Arabian Oryx: A cultural symbol


When it’s beyond our comprehension, it belongs to the realm of fantasy. This happens all the time, and closer home we have seen how the oryx, the largest wild animal in the Arabian Peninsula, has grown beyond the dimensions of the real and acquired mythical proportions as the Arabian Unicorn. The unicorn that isn’t, even turned out to be the muse of Arab poets and painters, who couldn’t resist its feminine beauty… The fact that the common Arab female name Maha is the Arabic word for oryx explains it all.

We get a glimpse of the poetical fascination for the oryx , for instance, in the poem of Umar ibn Abi Rabi’ah of the early Islamic era: “Graceful as an oryx they brought her out, slowly walking between five budding beauties”.
Oryx, obviously, is not just a wild animal species. It is inextricably linked to the legendary Bedouin life and culture, forming a source of food, leather and imagination. However, all these cultural underpinnings didn’t prevent people from hunting those fabled white-furred antelopes with black markings — that had been in existence since the dawn of history — down to the verge of extinction in the Sultanate. The last oryx to live in the central plain of Oman was reportedly hunted by poachers in 1972. They never would have realised the magnitude of their atrocity.

It’s another story that intervention efforts saved the species and the Sultanate has today over 700 of them at the 27,500 sq km Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in the Al Wusta Governorate. It was under the order of the Sultanate’s visionary leader His Majesty Sultan Qaboos a resettlement project for the Arabian Oryx was launched at the Jeddat Al Harasis (Wadi Ja’aloni) in the second half of the 1970s. The site was chosen in consideration of a lot of beneficial environmental factors that could help their breeding such as the presence of plains, rocky slopes, sand dunes and prairies, among other things.
The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, listed (and later delisted in 2007) on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is the first natural reserve in Oman established under the Royal Decree No 4/94. The sanctuary is growing in stature as a major eco-tourism destination in the Middle East. It’s also becoming a part of the Sultanate’s adventure tourism trail. Travel sites such as Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet are replete with positive reviews about the Oman Arabian Oryx sanctuary.
Opening up the once out-of-bound-to-the-public sanctuary is not without any dangers: There are genuine fears that poachers could infiltrate and endanger the species, and to ensure the animals’ safety 30 guards and a police patrol team are providing security in the reserve.

The Arabian Oryx is a recurring theme in Arab art as well. In the Sultanate, I doubt if there is any other artist than Saleem Sakhi who ventured to unleash the creative genie in such a subtle fashion to explore the white-coated antelope that grazed his imaginative mind. His ‘Return’ series of paintings are a sublime tribute to the National Animal of Oman (and a few other Arab countries).
In one of his abstract depictions of the oryx, Saleem shows three of them, one lying down in a mood of absolute relaxation and the rest lazing around it. The predominantly reddish-maroon background with indistinct, fading patterns highlight the animals in stunning white, their lean and long horns take them to a surreal dimension whilst their long legs keep them grounded. In another work, we see their horns and legs in multi-colour in a soft reminder of their hold on the people’s cultural firmament.
In yet another piece, the white oryx is shown lovingly held by a woman as a pure living creature that offers solace and relief, and as a larger-than-life element to hold on to in difficult times owing to generations of coexistence between humans and them that transforms the animal into a powerful archetype…
The cultural significance of the oryx extends to Omani music too. A form of trumpet called the Barghum, a key musical instrument used in the tribal music traditions of the Sultanate, is made from the horns of oryx. Significantly, Oman Post recently launched an interactive stamp to celebrate the musical ecstasy of the Barghum, which like the minimalist features of the oryx gives out just two musical tones.
Clearly, the Arabian Oryx continues to thrive in the sanctuaries of Omani’s minds. Sanctuaries no poacher can ever infiltrate.