Ghul

April 2007 (English only)

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Ghul, one of the most beautiful abandoned villages in the Oman Mountains, at the crossroads between wadi Ghul and wadi Nakhal with spectacular gorges cutting deep into the mountains, leading-up to Jabal Shams, its highest peak.


The village of Ghul is located at the junction of wadi Ghul and wadi Nakhar in the southern flank of the Oman Mountains to the west of  Nizwa. Wadi Nakhal cuts deep into the southern flank of the Oman Mountains near Jabal Shams, its highest point, and this spectacular gorge is known as Arabia's Grand Canyon. Wadi Ghul follows the foot of the mountains and was in the past the main connection to Dhahirah via a pass known as 'Akabat al Barak (from Ghul to Sint)'. Nowadays it homes the only driveable route up Jabal Shams, which begins climbing in earnest as from the Ghul.  

How to get there: The shortest way is taking the main road from Nizwa to Bahla (an alternative -scenic- route goes along the foot of the mountains via Tanuf via the newly opened Al Hoota cave via Al Hamra and in that case you best follow the tourist signposts for Jabal Shams) . Zero the odometer at the second roundabout in Nizwa, the one with the piles of books in the middle. Almost 32.5 km in the direction of Bahla you will get to a roundabout near a big Toyota garage and Oman Oil Petrol station where you need to turn right in the direction of Al Hamra. At 44.5 km is another roundabout, this time near a Shell Petrol station. This is the last one on the route to Jabal Shams so you may want to consider refueling. Turn left, signposted wadi Ghul and Jabal Shams. At 51 km is the wadi Ghul recharge dam that was built  to stop floodwaters from washing into Al Hamra and to allow water to be stored and drain down into the wadi bed to replenish the groundwater. At around 54 km you will see the modern village of Ghul to your right before the road descends into the wadi bed. At the junction signposted 'Nakhal', in the middle of the wadi crossing, turn to the right. The old village of Ghul is now to your left, right above the gardens and the falaj. To you right is the new village, built on top of a huge gravel plateau which is an ancient alluvial fan shed by the two wadis, but is now being eroded by the same wadis. Wadi Nakhar quickly narrows and the steep massive rocks to your right provide for a nice shady picnic place in the wadi bed. Look for the big W6a foothpath sign to your left. This sign is close to a small mosque in the shade of the palm trees and next to the falaj with a ablution place built over it. That is where you can easiest climb-up into the old village. The W6a trekking-path leads right through the main street of the village and subsequently up along the defensive wall to the upper ruins and further up along the edge of wadi Nakhal to the summit of Jabal Shams. 
Ghul is more than just one village. There is the modern settlement on the eastern side of the mouth of wadi Nakhal, high and dry on an alluvial gravel terrace. There is also at the other side of wadi Nakhal the old abandoned village, perched against the cliffs, just above the palm grooves and fields flanking wadi Ghul. High up on the same spur are extensive walled ruins of probably even an older settlement. A massive wall connects the lower and upper ruins, completely fencing off the triangle of rock cut by wadi Ghul in front and wadi Nakhal at the back. There is little to be found about these impressive ruins although I have seen it referred to as 'Persian' ruins, which in Oman means anything pre-Islam times. The wall between the lower and upper ruins up is also the beginning of footpath W6a set up by the ministry of tourism, leading all the way up to Jabal Shams (Oman Trekking, 2005). The old village and the ruins on top of the spur have both been built using the local available limestone and therefore blend in the background. The best overview is from the newly built road opposite. 

The old village of Ghul, built on the steep rock face just above the gardens and palm trees. Notice the defensive wall at the left, sealing-off the the whole spur and running up to the extensive ruins on top. Wadi Ghul in the forefront and wadi Nakhal at the back of the spur. The W6a trekking path starts in the garden at the right side and leads through the village to the defensive wall up to the village of Al Khitayn (also seen spelled as Al Khatum, or Al Khateem) on the high mountain that forms the backdrop of this photograph.
Miles in 1885 traveled up wadi Ghul from Tanuf, but does not mention a village with this name although he must have passed it. Checking the map he refers to the 'fort of Jebel Kur' where he crossed 'wadi Shama'. None of these names fit modern maps, but in the context of his travel itinerary this would would have to be Ghul and wadi Nakhar. He did make a few notes about the people in the area and the name of this important wadi: "The wadi Ghol is not particularly serpentine, and I imagine it is so called because it abounds with snakes. Ghol is the common word used in Oman for this reptile, and in this wild hilly district they are tolerably numerous..... The bed of the Ghol, which is cut through high vertical banks, and contains a perennial supply of water, is occupied by several hamlets of the Yal Khameyyis, a Bedouin branch of the Beni Hina, who lead a pastoral life and subsist mainly on their flocks of goat and sheep".

