The Sultanate of Oman, on the south-east corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has an ancient history. It is generally regarded as the copper-rich civilization of ‘Magan’ lauded in Mesopotamian texts of 4,000 years ago; a land whose vessels were capable of deep-sea trade. Throughout its history, Oman has been a seafaring nation, famed for boat building and maritime navigation skills. While Omani sailors harnessed the monsoon winds to reach distant ports, on land its farmers harnessed water to develop life-sustaining agriculture.

The seas have shaped Oman’s history: its ships hauling copper to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Dilmun, and Melukhkha 4,000 years ago, as well as frankincense to China 1,300 years ago. Cities such as Muscat, Sohar, Sur and Salalah made use of exploiting natural harbours to become trading capitals. Today, the large ports of Muscat, Sohar, Sur and Salalah continue the tradition of deep-sea trade, but scores of smaller ports in various parts of the country are equally vital to Omani daily life. Oman’s 1,700 kilometre coastline is a sparkling juxtaposition of wet and dry.

Barely inland from the coast, formidable mountains stand guard. They remind us of how little time we human beings have been on earth, about half a second of the earth’s existence. A massive upheaval in the ocean floor hundreds of millions of years ago formed these mountains, producing modern Oman, one of the most colourful and geologically diverse countries on earth. Rock formations assume fantastic shapes. Fossils, often perfectly
preserved in three dimensions and intricate detail, show us what lived in the ocean. Oman today is like an open-air, geological art studio with paintings and sculptures in various stages of completion everywhere.

Below the mountains, a softer world awaits: the desert. Some say the desert is stark and unforgiving, but that view is highly misleading. The desert is very much alive and hospitable to those who are prepared and to those who can adapt, as the sturdy Bedouin have demonstrated for thousands of years. The desert is home to myriad species of plants. At night, the desert floor is busy with animals seeking food.

Omanis have had to adapt to a harsh desert environment in the interior. Towns and cities began as self-sufficient oases on mountains, in the desert, and on the coasts, in naturally protected areas where fresh water supplies permitted. Deserts are nature’s labs, testing what can survive when the water is shut off. Oman is a surprising desert--even without much rain, water is everywhere; in the seas; in some wadis (stream beds) that hold water year round; and in aflaj, the innumerable channels that bring water from mountain springs and wadis to the villages and terraced mountainsides. Oases are real and commonplace in Oman; not the mirages that misled thirsty travellers of legend.

Yet another dominant image of Arabia is the camel, with its glum nobility. More than a working animal, it is a companion, a competitor in races, a source of pride, a measure of wealth, a hero in poetry. The nomadic Bedouin have over 160 words for camel, attesting to its importance in their daily lives.

While the camel is the most storied of the desert animals, others bid for attention. The formidable Oryx, with their towering horns, may have been the inspiration for the mythical unicorn. The Oryx and swift, fragile gazelles “drink” by licking morning dew on plants. Resourceful, spiny-tailed lizards are miniature dinosaurs. Arabian leopards roam remote mountainous regions. Giant greenback turtles return each year to the precise beach where they were born to lay their eggs and start the life cycle anew. The seas are rich in marine life with playful dolphins and rare species of whales. Oman is also home to dozens of migratory bird species, ranging from flamingos to blue-cheeked bee-eaters. Wildlife that live here, or only come to visit, are treasured and protected by law.

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