Archive | December 2013

Behold, Oman’s World Heritage Sites!

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 Tombs

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.

Bahla Fort

Bahla Fort

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.

Frankincense

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.

Eat your heart out!

As soon as you arrive in Oman, don’t make a beeline for the widely available international cuisine, but rather sample the enticing local fare

Omani Food 1

While you can find everything from cannelloni to croissants, bagels to biryanis – and often on the same street – no visit to Oman is complete without trying the splendid local cuisine. Here is a quick guide to some of the nation’s signature snacks and defining dishes.

Rice: Is the staple diet eaten at lunchtime in all the regions of Oman. Cooked in a variety of ways, rice is served with meat dishes. ‘Maqbous’ – tinged with saffron and cooked over spicy red or white meat, is a popular rice dish. ‘Qabooli’, however, is a zesty combination of meat, potatoes and rice browned with sauces.

All Things Spice: Similar in consistency to Harees, but blessed with a nutty and bracing bouquet, ‘Qabooli’ is a goat and rice-based stew completed by cashews, pine kernels and lemons. The panoply of spices used – cinnamon, cardamoms, saffron, cloves – date this titbit back to the era when Oman was one of the world’s spice trading centres.

Al Aursia: Is an exclusive Omani dish, served during festivals and some occasions, consists of mashed rice. Usually, it is served with special sweet sauce locally called ‘Al Turtcha’.

An Ancient Delicacy: One of the customary celebratory meals in Oman is Harees. It’s a lip-smacking porridge of roughly-ground wheat slow-cooked overnight with butter and cuts of chicken. Both tart and hearty to the taste, harees is energy-rich and the ideal fuel for a wander in the desert.

Omani Food 2

Khubz Rakhal: Another signature dish of Oman is this wafer thin bread made out of unleavened dough. In the days of yore, this local staple food was cooked over a fire of palm fronds. To make this bread, a handful of premixed dough is taken and rolled into a fist sized ball and then smeared into a very thin layer on the hot griddle. When the dough becomes crispy, an egg can be broken and smeared along with mayonnaise, if needed. This versatile and non-spicy bread can be served during any meal time. For instance, Omanis will enjoy this thin bread with honey for breakfast, or crumble it over curries of fish, chicken or mutton during dinner or even during lunch time.

A Subtle Confection: The Omani sweet tooth is legendary. Fruity scents and treacly aromas ooze from souqs, restaurants and cafes across the land. A time-honoured symbol of hospitality, halwa is a filling yet dulcet and subtle confection of cooked dates, clarified butter, caramelised sugar, starch and spices. The perfect accompaniment is a cup of strong black Omani coffee, earthy on the nose yet with a sweet and warming finish thanks to the sugar and cardamoms within. Halwa also goes well with Omani tea which, unique amongst the Arab nations, is prepared with plenty of milk, sugar and spices such as cloves and cardamoms. At colder times of the year, ginger is added for its cosy and warming tones. Head to an event like the Muscat Festival and you can watch men toiling over huge steaming cauldrons, preparing halwa in the traditional fashion. The full-bodied taste of fresh, hot halwa is something else again…

Al Mudhbi: Besides the many authentic and popular local dishes, one of Oman’s all-time favourite foods is ‘Al Mudhbi’, which is nothing but marinated meat grilled to perfection over smouldering stones. Especially when out camping, hiking or, simply enjoying the great outdoors, pitching a camp, setting a campfire and grilling some tender meat over the preheated stones must rank among the top of Oman’s authentic delicacies. This particular dish is said to be a speciality of the Sultanate’s southern region of Dhofar.

Treasures of the Sea: In the old days, the bountiful seafood of Oman’s Arabian Sea coast added variety to the rice, goat and vegetable diet of the interior. The festival time ritual of delivering dried fish to a wadi (fertile valley area) by camel may not be so common nowadays, but you can still find dried shark meat – often in soups – that tastes so exquisitely briny as to be almost smoky, locally known as (Owal). Samak pablo (fish in a turmeric and coconut milk gravy) is harder to find, but equally as appetising, recalling the exotic mellowness of certain Indian dishes.