Darke (2000) explains the name Ghul as the normal Arabic for an evil jinn (our Ghoul) for which this region is well known. Surely Miles felt that spirit when he mentioned that he passed a "haunted glenn, known as Dhul Jinn.... the abode of evil spirits".

 Jinn or snake, the village of Ghul, ancient, old and new, certainly does not look eerie at all. Its setting is one of the most scenic in Oman, in between the the majestic Jabal Shams towering high up to the north and the equally impressive Jabal Kawr dominating the skyline to the west. Ghul had a continuous supply of water from wadi Nakhar and wadi Ghul and it controlled access to Dahihira in the west, with the steep rock spur between the two big wadis providing an easily defensible location. No wonder people settled here already in early times. How early needs a bit more than our cursory visit to the jumble of stones high-up on the spur.

Cultivating land requires water and with falaj systems this could be easily catered for both from wadi Ghul and wadi Nakhar. Like elsewhere in Oman the gardens and palm grooves had to be safe from the occasional, but severe, flash-floods through the very same wadis prviding the needed water. That's why these fields are plastered as terraces along the more protected flanks of the wadis. To maximise the use of land and to be safe out of reach of floods, people built their homes higher-up on the slopes of the Jabal. That's how the old and the new Ghul are situated. To build very high on top of the spur can have only one explanation and that is defense. The massive wall sealing-off the whole spur clearly has the same defensive purpose. The old lower village was part of the whole fortification as well and has remained in use until the modern village was built on the gravel terrace opposite.


Drystone walls of the lower village in almost pristine condition

The patchwork of fields and palm groves flanking wadi Ghul just below the old village. The modern village is just visibe in top left beyond the mouth of wadi Nakhal

The main passageways  through the lower village are still very recognisable with well laid massive stones and steps, although quite some of the old drystone walls have collapsed and partly block the passages between the houses . A number of large limestone blocks show well worn rock carvings of mounted people, more or less in the middle of the old village. Right in the middle of the main passageway is a well worn hole, suggesting that it was used for more than just a turning door, but a possible mill in the middle of the street does not appear a good explanation either. Perhaps a re-used stone, but why putting it up in the middle of the street where anybody could step into it. The main passageway leads up, but gets partly lost beyond the last ruins of the lower village. Bits and pieces of steps are preserved on the rock up to the next ruins. Pathways and building style high-up are very similar, with massive, sometimes huge slabs of stones in the lower walls of the houses and walls. The "gate" of the upper ruins is built with a defensive kink. The limestone sill of this passage also has simple rock carvings of people that have the same style as the ones seen in the lower ruins. Right at the vertical edge facing wadi Nakhal are two water basins, still partly lined with waterproofing cement/mud. Holes in the rock next to the basins suggest that there may have been hoisting devices for pulling up water bags from the falaj directly below. This would have been a much more easy supply of water for the inhabitants high up on the rock. Safety comes at a price.


Worn hole in the middle of the street; not the easiest place for a mill?

View from above, with the junction of wadi Nakhal from the left and wadi Ghul from the lower right. The modern village of Ghul in the top and field with date palms in the middle.

Densely built upper ruins, where individual houses can be easily recognised despite the mess of toppled-over walls.

Mark exploring one of the water basins at the edge of the spur with the falaj alnog wadi Nakhar deep below. People probably hoisted water from below into the basin which in turn where all could collect water for domestic use in the upper village

Precariously built on the scarp is one of the water basins, still lined with water-proofing

Notice massive blocks in dry stone walls of the upper ruins along the 'main street'. One can only be impressed by the quality of the masonry-work

Faded rock art showing mounted riders with arms? and smaller animals.  More drawings in the upper left look even more faded. Such carvings could be many hundreds of years old. I have seen more recent carvings on similar limestone blocks that include dates and even those of some 200 years old look considerably more fresh than these.

Rock carvings in upper ruins (lintel of main gate) above and in lower ruins (left)

The faded and worn nature of the rock carvings suggest they have been around for quite a while. The excellent 'masonry' of the dry-stone walls required a lot of coordinated effort, particularly to get the big stones in place.

Eickelman in 1983 described the village as having some 40 households and 250 inhabitants. Not enough to fully explain the extensive ruins on top. Possibly the fortified homes were the safe heaven of a wider population farming along wadi Ghul and wadi Nakhar, retreating to the safety of Ghul when planting and harvesting was done.

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@ J. Schreurs April 2007