I’m homeward bound after the 2020 edition of our Natural History & Contemporary Culture of Oman (a.k.a. Rock Music Oman) course. For the past two weeks, 23 intrepid W&M students joined us for a scholarly, but adventurous, study tour across the Sultanate of Oman.
The 2020 Rock Music Oman class on the beach at Qantab.
This year’s course was spectacular, but distinctly different than previous years’ trips. On January 10th, Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s ruler and the father of the modern state, passed away after 50 years in power. Although not unexpected, it was nonetheless a shock. The country mourns the loss of its visionary leader, but the transition to a new Sultan was swift and neatly ordered. To be in Oman during this period of national grief and transition was a rare learning opportunity.
Our trip also experienced rain on multiple days, a first for the W&M program as Oman is an arid land. Muscat’s yearly rainfall average is ~100 mm (4”), but on January 15th 48 mm (~2”) of rain occurred during an 8-hour interval. This event was significant enough to close schools, and generally clog the city’s traffic with flooded waters.
Street flooding in Muscat.
The W&M crew handled these difficult situations with great resilience. Our Omani partners at the Noor Majan Arabic Institute were amazing as always. Director Dr. Sultan al Farsi helped us bring the program to life, serving as our Arabic instructor and providing insight on many aspects of modern Oman.
An upbeat Arabic language class with Dr. Sultan al Farsi on the Noor Majan campus in Ibri.
The day after arrival, we set out on a week-long excursion through the mountains and desert into the interior of Oman. We then returned to Muscat for the final week of the trip.
Overview map of the 2020 William & Mary Rock Music Oman trip across northern Oman.
The crescent of learning in Arabic on the marker board.
As the trip progressed, whether in the field or the museum or the souq, the group settled into a pattern of assembling into a crescent shaped mass to get oriented and discuss the topic at hand. Our crescent of learning (Hilal al ‘Alim) was born. This cohort wanted to learn, they asked great questions, and made many insightful observations as the journey unfurled.
What follows is a photo essay of the 2020 Rock Music Oman. I hope the photos, and the accompanying text, provide a tangible sense for what makes the Rock Music Oman program distinctive and bold.
Tuesday, January 7th – Across the Western Hajar
A fish pedicure at Ayn A’ Thowarah.
Our weary travelers had arrived in Oman the night before, and on the first full day we departed Muscat for the long ride to Ibri. Our route took us along margin of Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain in Arabic) and across the western Hajar (Rocky/Stony in Arabic) Mountains. En-route we stopped at the hot spring of Ayn A’ Thowarah (spring that boils in Arabic). In these warm waters, enterprising fish provided pedicures, and a squad of young Omani scouts offered up nationalistic bling and halwa (a sweet Omani date pudding). Our last stop was a hike into the Sidaq Gorge, a tremendous cleft in the rock, and a first-rate water gap at the northwestern edge of Jebel Akhdar.
An Omani scout making the rounds at Ayn A’ Thowarah.
In the Sidaq Gorge. All the rocks, upon which W&M students stand and sit, have been transported by water down the gorge. These are impressively large stones.
The long bus ride to Ibri.
Wednesday, January 8th – A Day & Night in Ibri
Shaded relief map of Ibri (from Google Maps)
Ibri is the capital of the Dhahirah region, and has long been an important crossroads city in Oman’s interior. Sultan al Farsi gave us an in-depth tour of the livestock market, the date market, the old souq, and two castles. Ibri is also home to two water gaps! We finished the day playing a spirited football match with students from the Noor Majan Arabic Institute. Exhausting, but awesome.
Inside the walls of Ibri Castle.
Football night in Ibri. Peyton Winter (W&M Geology ’20) flicks a nasty shot at the goal (Paul Volante photo).
Thursday, January 9th – From Castles to Pillow Lavas
The ramparts of the Bahla Fort built upon a foundation of Oman ophiolite.
In the morning, we explored two of Oman’s most iconic forts – Jabreen Castle, a 17th century affair that stands alone on a gravel plain, and Bahla Fort, whose massive edifice is built upon a craggy knob of ophiolite. In the afternoon, we visited with archaeologists at the Bronze Age necropolis of Bat. William & Mary alum, Dr. Eli Dollarhide (now at NYU-Abu Dhabi) gave us a magnificent tour of the site, and discussed the ongoing research at the site. As darkness fell, we finished our day examining a spectacular outcrop of pillow lavas that originally formed on the sea floor during the Cretaceous.
William & Mary alum, Dr. Eli Dollarhide discusses artifacts from the excavations at Bat, Oman.
Evan Laughlin (W&M Geology ’20) admires Omani pillow lavas.
Friday, January 10th – Ethnography + Hydrology
We departed Ibri under scudding clouds that were accompanied by fits of rain. The gray rain at the beehives tombs above Al Ayn, made it feel more like Scotland than Oman. In Nizwa, we re-provisioned at the Lulu Hypermarket and did a bit of ethnographic research. Friday, the Islamic day of rest, is also a day off for many of Oman’s guest workers (who primarily hail from south Asia). The Lulu was a busy place with workers laying in their weekly supplies. At Birkat al Mouz (Garden of Bananas) we discussed the hydrology of the Al Khateen falaj, a UNESCO heritage site. In the afternoon, we traveled eastward and ultimately arrived at our desert camp in the Wahiba Sands.
A soggy morning at the Bronze age tombs above Al Ayn.
Ethnography and groceries at the Lulu Hypermarket in Nizwa.
Falaj al Khateen in Birkat al Mouz.
