Oman - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Archaeological evidence has provided evidence of man’s occupation in Oman for over 70,000 years, with large fields of flint flakes in Dhofar’s northern valleys. Northern Oman is believed to be at the heart of the ancient ‘Majan’ region referred to in Mesopotamian texts of the 3rd millennium bc. Trade in Dhofar’s frankincense resin grew and it was traded with Rome, Mesopotamia and later imperial China.

Oman’s people have historically been astro-navigators, sailors and merchant traders, occupying, as they did, a prime geographical position on the sea trading route
between eastern and western continents. Evidence of Oman’s prosperous seafaring history can be found in ancient texts from these regions.

Majan boat, National Museum, Muscat, Oman by Tony WalshA Majan Boat in Muscat's National Museum © Tony Walsh

Persia ruled Oman periodically from the 5th century bc until the Arab invasions of Persia after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam was accepted by Arab tribes in Oman following the Prophet Mohammed’s embassies in ad627 and has remained an Islamic country since. There was a short rule by the Portuguese from 1507 until they were expelled from Muscat in 1650 by Sultan bin Saif Al Yarubi. The Yarubi dynasty continued to rule, though during the early decades of the 18th century there were periodic Persian invasions, one of which occupied Muscat until the invaders were expelled in 1744 by the founder of the present-day dynasty, Imam Ahmed bin Said.

It was in East Africa that the overseas territories of Oman reached their zenith. In 1698, Zanzibar was ruled by Oman, as was much of the East African coast from Mogadishu south to the Mozambican border. After the death of Sultan Said bin Sultan, the last ruler of the unified territory of Zanzibar and Oman, in 1856, the territories were separated, with one son (Majid bin Said Al-Busaidi) becoming Sultan of Zanzibar and another (Thuwaini bin Said Al-Said) becoming the Sultan of Oman.

Natural history

Flora

Taken together, the northern mountains (including the Musandam Peninsula) and the Dhofar region are home to much of Oman’s 1,200+ species of flora, of which about a hundred are endemic to Oman or regionally to Arabia. Nurseries have been established at the Saleel Nature Reserve (in the Ash Sharqiyyah region), Qayrun Hayriti (in Dhofar), Al Qurum Natural Park (Muscat) and the Botanical Gardens within Sultan Qaboos University (Muscat) and most notably the Oman Botanic Garden, a major facility that will be of worldwide scientific importance when it is completed.

The ancient Egyptians considered frankincense to be the tears of the god Horus.

Oman’s most famous plant is the Boswellia sacra, which produces frankincense resin. Found naturally in Dhofar and parts of East Africa, it is a contorted tree that grows up to 8m tall. One tree can produce up to several kilograms of frankincense in a season, and at the height of the trade 2,000 years ago, over 3,000 tonnes of the resin were exported by camel caravan or by boat to the wealthy civilisations of Egypt, Greece, Rome and India. In recent times, however, the trade in frankincense has declined. Research is currently ongoing into the cancer-curing properties of frankincense, as it is thought to contain an agent that stops the cancer spreading. The ancient Egyptians considered it to be the tears of the god Horus.

Frankincense tree, Wasi Dawkah Thumrayt by Tony WalshA frankincense producing tree © Tony Walsh

Rose water, extracted from the Damask rose (Rosa × damascena), is used extensively in Oman in the preparation of halwa, as well  as in perfumes, incense (especially at Eid and weddings), qahwa and in traditional medicines. The rose is grown on the Sayq Plateau of Al Jabal Al Akhdar; it is thought to have been introduced there from Persia. The rose petals are simmered in water for several hours and the resulting condensed rose water is stored for over a month to allow any sediment to settle before the product is bottled and sold.

Fauna

Mammals

Around 76 species of mammal have been recorded in Oman, of which one, the endemic Dhofarian shrew, is critically endangered. The endangered Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr), Arabia’s largest cat, survives in the remote mountains of southern Oman and there have been unconfirmed reports of sightings in Musandam. Usually solitary, it comes together with other leopards only for breeding. The rock hyrax (Procavia capensis), found especially in better vegetated areas, and the Nubian ibex (Capra ibex nubiana), found in rocky escarpments, form the bulk of the leopard’s diet. This is an extremely rare mammal and even dedicated researchers very rarely see one, as they live on the steep escarpments of the mountains.

The endangered Arabian leopard (Panthera pardus nimr), Arabia’s largest cat, survives in the remote mountains of southern Oman.

The caracal lynx (Caracal caracal) is found throughout Oman, where it hunts small animals and ground-dwelling birds. Smaller cats are the sand cat (Felis margarita), with very few living in extreme isolation, and Gordon’s wild cat (Felis silvestris gordoni), which roams throughout a large territory, usually in rocky areas. In southern Oman the honey badger (Mellivora capensis) can be found, as can the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena sultana), which has almost certainly disappeared from northern Oman. In scrubby coastal areas it is possible to see the white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda). The common genet (Genetta genetta) inhabits the wooded mountains of Dhofar. Throughout the mountains are limited numbers of Arabian wolf (Canis lupus arabs). The ubiquitous red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is found thoughout most of Oman, including the sand deserts, where Ruppell’s fox (Vulpes ruppellii) also lives. The smaller Blanford’s fox (Vulpes cana) has a more limited terrain, with a preference for mountainous areas.

