Written with Titash Chakraborty
From the lush plains of Al Hamra, it’s hard to imagine why people would go through all the trouble and live in the seemingly barren mountains at the tourist-haven, Misfat al Abriyeen. Giving it a cursory glance a few kilometres away, a worm’s view of the chain of mountains that make up the area, it looked waterless, a place where one has to struggle to live. Yet despite that, the big houses spread unevenly from that angle is mind-boggling. Why would anyone build a house at a seemingly inaccessible place?
After experiencing the wonders of the 300-year-old village where the popular Bait al Sifah belongs, everything else that surrounds Al Hamra seems to fail in comparison. The thriving date palm plantations, the still efficient falaj that serves as the vein to transport life-giving water all over its villages, the historical streets and houses, crumbling yet still standing, that till now defy time are difficult to top.
From Al Hamra, it takes but about 15 minutes to reach the foot of the mountain where Misfat al Abriyeen is perched. As our car took the snake road that led to the top on a Thursday evening, a sudden shift of perspective took form answering the questions that puzzled our head a little earlier.
Midway through the car climb, on one of the designated viewing decks of the area, the view alone from the top causes one to gasp. With the soft-orange hues of a sleeping sun, it was a beauty to behold — crawling houses in between lush greeneries, with a few lights twinkling like stars, and remarkable mountains serving as the backdrop and behind it, the setting sun. That alone was a million dollar view one would be lucky to enjoy day in and day out.
Ours is just one of the cars that rushed through to get to the top on that late afternoon. Along with us, racing through the serpentine roads, was a bus-load of tourists who we would eventually discover were staying the night at the village on the top.
“Did you know that there’s a direct road from here that would connect you to Rustaq?” was one of our local companion’s trivia about the area.
“People used to walk this route for years and many still do until this day,” he added.
Misfat al Abriyeen transports you to a past where people have to make do with what is readily available to them. It is a place where the genius of the falaj system is in full display snaking its way even on challenging mountainside. While seeing just one side of the mountain would make one question why people would choose such a challenging life, the other side of the mountain helps provide the answer for through skills and mastery of their landscape, the people of Misfat had forged a life where they can live in convenience surrounded by their vibrant farms and thriving plantations.
It is here that terrace farming has been perfected, the evidence of it in the lush greenery that makes Misfat one of the most popular destinations amongst tourists looking for a pedestrian experience that allows them to explore it at their own time and pace.
During our late afternoon visit, most of its ancient roads were empty. Clay pots used for storing water and crops were hanging on mud walls. The doors were painted bright, shut tight as people prepared for their evening rest. It’s hard to tell which ones were empty and which ones still houses people.
Windows were also tightly shut. With houses rising as high as three floors, it was eerily quiet. Made of mud and carved strategically on the side of the mountain, it was an engineering feat worthy of appreciation.
On one of its narrow paths, a donkey climbed its way through the maze. On its back were a boy and a couple of heavy sacks full of what we suspected were dates. The boy navigated the maze with ease. If the bumpy ride was painful on his bottom, he didn’t give out any indication. We gave way to the boy and his ride and watched them gracefully find the exit. The donkey barely made any sound of complaint.
Moving inward into the village, we started to hear the murmur of waters. We found ourselves in front of a giant cistern about 6 feet deep and totally empty at that time of the day. It will be filled in the evening, we were told, so that in the morning, it can be released providing nourishment to hundreds of yards of farm crops.
The entrance to the date plantation is where the elders of the village meet every morning for their morning catch up. With the sea of green as their view, the soft whispers of flowing water serving as their background music, it is here that affairs of the community are discussed.
A Caucasian woman in her late 50s was sitting at one corner of it during our visit. She said she was just resting. On her hand were a piece of paper and a pen. She was writing in a journal — a writer or an artist, we presumed.
How did you find it?” It was our attempt at small talk referring to what she’s seen so far.
“This is truly a spectacular place. I just came from down below, you have to see how healthy the plants are and how stunning the women look as they tend to their farms,” she gushed.
In every corner of the mountain, different crops were bearing fruits, even though it wasn’t their season. The flower of pomegranates started to wither and replacing them are tiny circles of what would eventually become fruits. The lemons, squashes and bananas also found their healthy spots, flowering and competing with the much larger vegetation around them.
Typical of how falaj are designed all over the country, some areas are off-limits to men as they were designated as wash areas for women.
In the centre of all the splendour, is the Misfah Old House. It is here that even British Royalties have come to be entertained experiencing for themselves the authentic and traditional hospitality of the Omanis.
Prince Charles was here. Located 1,000 metres above sea level, he joined the elders of the village, a local guide and a representative from the Ministry of Tourism to walk the village ancient paths enjoying the fresh breeze, the cold weather, and the beauty of this sanctuary in the mountains.
Nothing much has changed to the place according to a few men we met along the way. Except that the houses were now made to include modern amenities like air-conditioning and electricity that makes the place easy to navigate even in the evening.
We were told that when it rains, the road that connects the village with the other side of the mountain is cut off by gushing falajs. It is an occurrence that is welcomed by everyone, a chance for the young ones to be reminded of why the generations before them have chosen this place to be their home — because, in the face of challenges, they can thrive and make something out of nothing.
More houses continued to be built all over the place. Today, it is separated into the old and the new villages — the old, taking people on a historical tour of the past — the houses, just like in Al
Hamra in different forms of disrepair with other houses still accommodating the present generation of people who’ve call the place home — and the new, a more modern twist with houses much bigger and more conditioned to take a beating from the harsh summer heat and the cold winter breeze. Four-wheel drives also parked in front of them signalling the era of change.
For Rhonda Albom who runs the albomadventures.com blog, seeing the place with a guide is the best way to go.
“While we could have done it all [the tour] on our own he [the local guide] offered a historical and local perspective we would have missed.”
She was in Oman in 2012 and visited Misfat and noted that going through the village is a step back in time where “people... follow a more traditional lifestyle.”
“We found them to be warm and welcoming,” she said.
On how to get there, — the owner of the blog OmanTripper.com, Ali Mohammadi, shared, “Al Hamra is about 200 kms from Muscat and it can be reached following the main highway connecting
Muscat to Al Dhakiliyah and either continuing all the way to Al Hamra via Bahla, or taking the side road through Tanuf before the exit to Nizwa.”
Our group took the Al Hamra via Bahla route as Misfat al Abriyeen is just about 6 kms from there on.
“We really like Misfat and it is one of the places we visit whenever we are passing by Al Hamra because of the beautiful views and lovely atmosphere. The location of the village makes it very hard to resist the temptation of visiting,” Mohammadi narrated on his blog.
We can understand what he meant. Crawling our way out of the darkness, emerging from the snake road that has taken us to the top, we stopped at another viewing deck area to watch the dancing lights of the villages below. In the dark, it still easy to make out the streets and the houses from the plants and the mountains. For people in Muscat, the snake road that connects Bausher with
Amerat is a stunning view worthy of a night’s visit. This road is Misfat’s version of it.
We took a few minutes to just breath everything in. With perspective changed, we are now part of the many who would definitely recommend travellers to explore this part of Oman. For if sipping tea at Misfah Old House doesn’t get you close enough to British Royalties, the place itself will take you back to a moment in time where life was simple and people made something out of nothing that has kept up not only with the changes but the challenges of the modern times. The past is long over, but in Misfat, people live alongside ancient history constantly reminded that because of the struggle of yesteryears, they get to enjoy the beauty of today.