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Talefeathers: The Latitude 35 Blog

Twists and Tombs in Oman's Rocky Mountains

Way, way off the beaten path in Oman, you'll find mysterious mausoleums and isolated micro-villages.

Me, smiling, next to a Jeep inscribed with "KC Sport Wrangler Unlimited"

This "KC" Jeep was made for me!

Not to be confused with Amman, which is Jordan's capital, Oman sits on the opposite end of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen; and opens up to the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea to the north and east. I spent a few weeks in Muscat, working weekdays and seeing sights on weekends. I love slow travel; without the pressure to see everything all at once, it's much more relaxing and you have more time to get a feel for the culture.

One of the historical/cultural things I was interested in was Oman's ancient "beehive" tombs. They're estimated to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old and are scattered along the Al Hajar Mountains (literally, The Rocky Mountains). Some of the more famous tombs are in Bat, Al Ayn, and Al Khutm — sites that have scored a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. But those are in the central part of the range and I would have had to stay overnight, so I opted for Jaylah, in the Eastern Hajar.

A gas pump on the left and khubz ragag on the right.

My driver picked me up at 7 a.m. and we headed southeast. A 4x4 is imperative, as is a full tank of gas. So before we exited to the treacherous journey up, we topped up the gas for only 0.23 rial a liter — about $2.26 a gallon! Every gas station had at least one coffee shop, too, so we picked up some khubz ragag — crepe-like bread with cheese and honey — and cappuccinos. Delicious!

After the pavement ended, it was like this for more than an hour — bumpy, dusty, rocky, twisty, up, up, down, up, up, down.

A remote village with a few square, concrete block buildings, and two shaggy goats.

Every once in a while we'd pass through a tiny hamlet of 5-10 residences. Many of those people keep goats — long-haired and so, so cute!

The cave is a deep hole through layers of rock; about 50 feet down it opens up into a cavern below.

Looking down into the Majlis al Jinn Cave.

About halfway between Fins (where we exited) and Jaylah, we stopped to ask about road conditions and make sure we were on the right one, and we stumbled on the Majlis al Jinn Cave. Its floor is about 310m long and 220m wide, with a depth of up to 160m. It takes 10-15 minutes of abseiling to reach the bottom (at least, that's what the sign said). There are a bunch of these caves in the vicinity, which would have been fun to explore, if not for our tight schedule.

Adil and the village man with tea cups and fruit in the foreground.

My driver, Adil (left) and the village man.

But we did accept the invitation of a villager to come in for tea. So, picture yourself high up in some mountains where it's very dry and there's little vegetation and a man takes you to one of about 10 structures in the middle of nowhere. It's a very large, single room, covered in carpets and pillows with a toilet and sink at one end. You all sit on the floor, where the host plies you full of amazingly fresh, perfectly ripe oranges, bananas, grapes, and watermelon. And then you wash it down with delicious Omani coffee, the bitterness offset by sweet dates. It was pretty cool; I love unplanned experiences like that!

Two beehive tombs on the edge of a cliff. The far one has crumbled down to about a meter. The close one has an interesting spiral wrapping around.

And finally, we made it to the Jaylah Beehive Tombs. They're made of layers of rock slabs that are stacked up three to eight meters high and resemble... yep, beehives. It's especially amazing that they were constructed without mortar and are equisitely preserved, thanks to their remote locations and the locals' belief that the tombs were built by a demon.

There are about 90 of these scattered across the Selma Plateau. Where we stopped, there was one pretty intact tower and a few that were disintegrating. The tombs certainly have an air of mystery around them. Who built them? Why did they choose such a remote spot? It's thought that these were communal burial sites, where (about 200?) people were laid to rest with their belongings, hinting at a belief in life after death. Maybe the high-up locations were about keeping close to the divine or just keeping invaders at bay. And yes, I looked inside and they were empty, having been searched by an archaeological expedition in 1991.

A well-preserved beehive tomb, about 3-4 meters high, with a little opening in the front.

A very well-preserved Jaylah Beehive Tomb.

All in all, it was about eight hours from Muscat to Fins to the tombs and back to Tiwi, where we visited some more popular spots (which I'll write about in a future post!). Lots of driving and some grabbing of the "oh shit" handle in the Jeep, but the invitation to tea, seeing remote villages, and stepping back to think about how life was like for the tomb builders made it all worthwhile.

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