Oryx, Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve, Hayma, Oman by Tony WalshOryx at Al Wusta Wildlife Reserve © Tony Walsh

The Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), a type of antelope, was extinct in the wild by the early 1970s due to hunting. In 1975, Sultan Qaboos launched Operation Oryx, a captive breeding programme conducted at the sultan’s Omani Mammal Breeding Centre, Bait Al Barakah (at As Sib, near Muscat), with donated animals from London Zoo, the Hadhramaut (Yemen), Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Arizona. The programme drew upon the knowledge of the World Wildlife Fund, the Fauna Preservation Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, who assisted with the project. The oryx were then reared at Jaaluni in the Jiddat Al Harasis in central Oman before being successfully reintroduced into the wild in the early 1980s. UNESCO had proclaimed the Jiddat Al Harasis a World Natural Heritage Site, but in 2007 withdrew this status as the numbers dwindled and the park size was reduced by 90%. In the years since the numbers have increased, although it is now in protected ‘pens’ of several hectares each.

Birds

A total of 524 bird species have been recorded in Oman according to the Oman Bird Records Committee, which publishes an official bird list. Familiar widespread wintering species in Oman include great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo), western cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis), Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), northern shoveller (Anas clypeata), little stint (Calidris minuta), ruff (Philomachus pugnax), black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa), common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) and Siberian stonechat (Saxicola maurus).

Oman sits at the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia, and is therefore well placed along bird migratory routes, which makes it an excellent location for seeing transitory species as well as interesting resident and wintering birds.

Oman sits at the crossroads of three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia, and is therefore well placed along bird migratory routes, which makes it an excellent location for seeing transitory species as well as interesting resident and wintering birds. The best times to see the migrating species are from late August to November and from February to May, with December through to February being the best for winter birds and also the coolest time of the year. Most of the indigenous species can be seen in the winter, although some breeding species do not arrive until May, particularly in Dhofar. There are good birding sites in every region of the country. The coastal khawrs (lagoons) offer perfect spots for wintering and migrating waterbirds, including ducks, waders and terns. The Ad Dimaniyyat Islands hold substantial numbers of breeding bridled and white-cheeked terns, with small numbers of common noddies (Anous stolidus), ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) and western reef herons (Egretta gularis). The As Sawadi Islands and Al Fahl Island hold breeding sooty falcons (Falco concolor), with the latter site also having nesting red-billed tropicbirds (Phaethon aethereus).

People and culture

The Omanis are a conservative people, and a respect for their privacy and religion are courteous gestures from any visitor to their country. They are friendly and giving, and keen to communicate and demonstrate their culture and heritage to those who are interested. They are known for their hospitality and are deeply committed to a sense of family. Omanis are generally keen to assist and welcome outsiders. There is a less rigid attitude towards scheduling than in an Anglo-Saxon environment. In part, this is a result of prioritising the relative importance of a particular activity over its timing. For instance, if a senior person requests your attendance that request is immediately prioritised over a pre-arranged coffee with friends. You are likely to hear ‘inshallah’ often, which means ‘if God wills it, it will happen’ – an indication in the absolute faith of Omanis in God’s role in all aspects of life.

Omanis are known for their hospitality and are deeply committed to a sense of family.

The core of Oman’s most prominent culture is around the northern mountains, with other cultures in the southern mountains, coastline, desert and Musandam Peninsula. The northern mountains are the heartland of the Ibadhi, one of Islam’s earliest sects (see box, page 33), whose role in Oman is exemplified by the royal family and previous imams. On the coast along Al Batinah are prominent Shia populations who have traditionally been notable traders.

Family size is relatively large compared with Europe and North America, but the fertility rate has reduced from over eight children per woman in the early 1980s to fewer than three today, according to UNICEF. Life expectancy has also changed dramatically, from 50 in 1970 to 77 currently.

Omani traditional dress

Men

The dishdasha is the ankle-length robe worn by Omani men. Usually white in colour for daytime wear and required in white when working in government ministries or in the workplace, official and formal, this also comes in a variety of colours for evening and special occasions. The tassel at the neck is called the furakha or farusha and it is customary to perfume this.

Livestock market, Nizwa Oman by Tony WalshA traditional livestock market in Nizw © Tony Walsh

The mussar is Oman’s traditional formal turban for males. Though there is a specific material that is only worn by members of the royal family, the mussar generally does not indicate rank. It is a square of woven material and in Muscat of a similar quality to a pashmina shawl. Folded to create a triangle, the longest side forms the front with the opposite apex as a ‘tail’ at the neck. The front is then rolled and the rolled ends are wrapped around the head creating the distinctive turban shape.

Women

Underneath the abaya (a black, or increasingly with other colours, coverall gown worn in public), Omani women can be found wearing brightly coloured traditional ankle-length dresses and headscarves made from a range of fabrics in a variety of styles, according to region and/or personal taste. The name of each part of the costume varies from region to region. Broadly, the traditional woman’s jallabia (dress) is usually worn over sirwall (trousers) and with a lihaf (head shawl). In some regions a burka (face mask) is worn. Some women wear Western clothes, but cover up with the abaya outside the home.

Omani women tailors, Oman by David Steele, DreamstimeWomen working as tailors in Oman © David Steele, Dreamstime

It is traditional for women to have their hands and feet painted with henna at times of celebration. Traditionally, kohl was drawn on the eyes and indigo on the face on special occasions, festivals and weddings. Henna is still used today, pasted on the hands and feet in various patterns and designs which, when dried, leave an orangey-brown decorative stain.

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