They present their costly gifts
To the Child King.
“Look at me!” Gold boldly proclaims,
“I am indeed a gift fit for a King”.
Frankincense speaks slowly and deliberately,
“To benefit from me you have to burn me:
You can’t keep me forever like my brother, Gold.
My scent, however, lingers much longer than my fire.”
Only Myrrh is left to speak.
She quietly whispers but three words:
Joseph takes a live ember from off the fire
And places it in a pot of clay.
Mary chooses a tear of golden frankincense
And sits it carefully on the red hot coal.
Thick curls of heavy smoke
Wind slowly from the glowing coal.
Sizzling, melting, boiling
Yet smelling exotically divine.
The Magi bow low
And withdraw from the sacred scene,
Taking the fragrance with them,
Their new assignment just beginning.
Ross Hayden © 2001 Salalah, Sultanate of Oman
(southern Arabia and Dhofar)
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Clapp, N. (1998). The road to Ubar : finding the Atlantis of the sands. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
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Groom, N. (1981). Frankincense and myrrh : a study of the Arabian incense trade. London: Longman.
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Hamilton, A. (1727). A new account of the East Indies, being the observations and remarks of Capt. Alexander Hamilton, who spend his time there from the year 1688. to 1723. Edinburgh,: Printed by J. Mosman.
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Janzen, J. (1986). Nomads in the Sultanate of Oman : tradition and development on Dhofar. Boulder: Westview Press.
Johnstone, T. M. (1972). The Language of Poetry in Dhofar. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 35(1), 1-17.
Melamid, A. (1984). Dhofar. Geographical Review, 74(1), 106-109.
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Pridham, B. R. (1987). Oman : economic, social and strategic developments. London: Croom Helm.
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Sunset at Salalah
Steady, strong winds
Hot off the desert
Whipping across the sandy beach.
Sea birds hugging the surface of the water
Near the shore.
Spray flying back out to sea.
Two dishdashas walk past
One black, the other white
Both hitched up and hems tied at the waist
Exposing dark-coloured and white wizars.
They stop some 50 metres off
And start to turn back
I wave, one waves back
They continue on their return journey.
A container ship far out to sea crawls along the horizon
Heading towards Port Salalah
Newly-opened and 20 miles due west.
A 4WD speeds along the graded road behind me
Churning up clouds of dust
Quickly dissipated by the hot wind off the distant desert.
An open fishing boat powers by
Just beyond the breakers,
Then zooms off to where it came from
Its occupants obviously enjoying the exhilarating ride.
Two white Arabian steeds
Softly gallop by near the shallow water.
Their riders slowly take them about
Then head directly towards the low-angled sun’s rays
The peaks of their riding caps
Pulled down low to reduce the glare
Their horses now walking after the hard ride there.
Two more 4WDs speedily approach from opposite directions,
Swiftly scattering seabirds on the sandy shore,
Then slowly and safely pass next to the ambling horsemen.
At my back among the metre high sandhills
A crested lark walks, pecks, flutters, stops,
Waits for its mate; then they fly off together
Into the now low, yellow-orbed sun.
Shadows on the mini-dunes further dapple the seaboard’s surface
The white sands softening to a yellowish hue
Highlighting the tough stubbly sandhill plants.
To the north the jebel takes on a pinky shade
Contrasting sharply with the long belt of brilliant green
Of the lush palms on the Royal Farm
And the nearer sands.
On the darkening blue waters, now calmer
Several more fishing boats head westward and homeward
Towards the golden orb now poised just above the horizon.
The wind seems to relax as it sees the departing sun.
A large flock of seabirds cluster closely together on the sands
Soon joined by others come to share news of the day.
The burning ball sinks softly down
And disappears behind massive Mughsayl.
A fiery red glow in the west,
A pink blush over Jebel Samhan in the east
Are all that are left of its retreat.
Guiding lights come on at Port Salalah
As the container ship nears its next staging post
On the long journey from the Far East to Europe and East Coast America -
Maybe I can join its crew
And ‘fly off’ into the sunset
Like this poem which has winged its way to you!
© P. R. Hayden, Salalah 1998
Hasik Beach in days of yore
Seas surge noisily up the bolder-strewn shore
Towards the quiet fishing village.
Behind the low houses, long and tall
Limestone cliffs tower over them.
Drawn up on the beach 70 houris lie idly by,
Another score bob at anchor in the choppy bay,
While three or four furlongs out to sea
A sambuq or two are hove to.
A houri from Hadbeen arrives
Laden with colourful hawari
For a wedding
And celebration in the town.
