Majlis Al Jinn

Meeting room of the spirits

Khoshilat Maqandeli

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How to get there: Check out the description on the crossing from Wadi Naam to Fins.
How we got there: Normally already a difficult route requiring 4WD. This time we traveled there just after a few days with heavy rains throughout Oman. Great to see the wadi to Quriyat in flood, having to cross it at several places, but without a strong current relatively easy. An upside down wreck of a Toyota still visible as a health warning and what do you do if you get stuck with a concrete truck? The road up from Fins had severe erosion damage, but with some gully-filling we managed to get within 4 km of the cave entrance. Not enough as that would be 4 km of steep climbing and locals indicated there would be more gullies eroded in the steepest part up. No way to continue there. Back therefore to the coast road and in the direction of wadi Shab we took the next road up (labelled 2JEBEL on map above). In half darkness we made it to the village of Qurran (715371-2526310 UTM WGS84) but there the narrow gorge to the Selma plateua and Majis Al Jinn was also deeply eroded. No other solution but to camp and walk the next day to the cave, a distance of about 6 km (on map the blue track northwards between Al Hajar Ash S and Majlis Al Jinn). At least we were on the plateau, the walk would have some reasonable ups and downs and we had picked-up two pragmatic locals that bought a whole tray of yoghurt in Fins and wanted to take that to Selma. They would help carrying the ropes and obviously knew the old paths better and hopefully save us some time.....

Stupendous

Thursday 3 March. About lunchtime. Above me a narrow chimney of protective looking rocks with Nathalie clinging on to it as a spider. Just five minutes earlier the fears of entering that chimney were nothing compared to the vast empty space I was now not trying to look at. Somebody below was yelling, but I could not even see the guys until it dawned that they were the small dots moving around down there. 'Abseilen' is a nice German word if you have never done it before and as long as there are some walls and rocks for reference. Nothing like that in the Majlis Al Jinn. Nothing left but to push the rope through the descender and hope for the best. After a few minutes on that rope in this huge cave you do start realising how huge this thing is and a sense of sheer beauty wins.

I remembered reading Davison's words describing his discovery of the cave in 1983: "I pushed off from the overhang lip and began rappelling downward into the dark. A short distance down, the shaft opened out, and as I dropped lower, turning slowly in midair on the rope, a stupendous panorama was revealed: This was by far the biggest cavern I had ever seen. Majlis al-Jinn (The Meeting Room of the Spirits), now the largest known subterranean chamber in Arabia and the second-largest in the world, had just been discovered"

Being non-British I had wondered about 'stupendous' and found it meant both 'astonishing' and 'huge' and had opted for the first interpretation. Nothing can prepare you for the combination. This cave is both and it is also stunning, awesome and breathtaking.

How did I get on that rope in the first place?

On previous trips (see Wadi Naam to Fins) we had spotted the deep hole and listened to dropping rocks taking a long time to reach the bottom. Deciding also that this would be for experienced speleologists with proper equipment. Now there was Kester a few days earlier asking whether I would be interested going down with a group into the cave. Whoops and he needed the answer now as we would start training how to handle the gear already the same night to be ready for the weekend. Perhaps it is good to have little time to think and my collection of photographs at home copied from previous expeditions showed some tempting and stunning beauty. There you go, getting this gear around your bottom and uncompromisingly squeezing some delicate parts. Also realising quickly that we would have to change ropes somewhere down in the cave and know how to do that. Interesting thought and therefore most of us concentrated on convincing ourselves that we could do some 100m of climbing and therefore would have a decent chance of getting out of that cave. Also good to have a group of people expressing sound doubts about the whole thing. It is always nice to know that you are not the only coward.

So, no we were not unprepared and we had very good guidance by the Oman Dive & Advendture Centre (office 244 85663) and that certainly helps with the part between the ears.

 

Wet feet

Packed in three cars, we left at about 14:00 hrs from the Adventure Centre on Thursday. Easy thing, with the new roads that have been built from Quriyat to Shab and Tiwi. Normally yes, but with wadi Daiqa in flood we all agreed that this was a magnificent sight, but also good to have 4WD vehicles and Jeremy, as voluntary pathfinder, with wet feet.

