Land of Legend
Over the past decade and a half, Sarah White has become a valued contributor to the cultural life of Muscat through her leading role in the Bait Al Zubair Museum and her exceptional talent as a painter. Recently Sarah gave a presentation to the Historical Association of Oman that encapsulated her unabashedly romantic view of the country.
It is a view that resonated with her audience and that surely will enchant the newcomers to Oman for whom it was originally conceived.
Over many millennia, Oman has been a crucible for remarkable human achievements in agriculture, civilisation and seafaring. It also inspired myths, legends and dreams that still take hold of the imagination. And it is this alluring aspect of Oman that is at the heart of Sarah’s presentation entitled “Oman, Land of Legend”.
A Legend is a traditional story often popularly regarded as historical, though unauthenticated. A Myth is also a traditional narrative, but involves supernatural or imaginary persons and incorporates popular notions of natural or social phenomena.
As is well understood, very often legends and myths have a basis in fact; and indeed, myths and legends have been used to guide successful archaeological research, as for example in the case of the discovery of the ruins of ancient Troy through clues provided by Homer’s Iliad. In a similar vein, Sarah’s presentation on Oman as a Land of Legend is set within historical and archaeological material. As the architecture for her presentation, Sarah chose four iconic platforms: 1) Magan; 2) Frankincense; 3) Seafaring; and 4) Oasis Settlements. From the material context for three of the four platforms, Sarah brought forward classic legends or myths and made them alive with evocative quotations.
Magan: This section of Sarah’s presentation was not about discrete legends or myths, but about Oman’s legendary status. Sarah spoke of Oman’s “ancient history, shrouded in legend and antiquity. This mysterious land lies at the cross roads of three continents and four seas; …it was connected to the major civilisations of the ancient world and played a role in transforming global history about 5,000 years ago”
It is believed that the lands that constitute present day Oman were once part of a larger area referred to in the Mesopotamian cuneiform texts of the Third Millennium BC as “Magan”. There is now firm archaeological evidence that copper from mines in the Batinah and Sharquiyah regions was a major commodity in the trade between the two great civilisations of the time — Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley (that is, between modern day Iraq and the Pakistan area).
The Mesopotamian cuneiform texts mention “loading the boats of Magan sky high”. The ships of Magan brought “mighty copper” and the desirable black stone, diorite, from Oman, as well as treasures from the Indus Valley, to Akaad, capital of the powerful King, Sargon, who reigned from 2371 to 2316 BC.
This was a very prosperous period for Oman, known archaeologically as part of the Umm An-Nar period, named after an island near Abu Dhabi where the first archaeological discoveries in the region occurred. Ras al Hamra was the first site to be excavated in Oman; and it was at Ras al Hadd and Ras al Jinz that the original evidence of the Magan ships was found in bitumen fragments used to seal boats made of reeds, rope and wood. In addition to these three sites, there are numerous neolithic sites of the Um An-Nar period throughout Sharqiyah, and also at Wadi Bahla, and Wadi Jizzi.
Scientific research methods of today have allowed reconstruction of the ancient Magan boat based on evidence from recent archaeological discoveries. The project is supported by expertise from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage in alliance with a team of international archaeologists including Professor Maurizio Tosi from the University of Bologna, Italy; Professor Serge Clueziou from the Sorbonne at the University of Paris; and, Dr Tom Vosmer from Curtin University in Western Australia.
There is currently a plan to build two Magan Boats at Sur, hopefully destined to sail ‘once again’ from the shores of Oman. One of the Magan boats is to be featured at the 2006 Muscat Festival when Oman hosts the GCC.
Frankincense: Sarah introduced this once incomparably precious commodity with a quotation from the New Testament: “And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them, until it came and stopped over the place where the child was…. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
It is not known from whence the Three Kings came, but Sarah and her audience enjoyed the idea of at least one of the Kings coming from Oman.
