A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
I came to Oman looking for evidence of its past, a daunting task considering the country's headlong pursuit of the future. Once an underdeveloped herding and seafaring society, this sultanate (about the size of Kansas) on the southeastern edge of the Arabian peninsula is now oil-rich and bursting with productive energy. The country has been reborn in the 27 years of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said's rule. There are now some 20,000 miles of paved road, compared to six miles 25 years ago. More than 40 percent of the population is now literate, compared to less than one percent in 1970. And a building boom has turned the once poor and sparsely populated capital of Muscat into a fully modern city, with new government ministries, hospitals, a university, and office towers, all painted gleaming white by order of his majesty.
I had read Alan Villiers' Sons of Sinbad and Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands, mid-twentieth-century accounts of British explorers who recorded ways of life that were fast disappearing. Villiers wrote of his voyage on a trading dhow along the Omani coast:
It seemed to me, having looked far and wide over twenty years of a seafaring lifetime, that as pure sailing craft carrying on their unspoiled ways, only the Arab remained. Only the Arab remained making his voyages as he always had, in a wind-driven vessel sailing without the benefit of engines. Only the Arab still sailed his wind ships over the free sea, keeping steadfastly to the quieter ways of a kinder past. Just as the Mariehamn grain ships of Finland were the last of European sail, the Arab dhow was the proud last of the romantic East.
Thesiger recounted his journey with the bedouin across the sand dunes of the Rub al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, a vast desert of some 225,000 square miles that encroaches on Oman's western boundary. Traveling on camelback, he experienced the bedouin's "hard and merciless life, always hungry and usually thirsty":
I went to southern Arabia only just in time. Others will go there to study geology and archaeology...even to study the Arabs themselves, but they will move about in cars and will keep in touch with the outside world by wireless. They will bring back results far more interesting than mine, but they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of the Arabs.
While we never traveled on camelback with the bedouin, photographer Nicolas Sapieha and I experienced the ageless beauty of the Omani countryside, at forts of bygone desert princes that rose like mirages in the flat scrubland, and at seaside towns where carpenters hammered together traditional wooden dhows. Browsing in souks, we also felt with turn-of-the-century French explorer and novelist Pierre Loti "that nameless disquiet that occurs, everywhere in the Orient, from silence, veiled faces, and closed houses."
Sapieha died of cancer a few months after our journey. His evocative images of Oman, particularly its architecture, are the centerpiece of our report, which includes an overview of the country's past as revealed by excavations from Muscat west to the neighboring United Arab Emirates, an introduction to the art of dhow building, and recollections of an Arabian Nights heritage focusing on Ubar, a region once believed to have been the center of the frankincense trade. The Koran says God destroyed Ubar because its people were wicked. Archaeology tells a different story, about a territory whose demise was a rather simple matter of economics. With the fall of the Roman Empire, and prohibition of the use of incense in elaborate Christian funeral rites, the trade dried up, and, in time, this fabled culture vanished beneath the desert sand.