Omani Food 3

A Three Day Event: You’re more likely to find showa in a family home than in a restaurant, partly for reasons of practicality: it can take up to three days to cook. Another Eid favourite, it’s essentially an entire lamb, pungently-spiced and cloaked in banana leaves cooked over charcoals to tender perfection. It’s often served with lemon chutney and salt-dried shark. 

London Calling

A first-time visitor’s guide to the major landmarks and draw cards in London, England.

london

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” So said 18th-century English author Samuel Johnson. He was man of strong opinions. But what is it about London that so inspired Johnson, and still inspires millions of overseas visitors every year? Partly it’s the sense of recorded history, dating back at least 2 000 years to when the Romans first arrived, and the subsequent waves of Saxons, Danes, Vikings and so on. Everyone recognised the geo-political and trade importance of the port city on the River Thames. Out of this cultural melting pot London has grown to become one of the most important financial and cultural capitals of Europe, if not the world, being birthed anew out of multiple fires, plagues, a civil war and the Second World War bombing. It is perhaps this sense of history, of having their backs against the wall, that makes Londoners the delightfully quirky bunch they are!

There is a world to explore in the massive city, and different districts reflect differing national characteristics. A survey in 2005 revealed that there were more than 300 languages and 50 non-indigenous communities in London. Indeed, part of London’s character and strength lies in this very cultural dynamism.

If you are a first-timer to London, here is a breakdown of the most famous tourism spots.

Day planner

Right, so you have landed in London and are raring to go. What to do first in this incredibly busy city? It is worth drawing up a day plan to cover your stay in London. For example, dedicate two or three days to seeing the sights and soaking up the sheer weight of history. Do not forget to fit in a visit to some of the famous art galleries and museums. Then allow for some serious shopping time at world-famous venues such as Harrods, Hamleys and Oxford Street. Finally, soak up some culture with a visit to Covent Garden, Carnaby Street and Camden Lock. For a hair-raising day out, take in the Tower of London and the London Dungeon, and then relax with some laughs at lifelike replicas of some of your favourite celebrities at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

Getting around

If you are only going to be in London for a short time, say a week, it makes sense to stay in Central London and use public transport. This will save you time and money in getting around, and most of the major tourist attractions are in the central area anyway. It is very easy to use buses and, of course, the London Underground, and it is worthwhile investigating ticket options, such as the London Pass which is a fixed rate sight-seeing pass that allows you to visit more than 50 attractions.

Double Decker bus

In England, double deckers are either a chocolate bar, or a big red, double layered bus. We are talking about the buses here, which are an iconic feature of London, almost as much as Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. They are a fantastic and fun way to get around the city, whether you just want to go shopping or be taken on a guided tour. For open-top sight-seeing tours, book at http://www.theoriginaltour.com. Tickets are usually valid for 24 hours and allow you to hop on and hop off whenever you want.

London Eye

If the top deck of a bus just isn’t high enough for you, aim for a bird’s eye view of London with a ride on Europe’s biggest Ferris Wheel, the 135-metre high London Eye. Once described as London’s Eiffel Tower, the Eye has 32 eggshaped passenger capsules and one complete rotation takes about 30 minutes, so no stomach-churning rush here! However, it carries more than 10 000 people every day so make sure to book your trip. It is situated on the south banks of the Thames in Jubilee Gardens, Lambeth. Book at http://www.viator.com

Buckingham Palace

Where better to start than with the seat of royal power, Buckingham Palace, the official residence of British kings and queens since 1837. Check to see if the Queen is home by looking for the royal standard on the flagpole on the roof! The Palace was actually built in 1702 by the Duke of Buckingham as his London pad! The Palace – one of the few remaining working palaces left in the world – has 775 rooms, including 19 State rooms, 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices and 78 bathrooms, many of which contain priceless works of art, including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and Canaletto and sculptures by Canova. During summer months visitors can tour the 19 State rooms, the Royal Mews and the Queen’s Gallery. Entrance is by timed ticket so book at http://www.bookinginfo@royalcollection.org.uk, or ring +44 (0)20 77667300.