Saturday, Jan. 11th – A Day in the Dunes
Our first morning in the Sands was surreal as the news of the Sultan’s death reached us. A sense of profound sadness reigned. We took the day to rest, but also carved out time to explore the dunes and discuss the origin of this massive sand pile which consists of >6,000 square kilometers of longitudinal dunes, some of which rise ~200 meters above the valley floors.
Inspecting the sand pile in the Wahiba Sands.
An afternoon ‘seminar’ in the Wahiba Sands.
Sunday, Jan. 12th – Camels to the Coast
After breakfast, the unsettled weather of the past two days blew itself out. Although cool by Oman standards, the sun reemerged Our first adventure of the day involved camels. Nothing brings a group together quite like camel riding and discussing camel husbandry with Bedouins. From the Sands, we journeyed to the coastal city of Sur for our first view of the Indian Ocean/Sea of Oman. Our day of travel finished in Muscat well after dark. With the country in a 3-day period of official mourning, we were not certain about what we’d find as we returned to urban Oman.
A camel parade in the Wahiba Sands.
Oscar of Arabia.
Dhows in repose at low tide in Sur.
Monday, Jan. 13th – Learning at Sultan Qaboos University
We spent most of Monday at Sultan Qaboos University, it’s Oman’s premier university and enrolls more than 15,000 students. Our hosts were Anne Rasmussen’s friends and colleagues Majid and Fatma al Harthy. I attended the International Conference on Ophiolites and Oceanic Lithosphere which was being held on campus. The Tribe dropped by to provide moral support during the session in which I presented the results of our research. It was exciting to expose W&M students to science at an international conference, and highlight the research accomplishments of William & Mary undergraduates to a professional audience.
Out and about on the SQU campus.
The title slide for my presentation at the Ophiolite Conference.
Tuesday, Jan. 14th – From the Grand Mosque to the Mahgrib
Our day began with a morning tour of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the complex was constructed between 1994 – 2001 and can hold upwards of 20,000 worshipers. The grounds are beautiful, and the detailed stonework is fabulous. After the mosque, our original plan had been a visit to the Mutrah souq, but the roads into Mutrah were closed to facilitate the traffic of foreign dignitaries visiting Oman to pay their respects. Nonetheless, we discovered an overland route and hiked into Mutrah. It was an odd scene, as the usually busy souq was closed, and there was a noticeable absence of traffic by the old port. Accordingly, we adjusted our plan, spending the afternoon on the beach at the seaside village of Qantab, and took to the water for a cruise along this section of dramatic coastline during the golden hour. We returned to the Qantab beach as the sun set and the Mahgrib (sunset/west) call to pray rang out from the village mosques – it was a sublime experience.
Inside the Grand Mosque complex.
Cross cultural learning at the Islamic Learning Center.
Inside an empty Mutrah Souq (Anne Rasmussen photo).
A sea arch along the Oman coastline, south of Qantab.
Wednesday, Jan. 15th – Embassy, Museum, and Palace
The rain began by dawn, and quickly turned into a proper down pour. Our first stop was a visit to the United States Embassy. The straight-line distance between our hotel and the embassy was ~3 kilometers (2 miles), but that journey through the flooded streets of Muscat took more than an hour. The embassy staff graciously welcomed us to the compound, and we had an exceptionally educational session with the Chargé d’Affaires Stephanie Hallett. I love these embassy visits, as they provide a glimpse of the important work done by the foreign service. In the afternoon, we visited the National Museum, and the students brought perspective to this visit, perspective that was forged by their observations during their previous 9 days in Oman. We also took in the sights and sounds around the Al Alam palace, which looks as though it dropped right out of an original Star Trek episode. Late in the afternoon, we attempted a second visit to the Mutrah souq, yet this time much of the souq was awash in floodwaters generated by rainfall earlier in the day.
A Crescent of Learning at the National Museum.
Notetakers in the foyer of the National Museum.
Al Alam Palace in Muscat with the Royal Standard flying.
Floodwaters in the Mutrah Souq.
Thursday, Jan. 16th– The Royal Opera House
Inside the gilded walls of the Royal Opera House, Muscat.
Once again the sun emerged. We spent the morning at Muscat’s Royal Opera House, where outreach director Wael Kakish served up a spectacular behind-the-scenes tour that included a visit to the newly opened Hall of the Musical Arts. As Oman mourns the loss of Sultan Qaboos, celebratory performances are currently on hold, thus we were not able to take in some of the usual musical activities that have been an important staple of past trips.
Friday, Jan. 17th– As Sifah and the Eclogite Beach
This was our last full day in Oman, and we spent the day soaking up the sunshine and investigating the metamorphic geology near the beach town of As Sifah. We were joined by a merry band of professional geologists from other U.S. and Jordanian universities. Nick Carpenter (W&M ’21) is studying these curious rocks for their senior research project. On the rocky headland, north of the beach, eclogite is exposed – it’s a dense and distinctive rock that is rarely exposed at the earth’s surface. Eclogite forms in subduction zones when near-surface lava flows are buried to depths of >50 km and undergo extreme pressure. We want to understand the history of both burial and exhumation (how these rocks came back to the earth’s surface) recorded in these rocks. Our field day was a great way to round out our Oman experience. It was hard to leave the beach knowing that winter and a new semester await us in Williamsburg.
William & Mary scholars enjoy the bedrock exposures at a massive Oman road cut.
William & Mary geologists (from left to right) Nick Carpenter, Evan Laughlin, Danni Riggs, and Emily Hinshaw on an eclogite outcrop north of As Sifah.
In the midst of a traditional Omani dinner during our last evening in Oman.