Few people that visit the UAE and many who live here all year around realize that we have access to a mountain range that towers to an altitude of 2000 meters!

     These are the mountains to the north and east of Ras al Khaimah, called the Ru’us al Jibal, though the area is often referred to as the Musandam. Actually, the Musandam is the name of the triangular tip of the Arabian Peninsula that jots out towards Iran. Only the Strait of Hormuz separates this area from the Asian mainland. The high mountain range that covers the entire area is a geological continuation of the Zagros Mountains in Iran. The separation occurred many thousand of years ago when the level of the sea rose as the ice of the last Ice age melted. At that time the water started pouring through what is now the Strait of Hormuz into the basin that became the Arabian Gulf.

     The Ru’us al Jibal (translated it means “head of the mountains”) of the Musandam are separated from the more southern range of the Hajar mountains by a wide plain, known as the Dibba fault. While the Musandam consists mainly of carbonated sediments, the Hajar Mountains show a complex of igneous and sedimentary rocks.  The igneous rocks of the earth’s mantle and the oceanic crust are collectively called ophiolites – formed when volcanic eruptions on the bottom of the ancient Sea of Tethys sent lavas to the surface of the earth. These lavas were pushed outwards, away from the eruptions and emerged from the water when they crowded up against the beaches of the sea and when the entire area was uplifted. The Hajar Mountain range is the only place on earth where so much of the dark-colored ophiolites  - the remnants of oceanic crust - can be seen at the surface, a fact much appreciated by geologists. 

Most of the mountains of the Musandam are accessible only to very experienced and hardy hikers, exploring along near invisible tracks. Only a few roads run along the outer edges of the range. The largest part is Omani territory, and to get to the most Northern part, the border post at Shams has to be crossed. A tarmac road then winds along the steep cliffs along the coast to Khasab – a sleepy small town with nothing much to say for it except that it is a starting point for camping trips or trips by boat along the spectacular fjords along the coast.

     There is one other road that connects the East and West coasts in this northern region. It also runs partly through Oman. It is a dirt road that is kept fairly well graded – a difficult job that has to be done after each and every heavy rain.

     The road starts in Dibba and runs first a bit inland and then to the north through wadi Khabb Shamsi. This is a very narrow gorge where the road becomes completely washed out and obliterated by huge rocks after the rains. The spectacular gorge opens out onto a high plain, and then climbs steeply with many hairpin bends to the pass. Some truly spectacular views can be enjoyed from the top of the road, which then descends – again steeply – into the wide bed of wadi Bih. The wadi bed can be followed all the way to Ras al Khaimah. The latter part after the border post has recently been tarred, cutting half an hour of bouncing off the journey.

      I once took some friends along this road to the top. It was a hot day and when we wanted to stop for a picnic we tried to find some shade. The sparse trees that were present on the mountain slopes, were either too far away from the road or cast so little shadow that they were of no use for us. Just past the pass there was a shack along the road with a covered area to the side of it. I knew the man who owned it, having visited his nearby farm on other occasions. We stopped and asked if we could use his shade for our picnic. We had to “speak” with hands and feet, but managed to communicate adequately. Not only could we use his shade – he also brought tea and dates, while we shared our chicken and oranges. The man, whose name was Rashid, seemed very happy to sit there with us and he gestured the following story: “Many people (arms wide spread and sweeping) come here, but they just speed past (car noises and moving his head as if to watch the cars zip by). They get out and look here and look there (hands around his eyes to form binoculars) and then they go off again, but they never sit and have tea (patting the ground and making sipping motions).  Then he beamed at us as if to say –“I enjoy this more”.

     He was right. People often do not stop to explore on foot. And so they miss a lot of the interesting things that can be found in the area. Musandam is not only geologically different from the rest of the UAE. The tribes that used to live there are quite distinct from those living in the lowlands along the coast. The five main tribes that are still represented in the area are the Habus, the Shihu, the Bani Shumayli who live on the Ras al Khaimah side, and the Naqbiyin and the Sharqiyin who occupied the Fujeirah part of the Ru’us al Jibal Mountains.

     Of these the Shihuh are the largest tribe. Their language differs from the Arabic spoken along the coast, and the people often have blue or gray eyes. All the tribes have now largely moved off the mountains, living in modern houses at the base or along the coast. Prior to this, the harshness and aridity of the mountains had shaped a unique culture. It is now only members of the older generation, such as our friend, who remember with fondness the old way of life and the hardships they overcame.