A must-see if you are going to Buckingham Palace is the famous Changing of the Guard, which is when the soldiers who guard the Queen, called the Queen’s Guard, come off duty and are replaced by the new guards. They wear a full-dress uniform of red tunics and bearskins. When mounted, they wear white riding-breeches, black leather boots, which are called jack boots, having been “jacked” or reinforced against sword blows. Changing of the Guard takes place at Buckingham Palace every day between May and July at 11.30am and last for about half an hour. It also takes place at Horse Guards Arch, daily at 11am, and 10am on Sundays, at the Horse Guards Parade by the arch of Horse Guards Building. Be advised, there is no Guard Mounting in very wet weather. Be sure to get a photo taken of yourself standing with one of the Guards. Their discipline is legendary and the Guards are under strict instructions not to react to the public, so please do not taunt or annoy them. After all, they are guarding the Queen! It is a short and easy walk from Buckingham to other major landmarks, for example, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, St James’ Palace and 10 Downing Street, the British Prime Minister’s official office.

Houses of Parliament

Also known as Westminster Palace, the Houses of Parliament are the seat of government, containing the House of Lords and the House of Commons. A royal palace was first built on the site in the 11th-century and the area was the residence of the first kings of England until the 16th-century. Major reconstruction work has been repeatedly carried out after damage from several fires and bombing during the Second World War. The Houses of Parliament are open to the public and guided tours are available most days. For more information, visit www.parliament.co.uk.

Big Ben

The clock tower, built in 1288, on the Houses of Parliament houses a main bell known as Big Ben. Although the clock tower is a symbol of London and all things English, and a massive tourist draw card, the actual interior of the tower is not open to the public. It has featured in countless films and TV programmes, and is the largest fourfaced, chiming clock in the world. Did you know that when the clock tolls, a person listening to the sound on the radio in Sydney, Australia, will hear the sound before a person standing at the bottom of Big Ben. Thanks to the speed of radio waves.

Westminster Abbey

Every year, more than a million people are drawn to this beautiful 700-year-old Gothic architectural masterpiece, which stands next to the Houses of Parliament. Over 3 000 people, including kings, queens, scholars, authors, poets and musicians are buried in the building and it is indeed one of the country’s supreme honours to be buried here. It is believed that the first structure on the site was erected in around 624AD, although the first proven records indicate that a community of Benedictine monks were housed here in about 960AD. Westminster Abbey is where kings and queens have been crowned since 1066. The Abbey also features in Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code! It is open to the public daily from 9.30am-3.45pm, except Wednesdays when it closes at 7pm. Saturday opening hours are 9am-1.45pm. Closed on Sundays. 90-minute guided tours start at the North Door several times a day. Visit www.sacreddestinations.com/england/london for more information and costs.

There are more than 300 art galleries and museums in London and most are free to enter. If you are on a short visit, be sure to visit the Tate Gallery, which houses British art. Fascinating museums, great if you have kids, are the British Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, both of which have informative, interactive displays. For more on art galleries and museums, A great way to spend an evening in London is by going to the theatre, whether you are in the mood for fringe entertainment or classical hits like Phantom of the Opera, Cats or Oliver. For a great website offering bookings and guides, visit www.londontheatre.co.uk

In many ways, London is a string of villages each with their own characteristic high streets, shops, restaurants and parks, all of them reflecting the flavour of their immigrant communities. It would take a lifetime to properly explore all that the city has to offer, but even just spending a week or two there will probably have you agreeing with old Mr Johnson!

