Manah and Fiqain

April 2003

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Detail map Nizwa - Fiqain - Manah

Two lovely places to visit within easy driving range of Nizwa. We did this in a weekend in April, based for two nights in the Nizwa Hotel.
How to get there

At Nizwa roundabout (Nizwa Circle) turn south towards Salalah. If you are coming from motorway through Samail gap, turn left towards Salalah. The turn-off to Manah is clearly signposted some 4.75 km from the Nizwa Circle. The tarmac road leads through flat countryside with as first landmark on a low hill left of the road, some 7 km from turn-off, a picnic place around a large incense-burner monument. From here one can see a peculiar high building looming over date palms in the distance at the right side if the road: the fortress of Fiqain. Turn-off to the right, following the road that is signposted with 'Fiqain', and drive into the litle village.  The road winds between the houses and  closes in to the tower.  The best parking place is a little bit beyond the old gate and the tower, in the shade of a magnificent tree.

The Fortress of Fiqain. Note the high windtower elevated above the right section of the building. The guards are sitting in the shade below. The main entrance is in the right side. The old entrance by rope was in the left section (not visible)

View from canon hole across the new Fiqain

The guide, a friendly mr. Khamis, opened the door to this impressive tower.  He seems to be there, each morning from 08.30 hrs, sitting in the shade, chatting with some old wise men, who always have time for a friendly chat with a stranger. Admission fees are 500 baisa per person. Money well spent as this building has some interesting features. Mr Khamis let's you explore on your own, which is quite understandably as we soon discovered, climbing the many stairs. The Qallha (that’s how mr. Khamis called it) is massive and has its own water well, independent of the falaj that runs at it's base. Water could be hoisted to all higher levels through circular holes in the ceilings above the wells. Access in the past, was only by being pulled-up to an entrance some 5 metres above ground level. The ropes and pulleys are still in place. The current gate at ground level was apparently a secret entrance that was only discovered in 1991 after an old man revealed its whereabouts. Don’t be surprised when you hear the high sounds of bats as the next moment they indeed circle around, clearly upset when you disturb their upside-down sleep when climbing the staircases.

The building consists of two almost independent internal sections. One section can be accessed by stairs to the left of the current entrance. Stone stairs lead to successive higher rooms, each with a circular hole above the water well. This section also contains the high wind tower, which funnels wind into the two higher living room levels. The thick walls and cooling wind are very effective in maintaining a refreshing cool atmosphere in the building without needing any modern noisy airco machinery. The second section is slightly larger and can be approached by stairs at the back of the entrance hall. The large rooms above are decorated with old guns hanging from wooden stakes cemented in the thick walls. The highest levels feature large openings for mounted guns, with magnificent views over the ruins of of Fiqain surrounding the fortress and the sprawling new buildings beyond. The walls on the highest level feature small vertical slits, some downwards, some horizontal, providing safe shooting positions for the guards of the sheikh. One mounted gun still is in position, commanding a large part of the date palm grooves below.

Old buildings surround Fiqain fortress, with date palms and modern buildings further on

The rooms of Fiqain fortress feature plenty of antique weaponry hanging on the walls.
From Fiqain to the ruined town of Manah

To continue to Manah, return to the main road and turn to the right. The tarmac road circles around the modern and ruined parts of Manah. At the first large roundabout turn right. You will next pass a Shell petrol station to the right. The road passes a large ruined building at your right side before meeting a small roundabout. To the left of the roundabout is a restored mosque dating back to 1534. Turn right at the roundabout onto a gravel road, directly towards the old city walls of Manah. The gravel road turns left around the walls. Follow it all the way along, narrowing between old walls right and new buildings left. Turning right at the end you can park your car near the still large square tower and walk back to the gate directly below the tower.

The town walls of Manah

One of the many arcades in Manah, crumbling but still impressive

Covered walkway along the outer walls of Manah full of architectural details, but close to collapse

Oman is famous for its doors and the town houses of Manah feature many of the nicest examples with ornate carvings

Most of the buildings still stand two levels high. Directly right in the gate is a gloomy and partly collapsed narrow walkway along the walls. The main street is straight on. A walk through the town provides various glimpses of Omani living and architecture in the old days though gaps and holes in the mainly mud-brick walls. Be careful, the structures have suffered from rain and fire. Beams and arches could collapse easily after many years of neglect. This must have been a magnificent town and it is not clear why it was abandoned largely intact. Wandering through the streets one can not help being impressed. Robust Omani doors in many cases have modern padlocks, but that's all that is modern in this old town. Archways and narrow alleys lead into an old world, very different from our own. That's how we will remember Manah…….

