Nassar, we left the old city then drove to the outskirts to see the Falaj Daris – the largest falaj (an ancient type of irrigation system) in Oman whose waters spring from the overshadowing Jebel Akhdar. We rested awhile by its cool flowing waters, then left for the nearby village of Sa’al where Nassar said we would find the ancient mosque.
As we drove on the village’s unpaved streets, Nassar had me stop a number of times to ask directions, raising my suspicion that he did not know anything about the mosque. After about half a dozen attempts, a boy riding a bicycle heard us ask about what by now seemed to me a mirage. He motioned us to follow.
I parked our auto, then we walked on clean streets between old homes until the boy pointed to an ancient building atop a rise on the ground, saying, “Masjid Sa`al!” Inside, there was only one mihrab that had seen better days. I was annoyed, “It’s not the mosque we’re looking for.” Nassar seemed embarrassed, “Come! I’ll take you to one of my learned friends.”
In less than 10 minutes we were back in the old city talking to his friend Muhammad. “I’ve never heard of a mosque with three mihrabs, he asserted. “But I’ve read in a number of books about this mosque”, I retorted. Muhammad snickered, “Many writers love to tell fairytales. The oldest mosque we have here is the one Nassar showed you.”
Bewildered, I dismissed Nassar, paying him handsomely for his few hours with us. Had Muhammad and Nassar duped me? I did not know. My search for the ancient mosque had been pointless.
In any case, our trip had not been in vain. Even though we had not found the old mosque, we had traveled through a fantastic mountainous landscape then explored a town renowned in history that has been recast into a tourist mecca and, to top it all, tasted the sweet hilwa (sweet) for which Nizwa is renowned.
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Habeeb Salloum is a travel and food writer, as well as the author more than a dozen books, who lives in Toronto Canada. He is GoNOMAD’s oldest contributor, and going strong! Click his name above to see his books on Amazon.