Mary Oommen –
If you are looking for the unusual, consider a trip back in time and discover ancient secrets that are peppered across the rugged mountains and hills of Oman. The Sultanate has numerous places of historic importance that reveal the country’s rich cultural heritage. Among the most fascinating of these are the Towers at Shir, located in the Wilayat of Sur in the Sharqiyah province. The enigmatic structures built from local rock and stone were discovered by chance when a British aviator John Nowell flew over the region. This prompted the first archaeological expedition to the area around 1991 when eventually over 60 tombs were found.
Surprisingly well preserved, some of these tombs are up to 8 meters in height and are estimated to be over 4000 years old. Archaeologists who studied these structures revealed that the conical towers were actually tombs where one or more individuals were buried. In 1994 one of the tombs was opened to reveal skeletal remains, beads and pottery fragments dating from the early Iron Age. While details of who built these tombs are still shrouded in mystery, what seems clear is that they were built on top of hills, perhaps to be seen from far away.
Villagers who live around the area share a local legend on how the towers came to be. According to them, the towers were built by a giant called Estemsah, who terrorized the people of the valley, devouring their livestock, and sometimes the men. As the story goes, a young shepherd slew the giant with the help of an old jinn (spirit) and freed the people of the valley from the giant’s evil influence. Another legend has it that the towers were built by a man named Kibaykib who was half man-half jinn.
Of course, the real story of who may have built the tower tombs and the ancient civilizations who inhabited this region thousands of years ago is different, and yet it is as intriguing as the local legends. While no one is sure of their exact origins, the tombs at Shir stand as witnesses to the ancient commercial splendour of a mythical place called Magan.
The term “Magan” appears first around 2300 BC in ancient Sumerian cuneiforms texts attributed to King Sargon of Akkad. This Mesopotamian ruler describes ships sailing from Dilmun, Magan and Meluhha, carrying a precious cargo of copper and fragrant incense. Archaeological studies have revealed that “Dilmun” is now the island of Bahrain and “Meluhha” was the Sumerian term for the Mohenjo-daro civilization of the Indus basin. The exact geographical location of Magan continued to remain a puzzle for years until in 1977, a research project by the German Museum of Mining in Bochum proved that the location of historic Magan is identical with that of present-day Oman.
The people of Magan were trade partners with both the Mesopotamians to the west and the Indus to the north. Ancient civilisations travelled across the deserts of the Middle East to Mesopotamia, their formidable camel caravans carrying a precious cargo of frankincense, while ships carried copper and other minerals by sea to ports in present-day Iran and India. Interesting evidence from excavations near Sohar reveals that the copper mining and smelting industry was well developed by the year 2000BC. These discoveries have cemented the ancient importance of Oman as a key place for trade in the region.
Unfortunately, the people of Magan did not use writing or glyptic arts to record their history or organize their societies, relying instead on oral tradition of passing on facts, so we know very little about their way of life. What we do have are priceless relics and monuments that give us a glimpse into life in ancient Oman.