 

Maybe yes, maybe no

The track from Fins to the Selma plateau turned out to be more of a challenge, with deeply eroded ruts. Certainly a challenge to our cars. Initial -well meant- references to the legendary reliability of British made cars in my vehicle rapidly faded. Flooding wadi's and eroded tracks are the very bread and butter for these cars. I am proud of my Defender and that now for once was not only based on just  feelings. None of that helped with the deep scars higher up on the track near the village of Harimah. We all agreed we needed a bulldozer and the real problem was that none was in sight. From nowhere you quickly get that message confirmed by quite a few local people. Where do they come from and where do they go? They did not stop us filling one of the smaller gullies before almost triumphantly pointing out that the next cuts were much bigger. In all honesty I guess we would not have wanted to believe that message in the first place. Also remarkably that the old, almost forgotten tracks seemed to be now bristling with people and donkeys. For these people the step back to the old ways is easy. Just stop the Toyota pick-ups by blocking the roads and the donkeys reappear. For us that it more difficult as it meant either admitting defeat and returning home or trying to find another way up. The messages from the locals were divided. We had a strong suspicion that the most positive characters recognised an opportunity for a free ride to Fins. We had nothing to loose and a setting sun that made for some nice pictures also made the whole thing rather urgent. Maybe yes, maybe no, but let's go for it.

Indeed our two guides wanted to stop in Fins and to our surprise they bought a whole tray of yoghurt. If you ever want to take a present for people living up there.....   

The next track up is some 6.5 km south of Fins. Worried faces checked the road up. We only saw steep rock faces with man-made scars where we expected the track to go. Why would this road be any better than the previous? It wasn't, but luckily there was a bulldozer up there that had cleared the road. Excited we got onto the plateau with the sun disappearing in front of us.

Kester knowingly pointed out that it was still quite a bit of a drive to the cave as we would have to navigate around a big valley cutting deeply into the plateau (according to the GPS some 20km). At the village of Qurran (where you can either go left -west- to the 'Shaar Tombs' or right -north- to the cave) we found the narrow gorge washed out. This normally is a good gravel track through a narrow gorge with cave-feelings. We now could admire deep karst hollows dissolved deeply in the limestone. The gravel had been washed away. This happens to be the place where before the road was built our predecessors had to leave their cars and walk to the cave. After a lot of bashing we were certainly in the spirit of the good old days. Nothing left but to set-up camp and have a good sleep.


Walking from Qurran to the cave, loosening-up the muscles and slowly warming-up in the early sun.

Early walk

Early morning, after a chilly night, a quick coffee breakfast. Sean amazingly had slept in a tent that fitted only his upper part. He claimed it also doubled as a kite. Back to Qurran village . At 7.15 hrs, together with the goats, we set of in the direction of the cave.

Driving around you never notice the old tracks, but they are still there and go more or less in straight lines, but minimising climbing. We had our guides carrying the ropes and the tray of yoghurt. The Selma plateau is relatively flat and in the middle of it is a large, absolutely flat area without rocks that doubled as an airfield in WWII. Close by is Selma village and that's where our guides took us. It turned out the place where the yoghurt had to go. We had no time or business there and quickly continued, probably violating most of the age-old social rules.

Cheryl's drop

The hole where most people descend is called Cheryl's drop (Khoshilat Minqod), the smallest of the three entrances. It is named after Cheryl Jones, the wife of Don Davison (discoverer of the cave), reportedly the first to use this entrance.

The narrow chimney allow an easy fixing of ropes. To avoid too much rock contact our guides fixed two sets of ropes, both free hanging. It does require a change of rope some 20m down in the chimney. That's what we had been training for back home. Clean walls are different from the real thing, but in this case also a bit easier. Certainly with permanent professional help dangling near the junction, making sure that we did the right things in the right order. At 9:15 hrs the first one went down and by 11:00 hrs we were all down.