From Philip Ward's 'Travels in Oman'

Sixteen km south of Birkat al-Mawz, the main road comes to the crossroads at Firq (which is what ‘firq’ or Mafraq’ means): the village of Firq lies 1km to the right, Nizwa Motel 2km to left, the new asphalt road 864 km south to Salalah on Route 31, but I took the dirt road left showing Manah 14km distant. On this track you encounter the village of Fiqain 3 km before Manah itself, with about two hundred houses of the Al Bu Sa'id. I stopped at the Fiqain fort, to which access is now solely by means of a rope up to an opening in a massive wall. At 12:40 a muaddin was calling the faithful to prayer; a crowd of youngsters invited me to scale the roof of the mosque opposite the castle for a closer view of the ruined fort, then again at ground level, we climbed, one by one, up the rope into the dark interior, pigeons startled from their cooing rest into anxious flight. I stayed in that distraught haven too short a time, guilty of the one cardinal sin as defined by Kafka: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise; because of impatience we cannot return.’ If the comparison with Manah seems far-fetched, it would not have done to Wellsted. As he crossed the flat open fields of Manah (or ‘Minna’ as he spells it), he was entranced by lofty almond, citron, and orange-trees, yielding a delicious fragrance on either hand, and ‘exclamations of astonishment and admiration’ were drawn from him.

"Is this Arabia,” we said; “this is the country we have looked on heretofore as a desert?” Verdant fields of grain and sugar-cane stretching along for miles are before us; streams of water, flowing in all directions, intersect our path; and the happy and contented appearance of the [people] agreeably helps to fill up the smiling picture; the atmosphere was delightfully clear and pure; and, as we trotted joyously along, giving or returning the salutation of peace or welcome, I could almost fancy we had at last reached that “Araby the blessed” which I have been accustomed to regard as existing only in the fictions of our poets.

Were it not for unobtrusive air-conditioners, schoolboys with satchels swinging at their side or flat on their heads, or elegant new homes with their own electric generators, and Japanese cars, Wellsted would recognise the Manah of today, with its dusty roads, sand-brown fort, mudwalled houses, fertile fields of sugar-cane, whiterobed Zanzibaris, and camels grazing on bushes beside the track.

Welisted writes that Manah ‘is an old town, said to have been erected at the period of Nushirvan’s invasion [the Sasanid King Khusrau Anushirwan, 531—578 A.D.]; but it bears, in common with the others, no indications of antiquity: its houses are lofty, but do not differ from those I have described at Semmed and Ibrah. There are two square towers, about one hundred and seventy feet in height [ which only one, called al-Manarah, ‘the minaret’, survives in 1986, nearly in the centre of the town; at their bases, the breadth of the wall is not more than two feet, and neither exceeds in length eight yards. It is therefore astonishing, considering the rudeness of the materials (they have nothing but unhewn stones and a coarse, but apparently strong, cement) that, with proportions so meagre, they should have been able to carry them to the elevation they have. The guards, who are constantly on the lookout, ascend by means of a rude ladder, formed by placing bars of wood in a diagonal direction in one of the side angles, within the interior of the building. The country in every direction around this town is flat and even; and the commanding view they obtain from their summit enables them to perceive from a long distance the approach of an enemy.’ Cole stayed in the same house in ‘Minnik’ as Wellsted, and the town was later visited by Miles, who calls it ‘Minha’.

The mihrab in the simple square mosque must be one of the most elegantly decorated in Oman; but the clock, stopped at twelve past twelve to its right, detracts from its harmony. There are two ceiling fans to cool the faithful, and rush mats on the floor.

But what of the sugar industry at which Welisted marvelled? Could that too be alive and well? It was, though I found only one family processing sugar still. This was the family headed by the charming, venerable Sulaiman bin Saif al-Masruri, who has produced sugar from his canefield in Manah for more than sixty years. He is a member of the Masarir branch of the Sulaimaniyin descended from Sulaiman bin Abad bin ‘Abd bin al-Julanda bin al-Mustakbir bin Mas’ud bin al-Harar bin ‘Abd ‘Izz bin Mu’awilah bin Shams bin ‘Amr bin Ghanam bin Ghalib bin ‘Uthman bin Nasr bin ‘Azd al-Ghauth.

I was in luck, because the fields were ripening quickly for the processing season in February, though the lack of rains over the past two years had slowed the growth of the crop. Sulaiman’s fields were within easy walking distance, and the octogenarian strode confidently ahead of us, on the tracks he had trodden decade after decade in the timeless content of the farmer. Sulaiman bin Saif waved his arms across the fields westward. ‘Over there they make sugar too,’ he told me, ‘at Nizwa, Bahla, and Yanqul. But everyone knows that the best sugar comes from Manah.’