Three weathered fisherman stripped to the waist
Wade out to their houris
To untangle the long lines
Which tether them to the shore.
They clean their fish in the shallows
While greedy seabirds finish off the fishy remains.
The sailors sit and chat in a little shade
And mend their nets on the bouldery beach – at Hasik.
P. R. Hayden, Salalah © 2001
These are the caves with camels, with camels
Drawn all over their walls, their walls
Figures on camels and camels and figures
Drawn all over the walls.
Walking thru the grass, the grass
Occasionally swishing it with m’ cane, m’ cane
Deep in talk talk talk
With Ibrahim following behind.
Looking straight ahead
Not focussing on anything in particular
Suddenly see the end of a long black thing
Crossing my path just in front of my foot.
Look to what is in front of it -
See an equally black much longer
With a black head attached!
I stop and back up in alarm.
It stops and rears up in alarm,
Then proceeds on its way
Heading for the nearest bushes.
A little later, walking back
From the caves to the car
Again thru longish grass
Again thru longish grass.
Think we should head
For the well-worn cow-track
- safer than walking thru the grass
Start to think of snakes again!
Scream I to Ibrahim.
He thinks I am teasing about snakes
But NO WAY! NOT! IT’S FOR REAL!!!!!!!!!
There in front is a bronzy-black, threatening head
Hood spread wide,
Head swaying from side to side
Ready to strike something, someone, ME — dead!!!!!!!
My scream wakes me up.
I hover in indecision for a moment.
Will my movement cause it to strike?
We have to get out of here ASAP or else!!!
It’s much more heavily armed than me
I only have a light walking cane
Speed and experience are on its side
In-built speakers blare, “GET OUT OF HERE!!!”
Extremely hastily I run backwards
My eyes still staring
Straight in front of me
At the waving snake.
I know it’s time
For me to leave the scene
Not taken from it in a body-bag!
At a safe distance I stop
I must get a photo this time
Whipping out my camera
Gingerly I race after the retreating cobra.
But all too quickly it vanishes
Into the thicker grass
I’m too scared (wise?)
To follow any further.
So, exhilarated and cautioned
By our exciting experiences
We very quickly find
The well-beaten cow-track, cow-track.
Then slowly we wander
Our way back to the car
Every few minutes telling each other
Some new facet of feelings and fears
On the snaky experiences
Punctuated by bismillahs,
Salamaats and other protective
Or thankful utterances!
Talk too of throwing a party
Killing a cow or two
To show our thankfulness
For being spared to live another day or two? or three?
Pass a few men drinking tea
Alongside their pickup
Under the shade of a tree
And recount our story to them, to them
“Why didn’t you kill it?”,
One big brave-looking fellow asks.
“It’s head was as big as yours!”,
His brave heart falters
His big mouth wavers
With an at-the-ready reply
Then snaps shut! Khlas!
Heading for home by car
Others also have the chance
To hear of our little adventure:
Again, more salamaats are freely dispensed.
Finally I drop off Ibrahim
Safely at his home
Then safely deliver myself home
Al-hamdulilah salamaat! Salamaat!
P. R. Hayden, Salalah © 1998
Khalid Qeetun – of Funiq, Tawi Attair – came up with the plan to walk along the top of the Jebel Samhan range (from near the TV aerial above Mirbat) to Jebel Kharis and then descend an ancient camel track down the cliff to Sawb on the plains.
Khalid picked me up from Salalah and took me to his home in Tawi Attair. From there, one of his friends took Khalid and I together with Mohammad and Ayoub in his Landcruiser all the way up to Jebel Samhan. Eventually we were let off near the now-abandoned marble mine at Mabtun.
As we were taking our stuff from the Landcruiser, one of Khalid’s uncles came along. This was rather surprising since we were at least 15 kilometres from the nearest village and 5 km from the nearest house. We posed with him while the driver took a photo of the historic occasion. In the excitement of meeting up with this relative in the middle of nowhere, the driver, sensing his services were no longer required, got into his wagon and took off. With a sinking feeling in my stomach I realised I’d left my tramping boots in the vehicle. By this time he was too far away to signal for him to stop, and we had no way to communicate – no mobile phones in those days! I would have to trek all the way wearing the lightweight sandals I had on!
We gathered up our packs, maps, water-bottles, walking sticks, and a rifle – supposed protection against wild animals, the likeliest being the endangered Arabian leopard, into whose habitat we were trespassing. It was a big comfort to know that in the event that our lives were endangered, we could prolong our days by killing one of perhaps fifty leopards left in the wild!
