Sumhuram
Khor Rori

April 2009

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About Frankincense and an ancient city near Mirbat, Dhofar, Southern Oman.



Artists impression Sumhuram excavations. Note monumental gate in middle lower centre; directly behind is temple of Syn, storehouses in top left. North is down. (Taken from information leaflet Khor Rori, the land of Frankincense sites)

View towards the soutwest facing the landward side fortifications of Sumhuram with in centre middle its forwards jutting monumental gate
How to get there:
Take the coastal road from Salalah to Mirbat. The site is signposted just after the Taqah roundabout as the "archaeological site of Sumhuram" some 40 km from Salalah (see Google Maps). The area is only open to the public in the mornings or after 16:00 hrs in the afternoon. Tickets can be bought at the access gate from the guard. The fence that used to surround the ruins has been removed and the ruins can now be fully accessed.
The ruins of Sumhuram overlook the Indian Ocean. The site is near to a region which produced some of the best frankincense in ancient times. The city was  was the easternmost outpost of a Hadramawt frankincense kingdom on the trade route between the Mediterranean, the Gulf area and India. It has been tentatively linked to the harbour of Moscha described in the "Periplus of the Erythrean Sea". Mormons ridiculously propose it may the harbor from which Nephi started his imaginary journey, so you may find a lot of rubbish on the internet from that source. Ignore it. Excavations by the University of Pisa clearly have confirmed Sumhuram's link with the ancient frankincense trade and its cultural links with the frankincense-based kingdoms in Southern Arabia (Arabia Felix).

Khor Rori / Sumhuram was first discovered by James Theodore Bent and his wife Mabel during their travels in the region in the late 19th century, described very well in their book "Southern Arabia" (Bent, 1900) from which the following extract is taken:


Inside the city gate, with a convolute passage that could be easily defended


Inside Sumhuram

"......The wali of Takha received us well, and placed his house at our disposal, but it was so dirty we elected to pitch our tents, and encamped some little distance from the village. On the following morning the wali sent us with a guide to inspect some ruins round the neighbouring headland which forms one end of the bay, of which Ras Risout is the other. The rock of which it is composed is white in all the sheltered parts and where the path is polished, and nearly black in the exposed parts. When we reached the other side of this promontory, to our amazement we saw before us a long sheet of water, stretching nearly two miles inland, broken by many little creeks, and in some parts fully half a mile wide. This sheet of water, which is called Kho Rouri, had been silted up at its mouth by a sandbank, over which the sea could only make its way at high tide, and the same belt of sand separated from it a fortified rock, Khatiya by name, which must formerly have been an island protecting the double entrance to what once must have been an excellent harbour, and which could be again restored to its former condition by an outlay of very little capital and labour. We were the more amazed at coming across this sheet of water, as it is not marked in the Admiralty chart. Surely there can be no doubt that this is the harbour which was anciently used by the merchants who came to this coast for frankincense. It would be absolutely secure at all seasons of the year, and it is just twenty parasangs from the ruins of the ancient capital; exactly where it ought to be, in fact Mocha and probably the Arabs called it Merbat, a name which has been retained in the modern village on the sheltering headland, where we landed when we first reached Dhofar. As for the name Mosch ;given in the 'Periplus' it is like Mocha, a name given to several bays on the Arabian coast, and I think we discovered why Ptolemy called it Abyssapolis, as I will presently explain. We ascended the rock at the entrance, took a photograph of the sheet of water, and felt that we had at last succeeded in reconstructing the geography of this interesting bit of country...."

and continuing with a description of the wadi Dirbat just inland from Khor Rori:

".....Leaving the harbour behind us we again approached the mountains, and, after journeying inland for about eight miles, we found the valley leading up to the mountains choked up by a most remarkable formation caused by the calcareous deposit of ages from a series of streams which precipitate themselves over a stupendous wall in feathery waterfalls. This abyss is perfectly sheer, and hung in fantastic confusion with stalactites. At its middle it is 550 feet in depth, and its greatest length is about a mile. It is quite one of the most magnificent natural phenomena I have ever seen, and suggestive of comparison with the calcareous deposits in New Zealand and Yellowstone Park; and to those who visited this harbour in ancient days it must have been a familiar object, so no wonder that when they went home and talked about it, the town near it was called the City of the Abyss, and Ptolemy, as was his wont, gave the spot a fresh appellative, just as he called the capital the Oracle of Artemis....."