     The life of the mountain people was centered on seasonal nomadism. During the summer from June to September, when scarcity of water made life extremely difficult, the Shihu, Habus and Bani Shumayli would move from their mountain villages to the coastal areas where they would tend to their gardens and date harvests. In the autumn they would move back to their mountain villages to prepare and cultivate crops of wheat and barley, taking advantage of winter rainfall. The long seasonal absences led them to build their houses in a unique way, known as “Bayt al qufl” (literally “house of the enclosure”). Built partly underground, the house was designed to achieve maximum strength so as to protect the most valuable family belongings during the long summer absence. Natural materials, such as branches of trees and stone, were used throughout and a special lock system and narrow passageway leading to a tiny door were characteristic features. The houses were built in clusters to form small settlements, called “fariiq”. These are usually set on the top of ridges or against mountain slopes and blend superbly with the surrounding terrain. They are located next to areas of agricultural potential where run-off during winter rains would permit irrigation of the terraced fields. Water was channeled from the upper to the lower plots via an intricate system of spillways. Large cisterns were built into the ground to gather rainwater that could be brought to the surface with a bucket suspended from a counter-weighted lever system.

Musandan is geologically

different from the rest of the UAE

     Villagers are still proud of these settlements and terraced fields and often spend weekends visiting their stone houses. In many such houses, possessions such as large pots, cooking utensils and farming tools have been left in place. This should tell visitors that the farms, though they may look deserted, are still in use. Rashid took us on a tour of his farm. We had to walk through a small valley, littered with multi-coloured stones and shiny rock crystals, to a steep bank on the other side. His farm lies on a mountain saddle, with a magnificent view into the northern reach of wadi Bih. He showed us some of the many small buildings that were grouped around an ancient huge sidr tree. He pointed out where hollows had been worn in the rocks on the ground from countless hours of grinding wheat to make flour. Pictograms on other rocks pointed to underground water. Rashid told us of his annoyance when he had his possessions stolen by visitors time and again. He said that even roof tiles that have been carefully hewn out of stone are taken.

     When you look carefully at the way the houses and animal shelters are built, you cannot help but wonder how these people, who had few tools and no equipment, managed to fit such huge stones together so snugly.

     The fields around the settlements are quite extensive and it has taken a lot of hard work to level them into terraces and to clear the fields of all the large rocks that are now heaped along the edges as walls. The soil is very fertile and the crops that were raised here were so abundant that some of it used to be exported overseas. Large round towers stand between the fields – granaries used to store surplus wheat.

     Now most of the fields are no longer tilled. In the springtime after rains, those fields that are fenced off to keep out goats can turn into multi-colored meadows: sky-blue  Irises stand amidst the long stalks of pink Gladiolus, the yellow stars of Daisies, the tiny blue eyes of the Blue pimpernel and the purple trumpets of the Mountain lily. Between the rocks of the low walls grow ferns, red Geraniums and blue Campanulas, while rare plants like Umbilicus intermedius and Ononis reclinata can be found also. Many species of grasses abound where once the wheat grew tall. Unfortunately finding such a piece of paradise is becoming increasingly rare, because the mountain vegetation has been grazed into extinction by the hundreds of domestic and feral goats that roam these mountains. The pressure of the goats on the habitat has also displaced most of the original wildlife. The herds of goats competing for the same food have pushed out gazelles and tahr, and the few remaining predators such as caracals, foxes and leopards have no choice but to eat goats. This makes them unpopular with the owners of the goats and they then become the target of hunters. With no leftovers of kills to clean up, scavengers like the hyena and vultures have long since disappeared.

     Rashid also took us to an area behind the settlement where the graveyard lies. Contrary to graveyards elsewhere in the country, the mountain tribes’ graveyards have decorated headstones. He pointed out a small grave with a kind of a necklace engraved on it and said that was the grave of a girl, while a boy’s grave had a palm tree on its headstone. In a graveyard near another settlement adult men are shown sitting on horse or camel back, while the headstones on the graves of women depict intricate designs reminiscent of those on Eastern carpets. At this settlement, there is still an old clay bread-baking oven in use. Large clay pots used to lie inside the tiny fenced yard of one of the houses. At my last visit there, these had disappeared. I hoped that the owners had just taken them inside and that inconsiderate visitors had not stolen them!


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