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Chapter 5

Wellsted’s Explorations in Oman


Perhaps the most satisfactory account of the interior of Oman—the southeastern portion of Arabia—has been given by Lieutenant Wellsted.  While in the Indian Navy he was employed for several years in surveying the southern and eastern coasts of Arabia.  Having become somewhat familiar with the language and habits of the people, he conceived the idea of undertaking a journey to Derreyeh, in Nedjed, the capital of the Wahabees, which no traveller had then reached.  The governor of Bombay gave him the necessary leave of absence, and he landed at Muscat in November, 1835.

The Sultan, Sayid Saeed, received the young Englishman with great kindness, promised him all possible aid in his undertaking, and even arranged for him the route to be travelled.  He was to sail first to the port of Sur, south of Muscat, thence penetrate to the country inhabited by the Beni-Abu-Ali tribe, and make his way northward to the Jebel Akhdar, or Green Mountains, which were described to him as lofty, fruitful, and populous.  Having thus visited the most interesting portions of Oman, he was then to be at liberty, if the way was open, to take the northern route through the Desert toward Nedjed.  The Sultan presented him with a horse and sword, together with letters to the governors of the districts through which he should pass.

At Sur, which is a small, insignificant village, with a good harbor, the mountains of the interior approach the sea, but they are here divided by a valley which furnishes easy access to the country beyond them.  After a journey of four days Wellsted reached the tents of the tribe of Beni-Abu-Ali, at a point to which the English troops had penetrated in 1821, to punish the tribe for acts of piracy.  Although no Englishman had visited them since that time, they received him with every demonstration of friendship.  Sheep were killed, a feast prepared, a guard of honor stationed around the tent, and, in the evening, all the men of the encampment, 250 in number, assembled for the purpose of exhibiting their war-dance.  Wellsted thus describes the scene: “They formed a circle within which five of their number entered.  After walking leisurely around for some time, each challenged one of the spectators by striking him gently with the flat of his sword.  His adversary immediately leaped forth and a feigned combat ensued.  They have but two cuts, one directly downward, at the head, the other horizontal, across the legs.  They parry neither with the sword nor shield, but avoid the blows by leaping or bounding backward.  The blade of their sword is three feet in length, thin, double-edged, and as sharp as a razor.  As they carry it upright before them, by a peculiar motion of the wrist they cause it to vibrate in a very remarkable manner, which has a singularly striking effect when they are assembled in any considerable number.  It was part of the entertainment to fire off their matchlocks under the legs of some one of the spectators who appeared too intent on watching the game to observe their approach, and any signs of alarm which incautiously escaped the individual added greatly to their mirth.”

In the evening a party of the Geneba Bedouins came in from the desert, accompanied by one of their chiefs.  The latter readily consented that Wellsted should accompany him on a short journey into his country, and they set out the following morning.  It was December, and the morning air was cold and pure; the party swept rapidly across the broad, barren plains, the low hills, dotted with acacia trees, and the stony channels which carried the floods of the rainy season to the sea.  After a day’s journey of forty-four miles they encamped near some brackish wells.  “You wished,” said the chief to Wellsted, “to see the country of the Bedouins; this,” he continued, striking his spear into the firm sand, “this is the country of the Bedouins.”  Neither he nor his companions wore any clothing except a single cloth around the loins.  Their hair, which is permitted to grow until it reaches the waist, and is usually well plastered with grease, is the only covering which protects their heads from the sun.

The second day’s journey brought Wellsted to a small encampment, where the chief’s wives were abiding.  They conversed with him, unveiled, gave him coffee, milk, and dates, and treated him with all the hospitality which their scanty means allowed.  The Beni Geneba tribe numbers about three thousand five hundred fighting men; they are spread over a large extent of Southern Arabia, and are divided into two distinct classes—those who live by fishing, and those who follow pastoral pursuits.  A race of fishermen, however, is found on all parts of the Arabian coast.  In some districts they are considered a separate and degraded people, with whom the genuine Bedouins will neither eat, associate, nor intermarry; but among the Beni Geneba this distinction does not exist.

Wellsted might have penetrated much farther to the westward under the protection of this tribe, and was tempted to do so; but it seemed more important to move northward, and get upon some one of the caravan tracks leading into Central Arabia.  He therefore returned to the camp of the Beni-Abu-Ali, where the friendly people would hardly suffer him to depart, promising to build a house for him if he would remain a month with them.  For two days he travelled northward, over an undulating region of sand, sometimes dotted with stunted acacias, and reached a district called Bediah, consisting of seven villages, each seated in its little oasis of date palms.  One striking feature of these towns is their low situation.  They are erected in artificial hollows, which have been excavated to the depth of six or eight feet.  Water is then conveyed to them in subterranean channels from wells in the neighboring hills, and the soil is so fertile that irrigation suffices to produce the richest harvest of fruit and vegetables.  A single step carries the traveller from the glare and sand of the desert into a spot teeming with the most luxuriant vegetation, and embowered by lofty trees, whose foliage keeps out the sun.  “Some idea,” says Wellsted, “may be formed of the density of this shade by the effect it produces in lessening the terrestrial radiation.  A Fahrenheit thermometer which within the house stood at 55°, six inches from the ground fell to 45°.  From this cause and the abundance of water they are always saturated with damp, and even in the heat of the day possess a clammy coldness.”