In a presentation rich in descriptive language, the following passage stands out: “The origins of frankincense cultivation and trade are as mysterious as the wild, scraggy tree that produces this versatile aromatic resin. These trees grow only … in very specific arid conditions, and their gangly branches awkwardly twist out from the roots. Early accounts detail vicious jumping snakes that fiercely protect the trees that grow in forsaken, desolate locations shrouded by whirling mists. (According to) Herodotus… ‘the bushes that grow frankincense are guarded by tiny winged snakes, of dappled colour, and there are great numbers of them around each bush’”.
Among many interesting allusions was reference to the Roman Emperor Nero burning more incense at his wife’s funeral than Arabia could produce in a year. This was followed by the not uncontroversial suggestion that the Queen of Sheba who purportedly sent King Solomon quantities of frankincense might be associated with the city of Samhuram, the ruins of which have been unearthed at Khawr Rawri near Salalah.
Sarah mentions the many different uses of frankincense in ancient times and some of the beliefs that inflated its value: “In fact ancient people believed that frankincense tapped from trees growing in the most inhospitable environments, was the most precious and favoured by the gods, they used it specifically for the most sacred sacrificial ceremonies only. They believed that the wafts of fragrant white smoke created when the resin was burned carried their prayers to the heavens and warded off evil”
Sarah quotes the Roman scholar Pliny (the Elder) to emphasise the great wealth produced by the trade in frankincense and the mystique it created: “In the 1st Century AD, Pliny wrote that the people of this Arabian land were: ’the richest races in the world; the vast wealth from Rome and Partha accumulates in their lands’. He described frankincense as ‘brilliant white and gathered at dawn in drops or tears in the shape of pearls’ ”.
The section on incense was crowned with tales of the elusive city of Ubar, romanticised as The Atlantis of the Sands. Ubar, fabled as a city of immense wealth due to its strategic position on the Frankincense trade route, was said to be “an imitation of paradise”. Among those lured by its legend were the famous 19th Century explorer Bertram Thomas and the author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, TE Lawrence, popularly known as “Lawrence of Arabia” following the film of the same name.
The latest quest for Ubar was initiated by the American Archaeology enthusiast, Nicolas Clapp, whose breakthrough came from images taken from space by NASA who were persuaded to vary the course of the Challenger to include the area above the Rub al Khali where Bertram Thomas had found evidence of an ancient trail deeply engraved in the sand by thousands of caravans over countless centuries.
This trail, made of eighty-four parallel camel tracks, today abruptly ends at the foot of a mass of dunes described as “of cruel and sublime grandeur” (Clapp). It was believed in local lore to be the Road to Ubar. Nevertheless, further pictures from French and American satellites showed no evidence of an ancient settlement in the area. Searching closer to the coast, Clapp eventually put forward ruins at the town of Shis’r as the probable site of Ubar. But excavations revealed no definitive proof, and some experts believe, as does Sarah, that “this great city — rich in treasure — remains a legend that may still be hidden under the sands of time”.
Seafaring: Sarah began this section with an evocative description of Sohar at the height of its glory in the 10th Century, quoting the Muslim Geographer AD Al-Maqdisi: “The main and principal city of Oman; no distinguished city existing today in the China Sea (Indian Ocean) is considered better than Sohar; it is prosperous, densely populated, exquisite, pleasant and honourable. It is a refined city, stretching along the coast. Its inhabitants have houses constructed of brick and teak wood, which are prepossessing in appearance…. They… enjoy an abundance of all things. It is the antechamber to China, the treasure of the East and Iraq, and the helpmate of Yemen.”
Sarah went on to say: “Sohar was described by a Persian author as the “emporium of the whole world…there is not a town where merchants are wealthier than here and all commodities of East, West, South and North are brought to this town; and, from there, carried to different places”.
Among the principal commodities were pearls… “and they were considered to be the main source of regional revenue before oil was discovered. These Gulf pearls were in high demand in the Middle Ages and Omani merchants exploited this”.
