Takeaway

The town that was

Sayoni Sinha | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on February 10, 2017
Time travel Traditional mud-brick structures line the narrow alleys in Al Hamra Photo: Shutterstock/chameleonseye

AlHamra

With its collection of abandoned mud houses, the atmospheric Al Hamra in Oman works hard to appear time-worn

Patches of swaying palm trees — their leaves shockingly vivid against the pallid backdrop — break the uniformity of the mountainous terrain during our 45-minute drive from Nizwa to Al Hamra. As the car leaves the highway for the criss-crossing silent alleys of the settlement, my breath rings sharply in my ears. What stands ahead of me is a collection of ghostly mud houses, baked like earthenware under the harsh Omani sun.

With its compressed, narrow streets, lined with mud-brick homes, Al Hamra is similar to many ancient cities in the Middle East. Only it is much younger. The buildings are in a better shape though the character of the town has been carefully maintained to appear time-worn. We alight at a square-like place of the old town. The driver specifies we have a few minutes to look around. But our looking around takes much longer. A warren of stony, rubble-strewn pathways leads me to the highest part of the town where an abandoned old souk (marketplace) still stands proud. Like many Omani towns, Al Hamra prospered under the Al Yaaribah dynasty four centuries ago and the souk must have been one of the important places for business in town.

I wander through the ruins to reach Bait Al Safah, an exquisitely restored traditional house. Set at the heart of the old town, this house is almost as old as the town itself and presents a version of what Omani houses looked like a few centuries ago.

The four-storey building has been restored over the years before being converted into a museum. The engraved door leads to the first floor with its hand-painted wooden beams and high ceilings. The aroma of Omani frankincense and rose water accosts us as we enter the Al Barzah or the Omani sitting room. Our guide offers kahwa — a strong bittersweet coffee flavoured with cardamom — along with juicy dates to offset the bitter taste. After coffee, I follow the guide to a large kitchen where a woman is pounding argan nuts to extract oil while another offers us rakhl, traditional bread baked on an open fire. As I explore the other parts of the house, I come across a room displaying massive storage jars, indicating the importance of agriculture in that period.

Up next: The spectacular Al Hoota Caves, cradled deep within Oman’s Hajar Mountain range. Our guide informs that until 50 years ago, no one knew about the two-million-year-old cavern. It was discovered in the 1960s by a dweller from the nearby Hoota village when one of his goats fell through the natural entrance of the cave. Inaugurated in 2006, the cave is interspersed with remarkable natural formations and intriguing chambers, but only 500m of its 4.5-km stretch is open to visitors. Water seepage had destroyed parts of the cave and it was closed for renovation in 2012, only to reopen recently. To play safe, the authorities have limited the number of daily visitors to 750.

Soon, it’s time for a tour and a short ride in an electric train takes us to the cave entrance, from where raised walkways and stairs make an 850-m trail through the cave’s most spacious section. We have a new guide for the 45-minute tour who keeps warning us about slippery and wet paths, apart from reminding us to not click photos. He then proceeds to explain how this cave system, like many others in Oman, was formed by the dissolution of limestone rocks by acidic water.

I marvel at the stalactites and stalagmites and peculiar rock formations. (There’s a lion, a cat and even an elephant.) The remote-controlled lights inside the cave are kept dim to avoid disturbing the hundreds of mouse-tailed bats that hang in the nooks and crannies. Towards the end of the walkway, a flight of steps leads us to the black lake that is home to the semi-transparent ‘blind fish’. These are fish that lose their optic function as they age. In fact, their eyes are covered by the lids. The guide encourages us to dip our legs but the inkiness of the black water is intimidating. However, we feel differently about the sightless fish floating around our feet once we see light at the end of the walk.



Travel log

Getting there

Oman Air connects Oman to most Indian cities. Drive down from Muscat or Nizwa to Al Hamra.

Tip

Book your Al Hoota Caves tour online as there’s a limit on the number of visitors. If you are adventurous enough, trek to the nearby Jabal Akhtar mountain, also known as Green Mountains.



Published on February 10, 2017
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