On approaching Ibrah, the next large town to the north, the country became hilly, and the valleys between the abrupt limestone ranges increased in fertility.  Wellsted thus describes the place: “There are some handsome houses in Ibrah; but the style of building is quite peculiar to this part of Arabia.  To avoid the damp and catch an occasional beam of the sun above the trees, they are usually very lofty.  A parapet surrounding the upper part is turreted, and on some of the largest houses guns are mounted.  The windows and doors have the Saracenic arch, and every part of the building is profusely decorated with ornaments of stucco in bas-relief, some in very good taste.  The doors are also cased with brass, and have rings and other massive ornaments of the same metal.

“Ibrah is justly renowned for the beauty and fairness of its females.  Those we met on the streets evinced but little shyness, and on my return to the tent I found it filled with them.  They were in high glee at all they saw; every box I had was turned over for their inspection, and whenever I attempted to remonstrate against their proceedings they stopped my mouth with their hands.  With such damsels there was nothing left but to laugh and look on.”

Travelling two days farther in the northward, Wellsted reached the town of Semmed, where he found a fine stream of running water.  The Shekh’s house was a large fort, the rooms of which were spacious and lofty, but destitute of furniture.  Suspended on pegs protruding from the walls were the saddles, cloths, and harness of the horses and camels.  The ceilings were painted in various devices, but the floors were of mud, and only partially covered with mats.  Lamps formed of shells, a species of murex, were suspended by lines from the ceiling.  On returning to the tent, after this visit, the traveller found, as usual, a great crowd collected there, but kept in order by a boy about twelve years of age.  He had taken possession of the tent, as its guardian, and allowed none to enter without his permission.  He carried a sword longer than himself, and also a stick, with which he occasionally laid about him.  It is a part of the Arab system of education to cease treating boys as children at a very early age, and they acquire, therefore, the gravity and demeanor of men.

Beyond this place Wellsted was accompanied by a guard of seventy armed men, for the country was considered insecure.  For two days and a half he passed many small villages, separated by desert tracts, and then reached the town of Minnà, near the foot of the Green Mountains.  “Minnà,” he says, “differs from the other towns in having its cultivation in the open fields.  As we crossed these, with lofty almond, citron, and orange trees yielding a delicious fragrance on either hand, exclamations of astonishment and admiration burst from us.  ‘Is this Arabia?’ we said; ‘this the country we have looked on heretofore as a desert?’  Verdant fields of grain and sugar-cane stretching along for miles are before us; streams of water, flowing in all directions, intersect our path; and the happy and contented appearance of the peasants agreeably helps to fill up the smiling picture.  The atmosphere was delightfully clear and pure; and, as we trotted joyously along, giving or returning the salutations of peace or welcome, I could almost fancy that we had at last reached that ‘Araby the Blessed’ which I had been accustomed to regard as existing only in the fictions of our poets.

“Minnà is an old town, said to have been erected at the period of Narhirvan’s invasion; but it bears, in common with the other towns, no indications of antiquity; its houses are lofty, but do not differ from those of Ibrah or Semmed.  There are two square towers, about one hundred and seventy feet in height, nearly in the centre of the town; at their bases the breadth of the wall is not more than two feet, and neither side exceeds in length eight yards.  It is therefore astonishing, considering the rudeness of the materials (they have nothing but unhewn stones and a coarse but apparently strong cement), that, with proportions so meagre, they should have been able to carry them to their present elevation.  The guards, who are constantly on the lookout, ascend by means of a rude ladder, formed by placing bars of wood in a diagonal direction in one of the side angles within the interior of the building.”

The important town of Neswah, at the western base of the Jebel Akdar, or Green Mountains, is a short day’s journey from Minnà.  On arriving there Wellsted was received in a friendly manner by the governor, and lodged, for the first time since leaving Muscat, in a substantial house.  He was allowed to visit the fortress, which, in that region, is considered impregnable.  He was admitted by an iron door of great strength, and, ascending through a vaulted passage, passed through six others equally massive before reaching the summit.  The form of the fort is circular, its diameter being nearly one hundred yards, and to the height of ninety feet it has been filled up by a solid mass of earth and stones.  Seven or eight wells have been bored through this, from several of which they obtain a plentiful supply of water, while those which are dry serve as magazines for their shot and ammunition.  A wall forty feet high surrounds the summit, making the whole height of the fortress one hundred and fifty feet.  It is a work of extraordinary labor, and from its appearance probably of considerable antiquity; but no certain intelligence could be obtained on this point.