Sarah introduced the legendary hero Sindbad the Sailor by saying it is believed that Sindbad came from Sohar, though noting that Sindbad is also strongly associated with Iraq and Bahrain. The tales of Sindbad who sailed the Seven Seas to China in a Thousand and One Arabian Nights have made him one of the most recognised mythical figures in the world. Though the original Sindbad of the Arabian Nights was an adventurer from Baghdad, he is surely an incarnation of the great Arab sailors in early Islamic times; and, in that sense, Sohar and other ancient Arabian coastal cities might rightly claim him.
As Tim Severn explains in his book, The Sindbad Voyage, Sindbad was most likely a mythical construction rather than an historical person. The remarkable feats of the ancient Arab sailors were embellished, made wondrous, and attributed to a single hero. The amazing tales of Sindbad’s voyages thus symbolise the real nautical achievements of the Arabs.
Though Sindbad the Sailor is a universal figure in the collective imagination, not many of us would be able to recount details of his adventures as described in the Arabian Nights. The pattern for each of Sindbad’s seven voyages is similar — Sindbad encounters harrowing dangers in fantastical circumstances, suffers desperate hunger and fatigue, is in dreadful peril and near death; but, by virtue of his wit and imagination, survives - and always with fabulous treasures. Sindbad then returns happily to Baghdad, gives a portion of his booty to the poor, and reunites with his family, swearing never to take to the seas again…though inevitably circumstances impel him to do so.
There are enough precious gemstones in the Sindbad tales to fill a few of his ships. During the Second Voyage, Sindbad is marooned on an island and escapes the latest ghastly peril by attaching himself to a giant bird, which drops him in a valley full of magnificent diamonds — but laced with enormous serpents. Eventually Sindbad manages to return home with a dazzling quantity of the largest and most beautiful diamonds.
The Seventh and last voyage takes Sindbad back to the Island of Serendip (Sri Lanka) with gifts from the Caliph of Baghdad for the Sultan of Serendip who is proclaimed thus: “This is the great monarch, the powerful Sultan of the Indies whose palace is covered with a hundred thousand rubies and who possesses twenty thousand diamond crowns” Tales from the Arabian Nights, p 208. On an earlier voyage, Sindbad had endeared himself to this fabulous monarch by finding the graveyard of the elephants and its vast treasury of ivory.
Oasis Settlements: In the final section of her presentation, Sarah examined Oman’s Oasis Settlements. The springboard for the discussion of legends was the falaj systems that channel water to irrigate the orchards and gardens of Oman’s traditional communities. She began with a mirage — the classic, but mistaken, notion of an Oasis as “a natural pool of water fringed by palm trees, a fortunate accident of nature that has saved the lives of desperate travellers or welcomed settlers to a readymade paradise” and emphasized that an oasis does not occur by chance. “It is the result of the determined efforts by resourceful people to render local water useful or to bring it from a distant source to an area suitable for settlement”.
According to some sources, the Persian Archaemenid ruler Cambyses (550-521) who conquered Egypt and also invaded Oman is said to have spurred the building of the Falaj system. However recent archaeological evidence pre-dates the Persian invasions by nearly 2,000 years and Sarah provided a more colourful, mythical genesis as follows:
“King Solomon, son of David, a wise man who was gifted with the ability to speak to all people, animals and insects. ...He was able to command the world of men and the world of Djnns. His magical powers enabled him to fly, and whilst flying over Oman, sent down his djinnies to dig for water in the mountains of Oman and build the aflaj. Reportedly his djinnies built one thousand a day for ten days producing 10,000 aflaj”.
Sarah’s last reference was to perhaps the most enduring emblem of Oman’s History — the famed Forts and Castles of the Sultanate and their legendary stature. “At the beating heart of large oasis settlements watchtowers, forts and castles proudly stand as defining remnants of Oman’s interesting history”.
And so it was that Sarah took us on a voyage through time in Oman from long-lost Magan to the great monuments enduring today — in little more than an hour.