So, who was in our group? First, the originator of the idea, Khalid Qeetun, a geography teacher from Tawi Attair. I had known Khalid for two years by this time. On previous occasions he had introduced me and other English teachers at the College of Education (now the College of Applied Sciences) to places he thought might be interesting to us. So it was for our mutual benefit that we went out on shorter trips: us to explore and get to know places around, while he got plenty of opportunities to improve his English. It was a happy arrangement. Khalid was a typical jebali young man. He was of slight built but very fit. He knew of the area we were venturing into although only through various uncles who really did know.
Next was Mohammed from Mirbat. Mohammed was also a keen geography teacher and a friend of Khalid’s. He was the one carrying the 303. Lastly there was Ayoub, also from Mirbat. He was a recent recruit on the oil-fields, and had taken leave for 10 days. He had been roped in at the last minute, and as we were to discover, both him and I were equally unfit!
Which brings me to the important subject of preparation! What training had we done before we set out on this 2 day 20 hour trek?
After a couple of hours of tramping it became clear that I hadn’t adequately prepared for this serious expedition. Already I was slowing down. It was difficult to keep up the pace that Khalid and Mohammed had set. In part this was due to my footwear. One side of a sandal had pulled out of the sole so when I walked I had to grip the inside of the sandal with my toes to prevent my foot slipping out of the sandal. I tried wearing socks for a time but found that they created problems of their own with my feet sliding up and down inside the sandals. More importantly, I was carrying too much weight in my packs! Lastly I knew that a couple of kilometres leisurely walking 2 or 3 times a week hadn’t prepared me for this difficult mountain traverse.
We stopped for lunch after covering 8 km of up one rocky hill and down the next. After starting at an elevation of about 1200 metres, we were now at 1500 metres. We found some small almost leafless trees to sit under, as, although it was late winter, the temperature in the day time was still about 25 C. It was very tempting to stay longer than we needed under the meagre shade, but we knew we needed to keep moving if we were to reach our target by nightfall – Jebel / Wadi Kharis. While here Khalid noticed that his backpack was damp. On investigation he discovered that the 4 litre plastic jerry can of water in his pack had split and most of its contents leaked out: our main supply of water had gone! The rest of us had perhaps 5 or 6 litres all told, which had to last the four of us 4 hours of walking that day, plus most of the following day. It was far too little to get us to our destination easily. There were no inhabitants around. No more passing uncles. Not even a lone she-camel we could milk. We had passed all springs – they were at much lower altitudes – and no more fresh sources would be accessible until we had descended the mountains to the plains.
We stopped for a break on the edge of the cliff to consult the map. There was a sheer drop of at least 200 metres directly below us. However, from the birds-eye view this vantage point afforded, we could trace our path along the cliff-top, down the valleys and on to the plains far below.
About 5 p.m. we decided to stop and get ready for the night ahead. It would get dark quickly and we had limited light power. I was keen to have somewhere against a rock wall to protect us from the cold wind. However, the others were more concerned about snakes coming out of the rocks or, worse still, leopards preying on us. We found a spot out in the open. It was hard-packed bare ground with a few stones and plants. After clearing the area, we spread out our bedding a few metres from where we would build the fire. We collected a large pile of dead trees and broken branches which would, hopefully, serve us with enough heat and light to last the night. We set to and cooked a simple meal of canned tuna and rice served with tea.
Next morning we were all up at first light. I had spent an uncomfortable night on the hard ground. It had been cool, too, especially in the hours before dawn. After a quick meal we broke camp and packed our things. As we were packing up, I noticed one of the others had a couple of cans of tuna. So I asked around. Each of us had brought several tins of tuna! All that extra weight lugged around unnecessarily!
We assessed our water situation. It was critical. We had only about 3 or 4 litres remaining, and it was going to be 10 hours before we reached our goal. So, at 7.30 a.m. we set off not knowing how we were going to cope. And me in particular! We had to walk for about an hour before we came to the ‘Big Cut’, a huge wadi that bisected the mountain transversely. In ancient days this wadi served as one of the main thoroughfares between the frankincense-growing areas to the north and the coast – about 25 kilometres away. Wadi Andhur, one of the major frankincense collection centres from the 3rd century BC until 4th century AD, lay almost 40 kilometres due north. We were going to be following one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the journey. It was comforting to know that we weren’t the first to go this way. Thousands of camels, traders and soldiers had come this way in ancient times. However, we didn’t have the benefit of a guide who had been that way before. We hoped to descend from an altitude of about 1600 metres to about 200 metres during the course of the day.