The first excavations on the site were carried out by the American Foundation for the study of Man, led by Wendell Philips in the 1950's and early 1960's (Phillips, 1966). Surveys were also undertaken by the national Committee for Archaeological Surveys of the Sultanate and from 1996 by a joint mission with the University of Pisa (Avanzini, 2002, 2008).

That this was an important and wealthy settlement is clear in the first place from its structure. Sumhuram was a small fortified city with a huge city gate, a monumental building with inside a well and a stone basin connected with a drain channel, a temple dedicated to the God Syn (moon), storehouses and workshops. Many coins, including blanks, suggest that there was even a mint with limited metalworking.

The fortifications on the northern side, open to the more vulnerable landside, are flanked by towers. The walls on this side are preserved up to 4.5 m high, but may have stood up to 6-7 m high, with a thickness of up to 3m. The gate complex extends up to 21m outwards from the main defensive walls. The area covered inside the walls is about 7000m2. Not a big place, but certainly impressively built. 

The passage through the city gate is marked with two inscriptions in South Arabian script, which refer to the construction of the city. An enlarged photograph of one these inscriptions is mounted above the main entrance of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.


One of the two inscriptions inside the city gate, carved in south Arabic script.
The nearby Khor (Khawr) Rori (Rohri) is a coastal inlet at the end of wadi Dirbat, now blocked by a beach barrier and flanked by two rocky promontories: Inqita'at Mirbat (East side) and Inqita'at Taqah (West side). The khor must have been connected to the sea at the high-days of Sumhuram and that's where the important harbour must have been. The beach barrier is closed now, but breaks seasonally when wadi Dirbat is in flood during the Monsoon period (Khareef). The large eastern promontory also carries a heavy defensive wall at its landward side and contains ruins on its flat-topped northern part.

Everything indicates that this place must have been a very important centre, a far cry from the quiet, but still beautiful backwater it is now.

The area has something magical, although local people invariable connect it with spirits and djinns.  


View from Sumhuram across Khor Rori to the south, with the two flanking rock promotories, inqita'at Mirbat (East side, or al-Hamr al-Sharqiya) and Inqita'at Taqah (West side).

Water basin made from solid limestone inside the ruins

Many fragments of water basins and drains on show inside the ruins

Bronze votive vessel inscribed in the ancient Arabic script dating from the 2nd century BC (Al Baleed Museum Salalah)

 

 


Top left: Limestone incense burner from the 2nd century BC found in the outer temple.  (Al Baleed Museum, Salalah)
Top right: Bronze Votive plaque dating 3rd C. AD (al Baleed Museum Salalah).
The mystery associated with the ancient frankincense trade is as old as the trade itself. The following extract from Bent (1900) captures this very well:

"......One must imagine that when this industry was at its height, in the days when frankincense was valued not only for temple ritual but for domestic use, the trade in these mountains must have been very active, and the cunning old SabŠan merchants, who liked to keep the monopoly of this drug, told wonderful stories of the phoenix which guarded the trees, of the insalubrity of the climate and of the deadly vapours which came from them when punctured for the gum. Needless to say, these were all false commercial inventions, which apparently succeeded admirably, for the old classical authors were exceedingly vague as to the localities whence frankincense came. Merchants came in their ships to the port of Moscha, which we shall presently visit, to get cargoes of the drug, but they probably knew as little as we did of the interior of the hills behind, and one of the reasons why Aelius Gallus was sent to Arabia by Augustus on his unsuccessful campaign was 'to discover where Arabian gold and frankincense came from.'....."

It is worthwhile to visit the Al Baleed Museum in Salalah (Al Sultan Qaboos Street near the Crowne Plaza Hotel) before visiting Sumhuram to get a better understanding about the significance of this site and its relation with the very important frankincense trade (for information contact 23303577, e-mail incense@omantel.net.om, website Al Baleed Museum).

References

Avanzini A., 2002. Incense routes and Pre-Islamic South Arabian Kingdoms. The Journal of Oman Studies, Vol 12., p. 17-24.

Avanzini A., 2008. A port in Arabia between Rome and the Indian Ocean (3rd C Bc and 5th C Ad) Khor Rori Report 2. L'ERMA di BRETSCHNEIDER. Arbia Antica 5

Bent, T. & M., 1900, Southern Arabia. Smith Elder & Co., London

Office of the Adviser to His majesty the Sultan for Cultural Affairs, 2008. Khor Rori (Sumhuram). ISBN: 978-0-9816068-0-4

Phillips, W., 1966. Unknown Oman. David McKay Inc, New York.

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@ J. Schreurs April 2009