Interview with Cheryl Davison, reported byNicola Shipway, 26 March 2008, taken from "Theweek" published by Apex Publishing in Oman

When Cheryl and her late husband, Don Davison, lived in Oman from 1980 to 1993, there was no trained rescue team.

American-born Cheryl and Don pioneered investigation into Oman’s caves. Their most spectacular find was the Majlis al Jinn, the second-largest subterranean chamber in the world. A gargantuan cave in the Selma Plateau, it measures around 340m long and 228m wide.

Although Cheryl and Don met at university through spelunking (the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby), caving then, as now, was not a mainstream activity. In Oman in the early 1980s, it was unheard of.

Nevertheless, she and her husband decided that there must be caves, Cheryl recalled on a recent return visit to the sultanate. Accordingly, the majority of their weight quota was taken up by their caving equipment. Their subsequent discoveries would not have been possible had Don not worked as a hydrogeologist for the government.

His position, which involved looking for large bodies of water underground, effectively paid him to hunt for caves. “A cave is a conduit for water,” Cheryl explained. The caves speak of a watery history; samples Cheryl took from a speleothem (a stalactite or stalagmite) in a cave on the Selma Plateau showed that the base of the formation was 40,000 years old.

To facilitate his work, Don was permitted to travel with pilots in the Air Force, who were then flying doctors and nurses to remote locations round the country. Travelling by helicopter provided a unique perspective of the terrain, particularly because Oman’s geological features, bald of trees or topsoil, are visible to the naked eye.

“My husband was seeing features that he’d only read about in books. It was a geologist’s dream.” Eventually Cheryl obtained permission to travel in the helicopters with Don. The pilots would drop off the cavers and return many hours later, leaving Cheryl and Don to make inquiries in villages about local springs and to investigate the landscape. Interacting with Omanis added a cultural dimension to their explorations, enabling them to visit villages and meet local people, who brought the cavers honey or camel’s milk and talked to them of jinns. “We were always treated with hospitality and generosity,” Cheryl recalled.

Cheryl named their discovery, Majlis al Jinn, after her conversations with the villagers. “If the local people had no name for the caves, if they were just known as holes and were not particularly valued, then we named them. They believed jinns live in caves and often asked us if we had seen them. This cave was so huge it must have been the jinns’ majlis.” Majlis al Jinn is unusual, and visually spectacular, in that it is illuminated by three holes in the cave ‘ceiling’ that admit light. The drop into the cave from one of these holes is today named Cheryl’s Drop; Don had previously found the site but had saved the drop for his wife. At 157m, Cheryl’s Drop was then the deepest freefall drop in Arabia.

Don died in a mountaineering accident in Chile in 1995, but despite this tragedy Cheryl remains the embodiment of positivity, hugely inspiring and energetic. This summer she plans to go diving in the Solomon Islands and hiking in the Southern Sierras.

Nevertheless, she doesn’t think she’ll be able to match the buzz that she and Don found underground in the sultanate. “Here, there was virgin passage - no one had ever seen it. Where else in the world can you go, except to the bottom of the ocean, which is unseen?”

The rope is just a little bit fast

Our French expert climbers managed to keep our confidence levels up. They appeared to love the many variations on words like maybe, we will see, perhaps, possibly..... This would not worry most, if they would not be used in the context of questions relating to our gear. One of the two ropes down was new and we got the warning that it 'may be just a little bit fast'. It is a special experience to trust the ropes and gear, to push the descender and feel that you are indeed going down. Changing ropes turned out to be easier hanging against real rocks. The jojo effect of the ropes, stretching under load, was definitely a new feeling for the uninitiated in our group. The descender heated up by the friction of the ropes. Another reason to stop, hang and wonder many times. 

An underworld amphitheater

The cave world below is surprisingly well  lit by sharp beams of sunlight through the thee skylights in the huge dome-shaped ceiling. Amazing to see the beams slowly crawling across the floor, moving with the sun overhead. Human eyes do not have a problem adapting to this dim world. Camera's do and without stable footing there is a danger ending up with a lot of blurry photographs.

