September 27, 2013

Vanishing Mountainscapes of Muscat

Mountainscape at Fanja

As I was nostalgically browsing through photographs of a family visit we took to Sifah village during my recent trip to Oman, I thought of the serpentine road that thrillingly twists and curves through mountains, hills, and lagoons before finally bringing one to Sifah's serene shores. I have previously been to Sifah and it was a joy to re-encounter the journey, each turn revealing a memory-worthy sight: numerous goats slumbering beneath a 4WD, a sprightly green-plumed tree with exposed cat's cradle of roots, a surreal fashion marriage: a woman dressed in leopard-spotted Omani traditional tunic, magenta trousers, and three-inch heels, and...the undulating mountains, grazing the cloudless blue sky. And indeed, now, when I am thousands of miles away from the terrains of familiar, when I think of Oman, the mountains  immediately catapult into my mind: boldly, starkly, and distinctly.

While I undoubtedly yearn for the sea, what I now realise is that while I had to make a trip to experience it, the mountains formed an integral part of my immediate visual landscape. If the sea was a volatile, temperamental entity, the mountains were constant and consistent in their there-ness. Whenever I rose in the morning and went up to my bedroom window, the mountains loomed in the distance, chameleon-like changing color over the day before entirely disappearing in the black of the night - to comfortingly appear once again the following morning. Wherever we drove, the mountains were omnipresent and so unrelentingly variegated that I became blase about such beauty in our midst. Just as one would trace patterns in the clouds, we would discuss about what animal or character an unusually shaped mountain resembled. Whether one was ascending the mountains or just wandering around at their base on a hot summer dusk, it was a raw, primeval experience, life's grievances and issues appearing so petty and trivial in face of such silent grandness. 

Jabal Shams

How much I took this geological gorgeousness for granted! It never once occurred to me that it too would fall prey to the scourge of erasure. A couple of posts ago, I had spoken about losing valuable architecture landmarks, which served as reflectors of their time and era. Even before I had left Oman and moved to the States, I had been witness to mountains in Muscat area gradually being cut away in order to make room for constructing apartment buildings, homes, and offices. Eight months later on, I have been further saddened to see the extent of the destruction of this valuable geological heritage. The mountains bore visible wounds, where they had been severely gouged away and in rare instances, they were on verge of disappearing; the effect was visually unpleasing as well as jarring. 

Local media and concerned environmentalists have generated sufficient debate about this subject; it was their efforts which made me pay attention to an issue that I encountered on a daily basis but whose ramifications I had yet not yet acknowledged. I recall reading a phrase which mentioned that while one can potentially regrow forests,* it is not possible to do so with mountains. When you are swiftly slicing away a mountain, you are cutting away a millennia's worth of geological narrative: the movements, shifts, and transformations which resulted in the mountain being of the texture, color, and shape it is. When you excise it from the landscape, you are erasing a visual marker as well as a geological time-capsule.

Jabal Shams again

For me, mountains along with the sea and distinctive architecture constitute Muscat; its particular topography and terrain specifically shapes its identity and individuates it from the assembly-line faux Manhattans in other parts of the region and world, even. Urban spaces are dynamic and arguably need to be so; however, it is my earnest wish that changes and development occur sustainably and not at the cost of diluting the essence of any place.

May the slumbering geological giants rest in peace...

*This is an opinion post based on my recent observations of Muscat*

** Studies have indicated that regrowing a forest requires many decades and it may taken even longer for the surrounding landscape to regain its native identity - rampant deforestation thus translates into entirely reshaping the natural character of the land


  1. The photographs are beautiful Priyanka! Just yesterday I was thinking how a signature Muscat painting would be with all that architecture with the backdrop of strong heavy hills and the golden color of the sand around.

    1. Thank you, Padmaja, it was a difficult task to choose which ones to put up...there were so many beautiful ones to choose from (thus reflecting the gist of my piece?! Will you be painting this work? I would look forward to seeing it come to life!

  2. Like you I feel sad about the loss and destruction of the beautiful mountains, especially in and around Muscat where there will soon be no mountains left.


    1. Glad you share my sentiments, Sue! I was especially appalled at the extent of the destruction around Wadi Kabir and Al Bustan roundabout area - action was taken when so many people expressed their concern about building in and around dunes in Bausher...hopefully someone will make the authorities see sense when it comes to the mountains


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