On Christmas-day Wellsted left Neswah on an excursion to the celebrated Green Mountains.  The Shekh of Tanuf, the first village where he encamped, endeavored in every possible way to dissuade him from undertaking the journey; but his resolute manner and a few gifts overcame the difficulty.  Mounted on strong asses, the party commenced ascending a precipitous ridge by a track so narrow that they seemed at times to be suspended over precipices of unknown depth.  On the second day they reached the village of Seyk.  “By means of steps,” he says, “we descended the steep side of a narrow glen, about four hundred feet in depth, passing in our progress several houses perched on crags or other acclivities, their walls built up in some places so as to appear but a continuation of the precipice.  These small, snug, compact-looking dwellings have been erected by the natives one above the other, so that their appearance from the bottom of the glen, hanging as it were in mid-air, affords to the spectator a most novel and interesting picture.  Here we found, amid a great variety of fruits and trees, pomegranates, citrons, almonds, nutmegs, and walnuts, with coffee-bushes and vines.  In the summer, these together must yield a delicious fragrance; but it was now winter, and they were leafless.  Water flows in many places from the upper part of the hills, and is received at the lower in small reservoirs, whence it is distributed all over the face of the country.  From the narrowness of this glen, and the steepness of its sides, only the lower part of it receives the warmth of the sun’s rays for a short period of the day; and even at the time of our arrival we found it so chilly, that, after a short halt, we were very happy to continue our journey.”

They halted for the night at a village called Shirazi, in the heart of the mountains, the highest peaks of which here reach a height of 6,000 feet above the sea.  The inhabitants belong to a tribe called the Beni Ryam, who are considered infidels by the people of Neswah because they cultivate the grape for the purpose of making wine.  The next day the Arabs who formed Wellsted’s escort left him, and he had considerable difficulty in returning to Neswah by another road.  From this point he had intended starting for Central Arabia, but the funds which he expected did not arrive from Muscat, the British agent there having refused to make the necessary advances.  Wellsted thereupon applied directly to the Sultan, Sayd Saeed, for a loan, and while waiting an answer, made an excursion into the desert, fifty miles to the westward of Neswah.  With a view to familiarize himself with the manners and domestic life of the Bedouins, he mixed with them during this trip, living and sleeping in their huts and tents.  On all occasions he was treated with kindness, and often with a degree of hospitality above rather than below the means of those who gave it.

Although the Sultan of Muscat was willing to furnish the necessary supplies, and arrangements had been made which Wellsted felt sure would have enabled him to penetrate into the interior, he was prevented from going forward by a violent fever, from the effects of which he remained insensible for five days.  Recovering sufficiently to travel, his only course was to return at once to the sea-coast, and on January 22, 1836, he left Neswah for the little port of Sib, where he arrived after a slow journey of eight days.  He relates the following incident, which occurred at Semayel, the half-way station: “Weary and faint from the fatigue of the day’s journey, in order to enjoy the freshness of the evening breeze I had my carpet spread beneath a tree.  An Arab passing by paused to gaze upon me, and, touched by my condition and the melancholy which was depicted on my countenance, he proffered the salutation of peace, pointed to the crystal stream which sparkled at my feet, and said: ‘Look, friend, for running water maketh the heart glad!’  With his hands folded over his breast, that mute but most graceful of Eastern salutations, he bowed and passed on.  I was in a situation to estimate sympathy; and so much of that feeling was exhibited in the manner of this son of the desert, that I have never since recurred to the incident, trifling as it is, without emotion.”

A rest of four weeks at Sib recruited the traveller’s strength, and he determined to make another effort to reach Central Arabia.  He therefore applied to the Sultan for an escort to Bireimah, the first town of the Wahabees, beyond the northern frontier of Oman.  The Sultan sent a guide, but objected to the undertaking, as word had just arrived that the Wahabees were preparing to invade his territory.  Wellsted, however, was not willing to give up his design without at least making the attempt.  He followed the coast, north of Muscat, as far as the port of Suweik, where he was most hospitably received by the wife of the governor, Seyd Hilal, who was absent.  “A huge meal, consisting of a great variety of dishes, sufficient for thirty or forty people, was prepared in his kitchen, and brought to us, on large copper dishes, twice a day during the time we remained.  On these occasions there was a great profusion of blue and gilt chinaware, cut glass dishes, and decanters containing sherbet instead of wine.”