It didn’t take long to find the track down the cliff face. At first it was easy going with a magnificent view towards Mirbat and Hinu. We continued following the track. It was littered with hundreds of huge chunks of limestone that had broken away from the escarpment over the centuries. Looking back and up the cliff we noticed that there were a number of new pieces of stone poised to follow the others down the hill. We hoped it wouldn’t be today that they decided to move on down.
I started out the day feeling energetic and refreshed after the night’s rest. As the day wore on, however, and our water supply ran out, I got more and more tired, becoming so lethargic in the end that I stopped walking and sat down under a tree on a small rocky promontory, and couldn’t go any further. Khalid was very concerned with this turn of events. I explained how thirsty I was. After some discussion among them, Khalid and Mohammad went off to try and find something to drink – for me!
They were concerned for me. They didn’t want their teacher to die in their hands so they marched off looking for that elusive liquid to slake my thirst. They had already talked about the goats they’d seen grazing in the distance. In my comatose state I didn’t think in terms of goats. But they did. Some half an hour later they returned carrying an aluminium bowl of fresh goat’s milk. I was surprised and humbled. They related how they had wandered around the cliff-side for some time calling out for the shepherd, eventually finding him. He was happy to oblige, fetched his aluminium bowl, and proceeded to catch one of his goats and milk it into the bowl.
In no time this bowl of expensive liquid had rejuvenated me! I drank the warm milk and waited. I got back on my feet and started moving. The others were encouraging me by saying it was all downhill from now on. Additionally, the jebali shepherd gave further directions on how to reach his hut a couple of hours walk away. We could even see it in the distance through binoculars. We set out again. This time my pack was reduced to a couple of kilos. The others distributed the weight between them, Khalid carrying most of mine as well as his own.
It was still a long way to go. Once Khalid and Mohammad were confident that we knew the way, they went on ahead and Ayub and I brought up the rear. It was a struggle but Ayub and I finally arrived at the shepherd’s hut at 5.30 pm. But we made it! I collapsed onto the mat outside the hut next to Khalid. Various refreshing drinks were offered me. I drank any and all – a couple of cartons of juice, 4 or 5 glasses of water, several small glasses of sweet, red tea… Phew, it was so great to be able to drink again! But it was embarrassing just how much I did drink!
We were still a long way from civilisation. However, after some time one of relatives of the family came in his 4WD and took us to Sadh where we stayed the night. The next day we explored Fushi, Hadbeen and Kaisa . It was a very leisurely day. We didn’t exert ourselves too much. That evening we all returned to our respective homes – Mohammad and Ayub to Mirbat, Khalid to Tawi Attair and I to Salalah. Our expedition had ended!
Lessons I learnt about Dhofaris that day
They went the extra mile even when they didn’t have to – carrying my pack. I wasn’t a Roman soldier but they did it willingly; self-sacrifice – nothing was too difficult for them to do for others when required; and hospitality – the jebali shepherd and his family offered what they had to us even though they knew none of us personally.
It had been a long day. The four of us had walked, clambered, scaled and trudged over, around, through and over rocks, rivers, seas and sand! And now we were at the end of our tether. Mohammed had started out at a run and was now trailing behind with Salim who had developed a limp. Suhail’s lack of fitness had got the better of him and he was looking forward to the journey’s end!
How did we come to venture on this expedition in the first place? We decided to walk the 20 km or so from Hadbeen to Hasik before the road went through and the old ways forever forgotten. The team of friends who had gone with me on my previous expedition unfortunately at the last moment were not free to join me on this new one.
I decided to press on alone, hoping to find some new soul mates to accompany me. I dropped in on another friend, Suhail Said Al-Amri of Jufa, 8 km inland from the old frankincense export port of Sadh. Strangely, Jufa is just a few kilometres away from Sawb which was the terminus of my last, almost abortive, trip along the top of Jebel Samhan, down the cliff following the old camel trails, ending up in the village of Sawb, where Suhail taught geography in the local primary school.
This time I was determined to make it a successful trip in every way so I made a point of walking long distances around Salalah whenever I could. I didn’t want to be left behind by being unfit. And that part of my preparation did pay off!
Suhail enthusiastically decided to join the team, even though at short notice. We continued on to Hadbeen where we met up with one of his friends, Salem Al-Araimi, a fisherman. Word soon got around, and before long a fourth person volunteered to come, Mohammad Zu’amri Al-Mahri, a former student of mine at the College of Education (now the College of Applied Sciences) in Salalah.