How to describe this huge underworld amphitheater? At the end of the rope one lands on a rubbly pile of rock debris, fallen from above. There are also some cadavers of unlucky goats, rather smelly. Each of the skylights has another pile of debris below. The recent rain had clearly eroded many gullies in the piles, all ending in a large silty-clay plain along the northern side. The clay plain is the lowest part of the cave and it was still wet and sticky from the recent rain. Other parts had dried-up and cracked.  The northern wall along the clay lake is draped with calcite overgrowths. The lake bed is about 200m long and 50m wide. From all sides the walls curve up into the huge dome-shaped ceiling, a large unsupported dome culminating some 120m above the floor. From east to west the walls are about 300m apart and some 250m from north to south.

Jan hanging in the middle of nowhere

A bit of geology

Fried-egg stalagmite, terraced basins and cave pearls

Caves are often associated with stalactites and stalagmites formed by dripping water. Majlis Al Jinn has very few of these, mostly relatively small, looking like large fried eggs flank by little terraces. Many broken pieces can be recognised in the debris on the floor. It is clear that the cave is relatively dry and regular rockfalls may have wiped out many older stalactites / mites.

At some places flanking the lake one can find lots of small calcite pebbles or cave pearls. These consist of successive layers of calcite and most are not round but slightly angular.

Majlis al-Jinn formed in limestone of the Tertiary (Middle Eocene) Dammam Formation  (40 to 50 million years old). When the Oman mountains were uplifted only a few million years ago the karstification process started that finally generated this huge hollow space.

It is clear that the cave has no obvious connections to underground channel systems, but they may be hiding below the rock debris. The Selma plateau is only small (20 km2 at most) and probably never homed extensive drainage systems that could have dissolve the limestones with underground channel galleries. Therefore the best explanation for this huge cave is carbonate dissolution below the groundwater table at times when the climate was considerably wetter.

The last wet period in Oman ended some 8000 years ago and this part of the world has dried-up ever since.

It is relatively cool down there with a temperature of 17 to 18 degrees Celsius.

Whistling stones and dust

While we were in the cave one could hear the occasional rattling of a dropping stone, falling down from the ceiling, mostly in another part of the cave. Only when climbing up there was the disconcerting whistling sound of small pieces of rock released by climbers in the chimney above.

Away from the debris cones and the mud lake the ground is covered by a thick layer (some 10 cm) of fine dust, blown in from above. The dust is easily disturbed causing fine white clouds that corrupt any photograph taken with flashlight. Tracks in the dust indicate the presence of small insects and lizards. 

Lightbeam through the Khoshilat Magandeli (first drop), lighting-up the bottom of our ropes. Notice the tine spot near the top: one of us climbing up.

Triple lightbeam through the Khoshilat Beyn Al Hiyool (Asterix drop). Notice the debris cone below it.


Photograph vertical up, showing the small Khoshilat Minqod (Cheryl's drop) more or less in the centre of the dome above.

Getting out

It took most of us between 45 - 60 minutes to climb up. A lot of time to think about the narrow rope and a few bolts above. The first few meters the rope keeps stretching and bouncing, but besides that it seems to be easy up to the first 50 metres. The next stage one wonders about the ceiling not getting closer and the floor not getting smaller. No choice but going up and at this stage one starts truly appreciating the size of the hole. The surprise comes at the end when the evasive ceiling suddenly closes in with a feeling of being swallowed by the rock chimney. So nice to see the sky and even better using your legs for standing. The ropes left their scars in places better not mentioned. The memories more than compensate.

At 15:00 hrs we were all out, bagging-up and back on track to the cars. A solid walk of 2 hours, but who cares after the cave? By sunset we were down at the coastal road, heading for home. The bit of splashing through Wadi Daiqa now hardly worthwhile mentioning.

Done it, with more experiences in one day than normally in a few months. 

Do it again? 

Maybe yes, maybe no..............

Balancing a bag of ropes on his head our local guide heads back to the cars. Without touching the bag and with flimsy flip-flops protecting his feet one can only wonder how they do it. Walking on the track he suddenly stopped, lifted a small piece of rock and pointed to what looked like a small peephole into which a small stone simply disappeared. Another cave?