Know before you go

For valuable information on accommodation, tourist spots, shopping, fairs, theatre, visit the following websites:

http://www.timeout.com/london;

http://www.londontown.com;

www.london.com

Beautiful Water, Mysterious Caves!

It is one of Oman’s beautiful ironies that just minutes away from harsh, arid desert lies a haven of lush vegetation, refreshing shade and tumbling water!

Wadi Bani Khalid

This is no mirage. Walled by craggy mountains rich in copper and iron, Wadi Bani Khalid (Wadi of the Sharqiyah) is sustained by a virile ayn (natural spring). Millions of years ago, when the spring’s pressure grew too strong, the water gushed into the open air and created the wadi as we see it now. In the lowlands today, the water has formed an expansive lake, verdant reeds blooming through the lucid surface. Date palms – the wadi’s most common species of tree – lean over and spray their reflections across the ripples. If you dip your feet in the lake you can enjoy a free fish pedicure. Nearby, tall grass, pink flowers and a mango tree, teeming with fruit, prove just how fertile this region is.

Milling around the palm-roofed picnic shelters are visitors from all over the world. They have good reason to look awestruck. As you head towards the Hajar Mountains, the banks get rockier, their stark whiteness resembling icebergs. At higher points they are spanned by rickety bridges from which you can take panoramic photos of the wadi. Further in, water trickles down the rocks in mini waterfalls and gathers in pools ideal for cooling down in. The best approach is to jump right in!

The trail gets trickier as you approach the Moqal Caves. You’ll have to squeeze over and under awkward boulders, and contend with their footholds. Watch out for the stepping-stones across the smaller streams – many a visitor has taken an early swim. You’ll soon find the sandstone stairway to the mouth of the caves. Legend has it that anyone who enters and announces ‘Salim bin Saliym Salam’ will be transported to fragrant gardens and sublime waterways. The nearest you’ll get to that is by visiting one of the subterranean lagoons via muddy passageways, though it’s worth hiring one of the English-speaking guides given the maze-like structure of the caves. Whether you go alone or accompanied, you’ll be spending most of the journey kneeling down if not crawling. A torch – preferably a head-torch – is essential.

The adventurous traveller will love the Indiana Jones-like atmosphere, the mysterious nooks and crannies, and the bizarre rock formations. Have a look up to see the bats hanging from the ceiling. Beware that the deeper you go, the hotter it gets – hotter, in fact, than the midday sun above ground. Furthermore, once you’re fifteen minutes in, the oxygen starts to thin out. An alternative – and just as adventurous – route is climbing over the Hajars until you reach Wadi Tiwi, some 28km away. On the way, you’ll find deposits of water so remote from civilization that they are clean enough to drink from. The whole trip takes three days on foot, so going solo is not recommended – you’re better off joining an organised hike led by local experts with the right equipment and a fleet of pack donkeys.

You can book a place on a hike at numerous hotels and travel agents in both Muscat and Sur. After all this exertion, you’ll want to relax at the Tourist Service Centre situated on the main road leading from the caves. There’s no better view of the sprawling palm plantation and its three thousand-year-old falaj (irrigation channels). The palms do their bit for the ecosystem by shading and nurturing lesser crops such as wheat and barley. The view also gives you a sense of the sheer scale of the wadi and why it was likely named after the large and influential Bani Khalid tribe of old Arabia.

Stay long enough at the Tourist Centre and you’ll get to watch the sun go down over the ever-present mountains, strong coffee and halwa in hand. At about this moment you’ll be cured of any doubts – if you ever had them in the first place – that Wadi Bani Khalid is the most beautiful of the many thousands of wadis located in Oman. ‘Wadi’ roughly translates into the English ‘valley’, but this word doesn’t do the destination justice. With its above ground and underground charms, Wadi Bani Khalid is a vital and singular string to Oman’s tourism bow. And given that it’s a short diversion from the Muscat-Sur Highway and just round the corner from the Sharqiyah Sands, there’s no excuse to miss it.

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