Oman: The water of life
"TODAY," said Ali our guide, "I will take you to walk in paradise."
"Is that," I asked flippantly, "the paradise with all the virgins?"
"We will see," smiled Ali, as he slipped our 4WD into gear and headed out of Nizwa, capital of Oman in centuries past, and headed into the mountains.
If this was the route to paradise it seemed we had to pass through hell to get there, because Oman's mountains are spectacularly desolate, with bare, crumbling slopes, bizarre figures sculpted in the soft rock by wind and rain, and frighteningly deep gorges carved by the monsoonal floods.
The roads through this forbidding landscape must have been incredibly difficult to build. The constant floods and landslides clearly make them almost impossible to maintain, and driving on them is always exciting and sometimes scary.
But, eventually, Ali pulled off the road, pointed across the deep valley to a village on the other side and said: "There is paradise. Misfat Al Abriyyin."
Paradise, when we got there, turned out to be an intriguing slice of Omani history.
On the peak above, flying the red and blue national flag, was a ruined watchtower which, Ali told us, "predates the arrival of Islam. It is 1400 years old."
At the entrance to the village was a cluster of stone cottages, dating back several centuries, mostly built on the living rock of the mountains.
Next there were several of the mud houses in which, until relatively recently, most Omanis lived, some of them showing the effects of decades of wind and rain, but most in very good repair.
And finally there were a few modern Omani houses, walled and battlemented like miniature forts, made of weatherproof concrete.
Few people were about as we wandered the narrow alleys. A group of men sitting on a doorstep chatting in the shade, returned our greetings of "Salaam Aleikum" with friendly smiles.
A young girl sat at a window in a room built across the alley - creating a pleasantly cool tunnel - seemingly engrossed in her homework. A woman in a headscarf came up the path down which we were heading carrying a bundle of vegetables and nodded amiably but didn't speak.
Soon we reached the gardens she had obviously been harvesting, the paradise of Ali's description, and were almost lost for words at their verdant beauty.
The path descended into the valley through groves of pomegranate, orange, lime, mango, banana, grape, date and fig trees. Further down were neatly organised terraced gardens shining bright green with lettuces, onions, garlic, chillies, peppers, shallots, mint, carrots, beans and other vegetables I couldn't recognise.
And gurgling beside the path was the source of all this abundance, the village falaj, a centuries-old irrigation system, bringing water from the mountains to make the arid landscape flourish.
"Oman looks very dry," said Ali, "but there is plenty of water. We are not like other countries in the Middle East which are short of water. There are springs everywhere in the mountains that never run dry. It is only necessary to bring the water to the villages."
We had seen falaj systems all over Oman but the one at Misfat was by far the most intricate. There appeared to be several sources of water because we saw a couple of channels running down the mountainside above the village but another originated at a small, spring-fed pool just above the gardens.
Some of the channels ran under the houses, providing water directly for cooking and washing.
Just below the village two branches of the system led to washing areas. The women's was walled off. But we walked right by the men's wash house where a man was showering. Nearby was a large pool, empty, which could be filled for swimming, then emptied and the water re-used for irrigation.
The gardens below were serviced by a labyrinth of channels and we saw how carefully shaped stone plugs wrapped in cloth were used to divert the precious liquid first to one patch, of beans perhaps, then to another, this time maybe of banana trees.
Was there, I asked Ali, someone in charge of the falaj system? "Oh, yes," he said, "there is a man whose job is to send the water where it is needed. It is a very important job."
As we climbed from the gardens to our vehicle the importance was easy to appreciate. On all sides were Oman's hellish, hostile mountains. But thanks to the water Misfat was, well, paradise.