Jabal al Akhdar Mountains: The Sayq Plateau

Summer 2013 and Spring 2014

The small villages of Al’Ayn and Ash Sharayjah perch on the side of a deep ravine; both carefully hoard the winter rainwater that runs off the rocky, rolling plateau behind small dams. The water is then run round narrow, cliffside terraces in the ancient falaj system of irrigation channels. Many of these are now cast in smooth concrete and the water is moved silently, simply by the use of gravity, to the crops of apricot, peach, pomegranate, citrus and vines underplanted with fodder grasses and vegetables, as well as lines of dense, round rose Rosa damascena bushes adorned with pink flowers. The rose flowers possess the headiest of bouquets and are picked to create distilled rosewater.

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Crops are planted along narrow terraces on the sides of the deep ravine.

This is the Sayq Plateau sitting at the  heart of the Jabal al Akhdar Mountains, some 2,000m above the hot desert. The remote plateau enjoys a Mediterraneanesque climate in a remote corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

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Modern irrigation channel.

The crops are harvested and then hauled up from the terraces to the villages by people or donkey power. Conversely, manure is carried down and spread on the fields. There are no tractors and little mechanisation here. Such low intensity agriculture is sustainable, beneficial to wildlife but incredibly arduous and taxing on those that labour. There is a fast road now from the mountains to the lowlands which bring tourists up but allows the young to venture down to the bright lights of Muscat.

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A local woman carrying fodder.

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The crops are hauled up and down narrow paths. Some farms now employ men from South Asia to tend the land. The stripes of bright paint mark the hiking trail that runs between the villages.

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Fruit trees above neat compartments of fodder crops on a narrow terrace.

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A grove of damask rose bushes and vines.

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View from the field boundary.

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The patchwork of verdant terraces and threadlike falaj.

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The villages are riddled with passageways.

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One village, Bani Habib, is now entirely deserted and quietly crumbling, having no road access.

The plateau itself comprises bare rocks decked with ancient olive and junipers and a ground flora of steppe-like Teucrium species, tough grasses and harsh thorns.  There is relentless grazing of these habitats by donkeys and goats.

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Ancient olive Olea europaea tree with an electric hairstyle.

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The bare limestone plateau.

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Brainy and ancient juniper Juniperus excelsa tree.

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Donkeys quietly graze the plateau at will; goat herds are carefully shepherded.

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Elegant and indigenous thorn bush Ziziphus hajarensis.

sayq 798Teucrium mascatense and Cymbopogon commutatus are grazing-resistant plants of the rocky plateau.

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Salvia aegyptiaca was common in sheltered wadis.

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The wadis within the plateau are well vegetated with Acacia and robust shrubs such as Dodonaea viscosa.

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A huge and ancient Juniper with Dodonaea viscosa on the left.

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The wadis held a rich invertebrate fauna; this is a pair of white-edged rock brown Hipparchia parisatis engaged in a mating display.

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This small and beautiful scorpion species was found under our tent.

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The municipal rubbish dump, acrid with burning rubbish, was home to a diverse fauna such as these feral cats…

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…an immature Egyptian vulture, as well as ravens, crows and a fox.

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The Sayq plateau; a wild landscape.

The socio-economics and ecology of the plateau was studied by German scientists between 1999 and 2007.  The project, across three study areas in the mountains of Northern Oman, resulted in a publication Oases of Oman; an invaluable testament to a rapidly vanishing way of life.

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