Steeped in history, the ruins of the ancient city of Sumhuram are still revealing their secrets, discovers Jerzy Wierzbicki
Watching an artefact dating from as much as 2000 years ago being brought from the ground, where it has lain undiscovered for so long, is quite a privilege. One can only wonder about its history and the people who may have come into contact with it.
Seeing an archaeologist find a small clay pot during a dig for relics made my trip to the remains of the settlement of Sumhuram, near the Khor Rori area, even more special.
My visit to this fascinating site came during a working trip to Dhofar. I had pinpointed beforehand the places that interested me and Sumhuram was near the top.
It is located a few kilometres behind Taqah, a town steeped in atmosphere that stirs my soul every time I go there, with its lively streets and sprawling banana plantations.
After a long two-day drive from Muscat, I reached the entrance of Sumhuram after sundown. The man on the gate informed me that the site would be closing in an hour and all visitors had to leave by 8pm.
Even though it was late, I decided to buy a ticket anyway and do a quick reconnaissance before going back in the morning.
Night was settling and it was almost completely dark. Only the lights of nearby Taqah and the main road illuminated my way through the remains of old walls and stony constructions.
After a brief look around, I called it a night and went to sleep in my car just a few hundred metres next to the main gate.
With me, as ever, was my faithful canine companion, Trop.
Waking early, we were greeted by typical Khareef season weather; a moody sky heavy with dark clouds and a refreshingly low temperature with little humidity. The gloomy atmosphere was perfect for a journey back into the past.
Wander to the right side of the ravine bank and you will find Sumhuram. Once the centre of frankincense production in the region, it was the most important pre-Islamic settlement in Dhofar.
Founded as an outpost of the Hadramite kingdom, it was established on the Omani shoreline for economic and commercial reasons, with the first colonisers in the 4th century BC. Links with the Roman Empire cemented its important position. It was also a stopping place for traders during long trips between the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and the northern part of Oman, which was rich in copper.
English explorer James Theodore Bent and his wife, Mabel, first discovered Sumhuram during their travels in the region in the late 19th century, described in their book Southern Arabia.
Early excavations began in the 1950s and, since 1994, the Italian Mission to Oman (IMTO) has been working on site. Diggings have uncovered the remnants of a small-fortified city with a huge gate, a monumental building with a well inside along with storehouses and workshops.
Burial areas were found in front of the city and signs of agricultural use. In 2003, archaeologists uncovered evidence suggesting that Sumhuram had been expanding into the surrounding area outside the city walls. A temple was discovered in Wadi Darbat, a few kilometres from Khor Rori Archaeological work is ongoing. During my visit, workers were excavating areas in the top of the ruins and near the main defensive wall. I met an Italian archaeologist, Michele Degli Esposti, and I witnessed him turning up a small clay pot. Michele, who is from the University of Pisa, also directed me to where I could find an ancient inscription written into the bricks and a small museum displaying many artefacts excavated from the site.
After an hour exploring the ruins, I moved down to check the terrain surrounding Sumhuram. In the narrow isthmus between the Khor’s water and the ocean, I saw in the distance a group of camels walking in the fog. Darker contours of the animals on the high waves, blurred a bit by the fog and millions of small drops of water, created ideal conditions for photography. Immediately, I put a long lens on my camera and started taking shots.
The nature here is incredibly rich. Many bird species could be seen bathing in the cooling water of the khor, especially flamingos. I spent half a day there capturing the wildlife scenes.
I had Trop for company, and the camels in the distance, with the silence broken by the sound of huge waves crashing against the rocks. I sat watching the raging sea for a while, sipping on a cup of strong coffee.
I was reluctant to leave but the open road was calling me. More adventures in the Dhofar Mountains were waiting.
HOW TO GET THERE
Sumhuram is located just a few kilometres behind Taqah on the main route to Mirbat and Hasik. The site is open for visitors from 9am to 8pm and the cost of an entry ticket is RO2. Technically you do not need a 4×4 as there is a good tarmac road. In my opinion, though, travelling to Dhofar during Khareef season is much safer and more comfortable in a good 4×4.
The total distance from Muscat is 1100 km
For additional information about Sumhuram please visit: http://arabiantica.humnet.unipi.it