PHOTOS BY LENA PETERSEN
The Dakhiliyah oasis of Izki can cast its origins back as far as 2,660 years, to the Mesopotamian ruler King Assurbanipal’s plaques of Ishtar, and Oman can cast its beginnings back, almost certainly, to the Yemeni, Malik bin Fahm al Azdi, all of 1,800 years ago as he led the Azdi from Yemen, seeking new beginnings, and to prevent the spread of the Persian empire. His deeds, and his historic links to trade and commerce in the region are perpetuated in the enchanting ruins of the walled city of Harat al Yemen, on the edge of the bustling Dakhiliyah regional town of Izki.
Though the current old city was extensively rebuilt in the early 18th century, for many centuries before, the heavily fortified city, in its heyday, must have appeared impenetrable to its enemies, as its walls are four to five metres wide at their base, with a patrol path that was wide enough for mounted patrols, two metres wide throughout, and at least three metres tall. Its imposing fifteen metre towers on each corner, the Aamur Fort the tallest, and its heavily fortified gateways on its North, East and Western sides.
Local personality, Yousuf Abdullah al Saqri, explained that having lived in Harat Al Yemen in the time of the 13th Sultan, Said bin Taimour, he had seen the city at its most influential, when the Sultan would attend the regional Wali, or council, leaders meetings, under the auspices of Yemen’s Mohammed bin Saif al Rawahi, but he and others had also known poverty and deprivation, and the need to travel to Bahrain to work, simply for his family to survive. “The renaissance”, he said, “came just in time, and has saved a people, a country, and given a future to the young. For us now, rice is a staple food, but my generation can recall when it was a luxury.”
He reminisced as he accompanied us on a walk around his birthplace and it’s easy to see why there is a move to retain what is evident, as the town appears not only fortified, but uniquely laid out in a grid pattern with broad, wide avenues running East/West and North/South. Al Saqri, a sprightly seventy-something, explained that this was always to capture the cooling breezes, and to ensure the city’s water reticulation system, in which was hauled from the depths by ‘cattle-power,’ could effectively provide water to all houses inside the walls. Showing us the first of two deep wells, he chuckled as he recalled a woman falling down the well, but after a long rescue with the whole town involved, she lived to tell the tale.
Entry via the North Gate passes a Majlis area on the inside, refurbished for the use of the locals, who will enjoy coffee, dates, and chat, as they have done for centuries, and just beyond there is the birthplace of Dr Ahmed Khalfan al Rawahi, modest beginnings for the now Chancellor of the regional seat of learning, the University of Nizwa. To the right of the North Gate is what was once the home of the local ruler and his family, Sheikh Mohammed bin Saif al Darmaki, the Sheikh, and a Judge, and his brother Sheikh Saad. The heavy wooden door of this building was, said al Saqri, the first door in the city, but the number of ornately carved lintels, above many entrances, are evidence that it was a ‘statement’ that was enthusiastically embraced.
The Jama Izki Mosque building, though in quite some disrepair, is remarkable, as with sand and stone, one metre round circular pillars rise from the floor to support massive archways, creating a memorable place of worship. It is a structure that inspires awe, and begs for renovation, as a symbol of all that is good in the Islamic way of Ibadism. We paused here too, to allow our guide to look out on his nearby farmland, a traditional grove of healthy-looking date palms, below the city.
We continued to the Abu Sabt Mosque, and the jailhouse adjacent to the Aamur Fort, where Al Saqri laughed, “They would put wrongdoers here for up to six days, because nobody ever did anything ‘really bad.” Making our way to the East Gate, ‘Bab A’sabah,’ he also showed us that though the latest gate is of steel construction, it has the same pattern and functions as the original gate.
He also shared the story of a visiting Sheikh, Mohammed bin Hamed al Harthi, who sought entrance to the city at this gate, but the youthful guard would not relent until he had his leader’s permission. Returning sometime later, the young guard expected to be punished for making the prominent visitor wait but was surprised when the visitor praised his diligence and rewarded the youth handsomely.
From there, we passed through the broad avenue from the gateway, on a wide avenue that now provides easy walking, but Al Saqri chuckled, “We can walk on this now, but back in time it was only fit for donkeys, and energetic people, as it was paved with round stones.” But he became reflective as our last stop was in his own birthplace, and that of his family. “Maybe up to twenty-five people lived here,” he recalled, “and until we started to move out into our current homes in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, this was our home.”
Yousuf Abdullah al Saqri is a proud, elegant, and gentle man, a proud husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. A compassionate man of enthusiasm, and of energy that belies his years, whose grand-daughter Rawaa Ishaq al Saqri, translated for us throughout a wonderful morning sojourn. Their community’s desire to see Harat Al Yemen rebuilt is not to perpetuate their memories, but to provide that younger generation with tangible links to their past, and visitors with a doorway to another time, another life, another culture. This enchanting walled city can surely be all those things, and more.