Late in the day we started to gather together the supplies we would need for an early start the following day. We hoped that we would be able to complete the route from Hadbeen to Hasik with just one night’s stop somewhere along the way. But things didn’t work out that way!
Earlier in the day I had tried to negotiate with my fellow-travellers to camp out somewhere along the way. Unfortunately some were adamant that we not camp out. One reason given was that (at that time) ‘dangerous’ Somali fugitives were known to be using the coast as a road north to Dubai and ultimate freedom. So as the day was coming to an end we tried, unsuccessfully, to flag down numbers of passing motorboats. We were getting exhausted by this time. To cap things off the sun was almost set. What to do?
Clambering around a couple more rocky bays, we suddenly came across a couple of motorboats tied to some rocks. Signs of civilisation at last!
A few more steps and we spotted numbers of camels browsing in the next bay. We had arrived at Wadi Samhan! It was 6.15 p.m. and the sun had just set. What a relief it was!
It was Mohammed’s uncle with their camels! We were ushered into a tent made from tree branches covered with plastic sheeting. There in the light of a kerosene lantern, we slaked our thirst on cool water, warm camel’s milk and hot sweet tea, in that order.
I thought we were going to stay the night there but I was outnumbered – Salim and the others wanted to press on to Hasik! For a moment I had forgotten that Salem was a fisherman, and that there was a motorboat in the next bay!
“How long will it take?” I asked.
“Seven minutes!” answered Salim.
Salim as a fisherman had done that trip many times before so his estimate should have been accurate. However, other factors came into play.
We headed out into the unknown with a 20 to 30 knot head wind, a 1 to 2 metre swell. It was pitch dark with only a sliver of a moon; and we were 50 metres from a very rocky coastline. I was feeling rather scared, to put it mildly!
We were making heavy work of the journey, travelling through a big swell with the wind whipping up white caps, when all of a sudden the motor stopped. The boat swung broadside to the waves. They started to break into the boat. There we were with no life jackets, no spare outboard motor, and not even one oar. We were certainly at the mercy of God and the elements.
I fumbled for my torch. Shining it over the stern we saw a very large plastic bag entangling the prop. Within two minutes we were on our way again. Phew!
How wonderful it was then when we finally saw the welcoming lights of Hasik looming through the gloom. It would be half an hour more before we reached it. But still it was reassuring to see those lights! And so the 7 minute journey became 85!
1600 years ago a terracotta cup inscribed with six symmetrical symbols got buried in a fort in southern Arabia. What did those symbols represent and what was the cup used for?
A team of archaeologists headed by Dr Juris Zarins unearthed it from a buried fort, which was once an integral part of the ancient frankincense trade. Fort Hamran, as it is now known, lies 25 km east of Salalah in the Dhofar governorate of southern Oman.
The vessel they found was originally purple in colour and marked with six simple Greek crosses. Their conclusion is that it was a Christian chalice (communion cup)! And what was it doing in southern Arabia?
This raises the possibility that Christian monks had set up a centre in what was once a frankincense trading post. “There is a chance that Ain Humran was the missing ‘third church’ founded by the Byzantine missionary Theophilus Indus in the middle 300s.” (Clapp, N. (1998). The road to Ubar : finding the Atlantis of the sands. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p.212)
Recently, while exploring a remote part of the Dhofari coast with a couple of friends, I climbed a hill to admire the view. I was surprised as I walked around on top of this hill to stumble across an old iron nail lying on the stony ground. It had obviously been lying there for a long time – how long is hard to know because the area is very dry and very rarely rains. The friend I was with is from a family of fishermen, and from a region which is very well-known for its traditional style of shipbuilding – he’s from Sur where dhows are still occasionally built. Immediately he recognised it as a ship’s nail.
We examined the nail. It was about 11 cm long, and square in cross-section. It was in surprisingly good condition with only a little rusty scale. As we handled the nail we wondered how it had got there. We looked around but the only signs of life were the blackened remains of what may have been an old fire. We came to the conclusion that maybe a long time ago somebody had burnt the timbers of a wrecked ship, and this old nail was now all that remained.
Today as I think about that nail, and that hill far away, I think of another hill even further away, and other handmade iron nails, used not for constructive purposes, but destructive — to cause pain and worse. I think of the one who suffered there on that hill, and I am thankful, very thankful for what he did for me, for you.
At this time of the year let us think how we can give of ourselves, and use our talents for constructive purposes, to build up not to destroy, to bring joy not pain, to give and not expect anything in return.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (Jim Elliott)