The Mountain Oasis
About halfway between Jebel Shams and the historic city of Nizwa, home of the famous Nizwa Fort, semi-hidden in the foothills on the southern flank of the Al Hajar Mountains, lies the time-worn village of Misfat Al Abriyeen. Getting there requires driving through the flat river plain inhabited by another old town, Al Hamra, and then up a winding road overlooking the irrigated squares below. On the other side of the plateau is Misfat Al Abriyeen, a mud brick village spanning two sides of a lush valley filled to the brim with the brilliant green fronds of hundreds, if not thousands, of date palms.
The hillside village is a well-known stop on the Jebel Shams-Al Hamra circuit, famous for its picturesque street scenes and date palm plantations. There are several walking paths with painted markers running through the village and down into the irrigated valley, encouraging visitors to explore the environs with impunity. Walking through the narrow, run-down walkways of the village, though, it’s easy to forget that this is a living, breathing community, with inhabited spaces and long-time residents that can, and do, choose not to participate in Misfat’s tourism economy. There are more than a few anti-photography signs posted around private homes and buildings, and we were very aware of ourselves as outsiders.
That’s not a bad thing at all – just a reminder that this place that we’ve pinned on our maps is also a home, and it behooves the visitor to be mindful of that fact. At the very least, there are signs showing visitors what is appropriate attire – no bared shoulders, no shorts, etc. – and a little bit of respect goes a long way. Having said that, Misfat is a fascinating place to wander around in. It’s not very big, but there’s all kinds of little alleyways and gates that lead into back corners and sudden terraces, and it was a welcome break from the terrifying heights of our morning hike on the Balcony Walk.
One of the key features of Misfat is the intricate irrigation system known as the falaj, an ancient, gravity-driven network of waterways with its source at a nearby spring. This style of irrigation, known collectively as aflaj, has been around for 1,500 years in Oman, resulting in vibrant blooms of agriculture and greenery in an otherwise harsh and arid environment. The valley that dominates the Misfat landscape is actually a collection of small terraces supporting a range of fruit trees and palms, including dates, papayas, mangos, bananas, pomegranates, and citrus fruits.
Ashley and I followed a couple of paths leading down into the hillside gardens, walking in single file along stone irrigation channels, shaded dirt paths, and steep staircases that snaked down one side of the valley and up the other. Up on the higher terraces, the abundance of the village plots stood out in contrast to the dry, dusty plateaus above and beyond the settlement – a testament to human ingenuity and our capacity to bend nature and earth to our desires, for better or for worse. Still, despite man’s best efforts, the heat of the afternoon sun in a place like this reigns supreme – not even the cool shadows of palms and terraces could keep it at bay for long – so after about an hour or so down in the valley, we made our back up to the mud brick buildings above us.
From the quiet hillsides of Misfat, we drove back towards the main highway connecting the foothills with the city of Nizwa. We would spend the next two nights in the ancient former capital, using it as our base to make day trips into the surrounding landscapes. Our time in Oman was nearly up, but we still had a few more things and places to check off our list. Next up, a mountain and a plateau famous for its terraced villages and gardens, with a road so steep the government requires all vehicles to have 4WD capabilities – the stunning Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountain of the Al Hajar range.