I agree with William James that scenery seems to wear in one’s consciousness better than any other element in life, and the scenery of Manah remains as radiant in retrospect as it did that January afternoon, when Sulaiman bin Saif displayed his cane-fields as if they were some magnificent work of art. But neither painting nor sculpture will encroach on that part of a Muslim’s heart which glories in the natural world where he himself feels so utterly at peace. The ability to surrender, ‘Islam’, is the key to a Muslim’s triumph over adversity; for whatever happens is the will of Allah, and complaints are not merely idle: they are blasphemous.

The Story of Manah

The story of Manah has attracted scientists and a lot can be found on the internet. It appears that there was no obvious reason for the abandoning of the town except the slow advance of 'civilisation'. People began abandoning their traditional stone and mud brick houses for new concrete buildings in the past couple of decades. All agree that Manah is an extraordinary place to visit. Enclosed by gates, walls and fortified by towers, the grid of streets inside make up a ghost town, as if the people had literally only just moved out. Their possessions, stone jars, mud bricks for restoration work, ropes, mattresses and date sacks, lie scattered around the houses some of which still have their decorated and painted ceilings made of palm trees and fronds. Silver and goldsmiths' shops, the tannery area, meeting places, water systems, communal cooking pits for festivals, homes were divided between the animal and living quarters, are all there waiting to be examined in detail. Places like Manah seem to have become history within a generation. The people who lived and worked there are also still alive with their wealth of information and indigenous knowledge.

An interdisciplinary project has been carried out jointly by the archaeological department at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, the German Universities of Tuebingen, Stuttgart and Kassel and the German Archaeological Institute. Historians, archaeologists, urban planners, architects and agro-scientists were involved. They target fifty settlements, including Manah to preserve somehow the story of these settlements, all of which are being eroded by time and weather. Manah, for example, was intact in 1997 but heavy rain wreaked havoc a year later.

The British Council in association with the Bait Al Zubair Museum in Muscat, the Historical Association of Oman and the University of Liverpool presented an exhibition about Oman's heritage from 16 April - 31 May 2001 and 9-20 February 2002 at the Bait Al Zubair in Muscat

The exhibition displayed photographs, plans and text, which trace the history of the settlement and its place in Oman's culture. It was created and designed by Dr Soumyen Bandyopadhyay, a member of the School of Architecture and of Building Engineering at Liverpool University. He presented his thesis on Manah for his doctorate.

The wilayat of Manah is thought to be the first resting place of Malik bin Fahim al Azdi before the Arabs entered Oman when the Maa'rab Dam in Yemen broke. A falaj in Manah still bears his name. In the old town, there are many caves which were said to be hiding places during the war for women and children. There is also a subterranean vault located in one of the ancient houses in Al Fiqin.

Legend surrounds the Az al Qadim mosque: it is said that a 100kg rock was moved by a visitor to the mosque, which he took with him on his travels south. The next day, upon waking, the man noticed the rock had gone, only to be found back in the mosque. The rock still lies in the mosque and has the imprint of a man's foot on it.

The Fortress of Nizwa

We visited Nizwa fort for the first time in our travels around Oman, combining it with a walk-look-and-taste of the famous goat market that is held on each Friday. You don't need to be told how to find the place, just go where most people go. That events still breathes a lot of culture and is a good starting point for a visit of the fortress. Everybody advises to be there at around 8:00 hrs in the morning and we can confirm that there are indeed a lot of people at that time, with serious difficulties parking the car at a safe place in the large 'wadi' parking place in front of the town centre. Large parts of the parking place are also market , but at least you will see quite a bit of friendly Nizwa before getting rid of your car. It all belongs to the experience. After all the effort one must take the fortress tour, which will certainly be refreshing, quiet and another glimpse into a different world. The fortress is open to the public from 8:30 hrs each day of the week.

Goat market in Nizwa. The goats are paraded through a large circle of potential buyers. The air is full with lots of shouting of bids and negotiations 

Nizwa goat market, sold or still waiting

The canon tower of Nizwa fortress, a massive pile of stones as a foundation for the canons that are still in place behind the large openings. Above the canon level is a walkway with small slits for guns

The solid gate of the Nizwa gun tower

Inside the fortress on the canon level, with the walkway surrounding the wall

View over the date palms from Nizwa Fort


The fort of Nizwa

One of the magnificent historical sites in Oman. It was built by Imam / Sultan bin Seif bin Malik Al Ya'arubi in ( 1059 A.H. - 1649 AD). It took him twelve years to accomplish and he spent all what he gained in one of his historical conquests known by ( Dio ) which was one of the largest Portuguese marine centers in the East.

Nizwa Fort is characterized by its height, solid fortification and unique location, lying in the middle of Nizwa town adjacent to the old location of Nizwa Castle which was built by Imam / Al Salt bin Malik Al Kharousi in the beginning of the third Hijri century. In 1411 A.H.- 1990 the Ministry fully restored and furnished the fort with all traditional handicrafts and artifacts to attract tourists and visitors.

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