The falaj of Misfat, one of the most charming villages of Oman

Many traditional villages in Oman got abandoned to build modern houses close by: mud houses were getting too small, needed too much maintenance and above all could not beat modern life! Thanks to tourism, some of these old villages are rehabilitated such as the charming Misfat al-Abriyeen famous for its ancient irrigation system or falaj.

Sipping a refreshing lemon juice with ginger on the rooftop terrace of Misfah Old House, I rest my weary feet after having hiked from Bilad Sayt. I observe the sun tainting the rocky mountains ahead of me in a warm red colour as it sets behind the new village of Misfat, opposite the surprisingly green date plantation in this overall dry and mineral landscape in which the mud houses of the old village blend in. The old house with its walls made of mud, grass, rocks and wood dates back to 1875 and is still standing mainly thanks to tourists soaking in the peaceful atmosphere of Misfat al-Abriyeen and looking for authenticity in the Sultanate of Oman rather than modernity. If 1875 sounds old in a country that has undergone a giant leap since the 1970’s when only a few kilometres of paved roads and less than a handful of schools existed, it is nothing compared to the millennium old falaj system that allows life in this otherwise hostile mountainous and desertic area.

Archaeological evidence suggests that these irrigations systems may have been engineered as early as 2,500 BC to water farmlands. The water comes from underground sources in the mountains and travels by gravity in man-made channels dug in the rocks for kilometres before reaching the patches to irrigate and being used for drinking and domestic purposes. Mainly underground, the channels are open as they get close to the farmlands. There, old rugs held down by stones called sarjra are used to open and close the irrigation channels and distribute water in a fair way to farmers growing dates, bananas, pomegranates, lemons and more. Walking in the village in the welcoming shade of the lush plantations and to the sound of chirping birds, I follow the maze of water channels and get lost on terraces after terraces of small patches of fertile farmland. I see a farmer ploughing his patch, another loading his harvest on a donkey, and come across a third one hidden behind what looks like a mountain of recently cut branches. It seems that the more guesthouses open, the fewer farmers there are, and some patches of fertile land are not exploited anymore. Young generations head to Muscat and abroad to study and if they help sometimes in the weekend, it does not look like the ancestral family farming traditions will be perpetuated. The know-how needed to operate the falaj is disappearing and wakils, the administrators of the falaj are becoming rare.

This millennium old tradition may be under even a bigger threat today. Many of the falaj in Oman have already dried up and some locals blame luxurious hotels that are multiplying fast to meet the demand of the tourism industry, seen by the government as the answer to the after-oil era and as such strongly pushed.

Ironically tourism may have saved the old villages only to sentence the precious falaj and most needed fertile farmland…

Marcella & Claire

Travel tips:

  • Get in touch with Misfah Old House as booking is a must, and request to stay in the original old house.
  • There are some scenic and demanding well marked hikes departing from Misfat al-Abriyeen like the W9 going to Bilad Sayt (W8) so make sure you plan enough time to discover the area.
  • Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Zoom in on the area of interest, and check out the black pins: each of them corresponds to an article.

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