“The Shekh,” Wellsted continues, “after his return, usually spent the evening with us.  On one occasion he was accompanied by a professional storyteller, who appeared to be a great favorite with him.  ‘Whenever I feel melancholy or out of order,’ said he, ‘I send for this man, who very soon restores me to my wonted spirits.’  From the falsetto tone in which the story was chanted, I could not follow the thread of the tale, and, upon my mentioning this to him, the Shekh very kindly sent me the manuscript, of which the reciter had availed himself.  With little variation I found it to be the identical Sindbad the Sailor, so familiar to the readers of the Arabian Nights.  I little thought, when first I perused these fascinating tales in my own language, that it would ever be my lot to listen to the original in a spot so congenial and so remote.”



A valley in Oman


Leaving Suweik on March 4th, Wellsted was deserted by his camel-men at the end of the first day’s march, but succeeded in engaging others at a neighboring village.  The road, which at first led between low hills, now entered a deep mountain-gorge, inclosed by abrupt mountains of rock several thousand feet in height.

For two days the party followed this winding defile, where the precipices frequently towered from three to four thousand feet over their heads.  Then, having passed the main chain, the country became more open, and they reached the village of Muskin, in the territory of the Beni Kalban Arabs.  Their progress beyond this point was slow and tedious, on account of the country being divided into separate districts, which are partly independent of each other.  At the next town, Makiniyat, the Shekh urged them to go no farther, on account of the great risk, but finally consented to furnish an escort to Obri, the last town to the northward which acknowledges the sway of Muscat.  This was distant two days’ journey—the first through a broad valley between pyramidal hills, the second over sandy plains, which indicated their approach to the Desert.

Obri is one of the largest and most populous towns in Oman.  The inhabitants devote themselves almost exclusively to agriculture, and export large quantities of indigo, sugar, and dates.  On arriving Wellsted went immediately to the residence of the Shekh, whom he found to be a very different character from the officials whom he had hitherto encountered.  “Upon my producing the Imâm’s letters,” says he, “he read them, and took his leave without returning any answer.  About an hour afterward he sent a verbal message to request that I should lose no time in quitting his town, as he begged to inform me, what he supposed I could not have been aware of, that it was then filled with nearly two thousand Wahabees.  This was indeed news to us; it was somewhat earlier than we anticipated falling in with them, but we put a good face on the matter, and behaved as coolly as we could.”

The next morning the Shekh returned, with a positive refusal to allow them to proceed farther.  Wellsted demanded a written refusal, as evidence which he could present to the Sultan, and this the Shekh at once promised to give.  His object was evidently to force the traveller away from the place, and such was the threatening appearance of things that the latter had no wish to remain.  The Wahabees crowded around the party in great numbers, and seemed only waiting for some pretext to commence an affray.  “When the Shekh came and presented me with the letter for the Sultan,” says Wellsted, “I knew it would be in vain to make any further effort to shake his resolution, and therefore did not attempt it.  In the meantime news had spread far and wide that two Englishmen, with a box of ‘dollars,’ but in reality containing only the few clothes that we carried with us, had halted in the town.  The Wahabees and other tribes had met in deliberation, while the lower classes of the townsfolk were creating noise and confusion.  The Shekh either had not the shadow of any influence, or was afraid to exercise it, and his followers evidently wished to share in the plunder.  It was time to act.  I called Ali on one side, told him to make neither noise nor confusion, but to collect the camels without delay.  In the meantime we had packed up the tent, the crowd increasing every minute; the camels were ready, and we mounted on them.  A leader, or some trifling incident, was now only wanting to furnish them with a pretext for an onset.  They followed us with hisses and various other noises until we got sufficiently clear to push briskly forward; and, beyond a few stones being thrown, we reached the outskirts of the town without further molestation.  I had often before heard of the inhospitable character of the inhabitants of this place.  The neighboring Arabs observe that to enter Obri a man must either go armed to the teeth, or as a beggar with a cloth, and that not of decent quality, around his waist.  Thus, for a second time, ended my hopes of reaching Derreyeh from this quarter.”

Wellsted was forced to return to Suweik, narrowly escaping a Bedouin ambush on the way.  As a last attempt he followed the coast as far as Schinas, near the mouth of the Straits of Ormuz, and thence despatched a messenger to the Wahabees at Birsimah.  This plan also failed, and he then returned to India.  He has given us, however, the only authentic account of the scenery and inhabitants of the interior of Oman, and his travels are thus an important contribution to our knowledge of Arabia.

It is a sufficient commentary on the exclusive character of Interior Arabia, and the difficulties that bar the way there to free and thorough exploration, that, although Lieutenant Wellsted’s journey was in 1835, we still (1892) have to turn to his very interesting narrative for almost all we know of the interior of Oman.

Bayard Taylor

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