Map and cross-section modified after Davison (1990). Boeing 747 for scale.

Facts

The dimensions of Majlis al-Jinn are staggering. Some 340 meters (1115 feet) long and 228 meters (738 feet) wide, with a ceiling height of 120 meters (389 feet), it is roomy enough to hold more than a dozen Boeing 747's parked wingtip to wingtip. It is the second largest known cave chamber in the world after the Sarawak Chamber in Mulu, Sarawak (Borneo).

The local name of the cave is Khoslilat Maqandeli. A qandilah is a rock-overhang that forms a natural shelter for goats, which is the main landmark close to the entrances to the cave.

Thanks

Many thanks to my fellow members of this caving expedition:

Kester, Rick and Danielle, Hamish, Jeremy, Sean and Michael as well as the French support team of the Oman Dive & Adventure Centre.

Postscript 1 June 2010

In the 'Times of Oman' the announcement of the development of this cave. Glad to have been there before the change starts, but understanding that it was only a matter of time for this to happen.

Jinn Cave set to get a facelift.

MUSCAT: Plans for the development of Majlis Al Jinn Cave and a cave park in the Selma Plateau in Sharqiyah region are being pursued with great zeal. After the success of Al Hoota cave, the Ministry of Tourism is taking keen interest to develop this cave having the second largest chamber in the world.  Tenders have been floated for consultancy services for design and construction supervision of Tourism Facilities at Majlis Al Jinn. A consultant whose area of work is to draw up a detailed proposal for the development of tourism infrastructure at the cave will be finalised at a later stage.  Located 14km through a dirt track from Fins on the Quriyat-Sur dual carriageway the Majlis Al Jinn will unravel the wonder of nature underneath the surface. Plans envisage a visitor’s centre with restaurants, shops, souvenir outlet, etc, a eco-lodge, etc. The lodge will allow for local and international tourists to explore the important natural and historical attractions in the vicinity of the cave. The idea is to create facility with minimal visual pollution on the landscape.  It is a big challenge to the developers as the cave’s entrance is from the top and not from the side as is the normal case. Three openings (free-falls) have been found to get inside the cave.  Plans are on to erect either a tower with an elevator or construct a spiral stairs in order for tourists to get down the cave with amazing geological features. The drop from top to the bottom at the proposed opening is about 35 metres. Most probably the opening on the eastern side will be explored for entry into the cave.  The cave has three vertical entrance shafts. These are known locally as Khoshilat Maqandeli, Khoshilat Minqod (called Cheryl’s drop) and Khoshilat Beyn Al Hiyool. Apart from the cavernous Majlis Al Jinn chamber, the Selmah Plateau is also home to the spectacular karst feature.  Karst is a distinctive topography in which the landscape is largely shaped by the dissolving action of water on carbonate bedrock. A qandilah is a rock-overhang that forms a natural shelter for goats, which is the main landmark close to the entrances to the cave.  The dimensions of Majlis Al Jinn (meeting place of the jinn), are staggering. Some 340 metres long and 228 metres wide, with a ceiling height of 120 metres, it is roomy enough to hold more than a dozen new Boeing 747s, parked wingtip to wingtip. The chamber is about 120 metres high, 200 metres wide and 300 metres long, with a total volume in excess of three million cubic metres.  At certain times during the day beautiful shafts of sunlight filter through the holes in the roof directly to the floor of the chamber making for a visual spectacle. At night moonlight can also have the same effect. 

References

Davison, D, 1990, Meeting Place of the Spirits. Saudi Aramco World, Volume 41, number 5.
http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/199005/meeting.place.of.the.spirits.htm

Hanna, S. and Al Belushi, M., 1996, Introduction to the Caves of Oman, published by the Sultan Qaboos University, International Printing Press, Ruwi, Sultanate of Oman.

Crouch, G. 2003, Caves of Oman. National Geographic, April 2003 issue.
http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0304/feature2/index.html

Kola, A.H. 2010. Jinn Cave set to get a facelift. Times of Oman, Tuesday June 01 2010.

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@ J. Schreurs March 2005