"The Green Mountain"

Heritage in Stone*

AL JABAL al Akhdhar’s stone houses are a vestige of the primitive existence of inhabitants of the Green Mountain before the benefits of the Sultanate’s modern Renaissance began reaching these remote and rugged hills.

Scores of these settlements dot the mountainous countryside, the vast majority abandoned for the comfort and convenience of modern dwellings that have since sprung up in their shadow.

                                 Stone hamlets are a ubiquitous
                                   sight in Al Jabal al Akhdhar.


Today, these atmospheric settlements offer a peek into the hardy lifestyles of the inhabitants of these mountains and their strong kinship with nature. Apart from the goats that sometimes shelter within them, these stone hamlets attract tourists and researchers as well, keen to study the primitive architecture and construction techniques of past generations.

Perhaps, the most striking of the Green Mountain’s ancient settlements is the stone hamlet in Dhan al Bisateen, some 15km from Saih Qatanah, the administrative centre of Al Jabal al Akhdhar.

The settlement clings to the precipitous edge of a ravine, offering some protection from the chilly winds that sweep through these mountains in winter. Temperatures are known to plunge to 5 degrees Celsius minus in winter.

Villagers with the nimbleness of mountain goats descend the mountain’s edge to reach the settlement, which consists of a cluster of houses built with rock and a traditional mud plaster called saruj. Some of these houses have been set into the recess of caves for added protection against the elements.  

Stone houses provide protection against the severe winter cold

Primitive as they may seem, these homes are in fact built with walls about one metre thick and plastered well on the outside to keep the chill out. Trunks of the indigenous juniper tree, which is a unique feature of the Green Mountain’s natural heritage, are used to hold up the ceiling of tree branches and saruj.

Life in today’s modern times is a far cry from the hardship of their mountain existence prior to the Renaissance, says Mohammed bin Nasser al Owemri, a sprightly 60-year-old who led the Observer to Dhan al Bisateen. Residents of this settlement have since swapped their Spartan homes for the comfort of modern houses equipped with all amenities including heaters.

“The bitter winter cold keeps most people indoors especially during the January-February months. We had to keep wood fires burning to warm ourselves,” he said.


 Stone houses set in the recess of a cave in Dhan al Bisateen

Clean drinking water was hard to come by in these barren mountains, Al Owemri noted. “Back in those days, we used to get our drinking water needs from stagnant ponds in wadis or caves.
When these sources ran dry, we had to venture out deeper into the countryside. But after good rains, most of these sources would ensure a reasonably good supply.”

Herding was the mainstay of the local economy then, and continues to be the case today. Little else can be undertaken in these rugged parts, although many residents travel to Saih Qatanah to work in government offices or are employed in Muscat or Nizwa.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles have supplanted the hardy donkeys in getting men and material to and from these mountains. Prior to the 1970s, local villagers sourced their essential needs from the souk in Nizwa, relying on donkeys to carry produce in both directions.

In Nizwa, they sold firewood, charcoal, goats and berries in exchange for foodstuff, textiles and household essentials. Strewn around these mountains are scores of such hamlets, once inaccessible, but now served by graded roads.

Villagers returning from a visit to their stone
hamlet, now abandoned for modern homes

Keen to ensure that the inhabitants do not give up their traditional way of life and migrate to the towns and cities, the government has been improving access routes deep into the mountains.

Despite the remoteness of some of these settlements, the authorities have been quick to provide essential services. Water drums, placed at strategic points for the benefit of scattered settlements, are filled regularly by government tankers.

* Adapted from Oman Observer. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.