Monday, 23 February 2009

Beehives and borders

Last weekend we headed to Oman with our friends Allen and Carolyn to see the beehive tombs at Al Jaylah. The first stop on Thursday night was the Ibri Hotel, home of the finest chips (French fries) in the Middle East. While the Ibri Hotel doesn’t pretend to be flash, its clean, secure and they do two important things well; (1) the bed is always comfortable and (2) the shower has reasonable water pressure plus the added benefit that you don’t need a PhD in hydranautics to operate it.

On Friday morning we drove from Ibri to Ibra, a trip of 3.5 hours. After a break for lunch we headed up into the Hajar Mountains to the Shir plateau in search of the Burooj Kibaykib-Al Jaylah tombs. On the drive up we followed the directions from the Omani government booklet on the area, they were pretty good, except some parts of the road had been washed out by Cyclone Gonu and the road position had changed since the book was published. The GPS came into its own again from that point.
We reached the top of the climb and as the road leveled out, in the distance the tombs could be seen rising out of the rocky plateau. They're awesome, these tall, stone towers standing like silent guardians over the broad, arid landscape. Sorry, I should have given a "flowery prose alert" shouldn't I? The tombs are of two types all built from the local rock. There are the large cylindrical towers some up to 5 metres high and then there are smaller Hafit/Umm al Narr tombs. The smaller tombs are thought to be part of a network as they have been found at several other places in Oman dotted along what were once trade routes. The tombs at Al Jaylah are believed to be 4,000 years old and while the local people knew of their existence, they were only ‘discovered’ by the West in the 1990s when an archaeologist looking through a book of aerial photos of Oman spotted the telltale shapes. The first archaeological expedition was mounted in 1991 and eventually 90 tombs were found in the area. In 1994 one of the tombs was opened and skeletal remains, beads and pottery fragments dating from the early Iron Age were found inside. Local legend has it that the towers were built by a man named Kibaykib who was half man-half jinn (spirit). I won’t go into the whole story, suffice to say its fairly gruesome and involves dark caves, dark deeds and a thunderbolt.

The plateau on which the tombs stand is 2,000 metres above sea level and until the 1970s, when contact was made by the authorities with the local tribespeople, was regarded as one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Oman. Life there is hard, the climate one of the driest on earth with an average rainfall of only 75mm, fortunately there are small minor springs in the area to supply water. The local people are semi-nomadic relying on their herds of goats and sheep for survival. Its still wild up there too; a woman was attacked by a wolf in one of the local villages only a few years ago. The locals have had some surprise visitors though, in April 1987 a plane crashed on the plateau during a demonstration flight for the Abu Dhabi Defence Force. Luckily no injuries.

While the use of the tombs as burial places is without question, there is also the possibility that they served as markers on the ancient trade route from the Omani interior (the Sharkiya) to the port at Tiwi. The copper trade flourished in Oman in pre-Islamic times with rich copper deposits in the Shir area as you’ll see from some of the photos.

After spending several hours at the tombs we headed down to the coastal village of Tiwi on a road described in one of our guide books as “challenging”. This road is not for the faint hearted, clinging as it does to the side of the cliff with nothing between you and oblivion but the piles of dirt pushed aside by a grader. One hairpin bend in the road is so sharp and so steep that it has been concreted (no idea how) but even then the Prado’s wheels slipped around trying to make traction. How they stopped the wet concrete from running to the bottom is beyond me though. This is not a road where you’d ever want to meet someone coming the other way.

We spent the night in Muscat and the next day visited the Sultan's Armed Forces Museum in Ruwi. If you're ever in Muscat, I'd recommend a visit to this museum, the display of militaria is varied and interesting, there's a comprehensive display detailing Oman's history and development *and* you get your own soldier-guide.

That afternoon we headed back to Dubai travelling on the new highway that runs parallel to the coast road that took such a hammering in Cyclone Gonu crossing the border back into the UAE at Hatta. It was only recently that I learned that a 10 mile section of the main highway on the UAE side of the border just out of Hatta, is actually part of Oman. When you’re on the road itself, the only clue to this oddity might be seeing an Omani flag on one of the buildings in the distance. Otherwise, you’d think you were driving in the UAE but you’d actually have driven in, and out of, a little piece of Oman without realising it. (This is unless you are unfortunate enough to have a traffic accident somewhere on that part of the road and you didn’t have Omani insurance.) Normally nothing happens on this stretch of road but on Saturday evening we ground to a halt as the Omani police assisted by the Army, stopped all road traffic at both ends of “their” section of the highway. The traffic was queued up for quite some distance at both entry points but the police seemed to be only checking trucks as all the cars were being waved through. Hmmm, interesting!

A resource on the beehive tombs at Al Jaylah is here.


  1. Hello Carolynn, My name is Chrissie jenkins, also a kiwi as it happens, here in Dubai, and I always take friends to Oman when visiting. I was looking at going to Ibra, as I have never made it to the Ladies Market on a Wednesday. While googling the area, etc, I came across your website, and all your trips you have done .. I would really like to find out about the trip to Ibra, the beehive tombs, etc, as I am taking some friends down at the beginning of May. We have two 4 wheel drives, and I am quite used to driving in Oman. If you get this note, please could you reply, thanks, and we could e mail or maybe meet up.. that is if you are still in Dubai!! Many thanks, Chrissie

  2. Hi Chrissie and kia ora

    It'll be pretty warm in May so you're probably best making an early start to the day for the trip up to the beehive tombs. The drive up to the plateau is not for the faint hearted but its ok for an experienced driver. Its like some of the steep single lane back roads in the central North Island but without the sheep. You just have to pray you don't meet someone coming the other way! If you haven't already got a GPS I'd really recommend you invest in one.

    I'm happy to talk more and give any help I can so email me on