Prehistoric Settlements in Bisya & Salut
Permanent Delegation of the Sultanate of Oman to UNESCO
Sultanate of Oman, al Dakhiliyya Governorate, Wilayat Bahla
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The Bisya Area Site in the Wadi Bahla – one of the southward draining basins of al Mountain al Akhdhar - is surely the most impressive multi-period archaeological landscape site in the Sultanate of Oman’s Hajar region. It occupies the plain north and east of Bisya town and displays the physical remains of a succession of oasis settlements and their trading visitors, which indicate powerfully that the area has been a focus for major occupation from the late 4th millennium BC down to Islamic times. This extensive (and still expanding) site covers an area of some 100 sq km and is defined and shaped by a number of prominent features in the landscape. Two rock outcrops – Qarn Wadh‘aniyya on the west and Juhlat Mountain on the east – approximate to its northern boundary, Wadi Sfam borders it on the west, the tomb covered hills of Bu Rzuz Mountain form its eastern boundary, while the rapidly expanding town of Bisya – which now overlays and conceals its most southerly ancient remains – limits it to the south.
Modern archaeological interest in this important site was aroused when, in response to reports from local Omanis and foreign workers connected with oil companies or the army, two archaeological survey teams visited the area in the 1970’s and described several of the monuments. The Hajar Project’s multi-disciplinary programme of research- focusing on everything from the interaction between environmental constraints and human settlement to architecture, irrigation and trade – commenced in 1980 and is ongoing.
A journey through this fascinating, but complex, site would start at its north-eastern end and proceed south-westwards towards the Salut plain and the town of Bisya, because over the millennia - in response to such factors as salinization of the soil, irrigation problems and human social and political behaviour - the Bisya Area Site has experienced a history of settlement shift which has been influenced by the alignment of the groundwater pathways on which settlement and irrigation have depended from the introduction of agriculture to the present day.
The earliest oasis town (late 4th – late 3rd millennium BC) – named The Hajar Oasis Town - is located in the Bisya Area Site’s north-eastern quadrant on the western bank of the Wadi Bahla, across which it faces its 15 sq km beehive tomb necropolis sited on the Bu Rzuz Mountain. Beehive tombs also occur on top of mountains within the town itself. The Hajar Oasis Town is c. 300 ha in size and is defined by four monumental platform structures, laid out in four-point diamond formation, of which the eastern monument overlooks the area of domestic housing. The monuments, which were not only clearly religious in purpose but apparently played a part in funerary ritual as well, are all built of massive tabular limestone blocks but differ in proportion and design:
Immediately south of the Hajar Oasis Town we find the white limestone tombs and buildings of the Umm an-Nar traders which, since they were originally constructed at plain level, are now partially or totally buried in subsequent accumulations of flood-laid sediments. Unlike the Hajar Oasis Town, these Umm an-Nar remains are not organized around a formally demarcated territory in a manner that indicates falaj irrigated land but, rather, display a discontinuous ribbon development which rambles for some 3 km all the way down to the modern town of Bisya. At the northern end of these remains is a low building platform accessed by ramps and with its layout of rooms still visible on its surface.
On the Ghbera Dhib Plain, the house platforms of the “Iron Age” (late 2nd – late 1st millennium BC) and Middle/Late Islamic oasis farmers occupy virtually the same ground as the Umm an-Nar remains (late 3rd – early 2nd millennium BC). House platforms in association with “Iron Age” wares are also found on the eastern slopes of Mountain al Agma‘. Southwards, the Limweylaha Plain constitutes an important ruin field with Umm an-Nar tombs, “Iron Age” tombs and Middle/Late Islamic building platforms all spreading across it in a great mass. Demonstrating the intense occupation of the site, some Umm an-Nar tombs were re-used by Wadi Suq traders (early 2nd Millennium BC) and “Iron Age” people, while a large semi-subterranean corbelled structure - still under investigation - has the appearance of a 3rd millennium BC structure, but contains only “Iron Age” remains.
Instead of continuing down towards Bisya, the “Iron Age” and Middle/Late Islamic remains spread westwards on to the well irrigated and fertile Salut plain with its two important aflaj: Falaj Salut, currently dry, which previously served the settlement of Salut, and Falaj al-Bisyani which still serves Bisya town today. An area subject to dynamic geological change, it now conceals in its sediments many remains of archaeological significance including those of the Hajar Oasis Town’s successor (mid-3rd – early 2nd millennium BC) and a sequence of building levels which appear to demonstrate the continual occupation of the plain from the mid-3rd millennium BC oasis town into subsequent periods. Complementing this excavated evidence are an extensive cemetery of beehive tombs lining the crests of Qarn Wadh‘aneya to the north and of Mountains Limu‘akkal and Sebkhi to the east, while, at the base of the eastern Mountains, there are several major clusters of later burials. Later remains have also recently been uncovered by an Italian team on Salut Castle where an Islamic fort, apparently built with stone robbed from the earlier structures on the plain, is constructed on top of “Iron Age” structures.
Finally, to complete this brief description of the Bisya Area Site, we note that the modern village of al Dhabi occupies a position immediately south-west of the earlier Hajar Oasis Town with a falaj that has its source in the area north of Juhlat Mountain, the ancient settlement’s most northerly demarcating monument, while Bisya, first attested in the 4th century AH/ 10th century AD is not situated on the Salut plain close to its water source, but some 5 km to the south where coarser downstream gravels facilitate irrigation drainage.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Although archaeological landscape sites are typical of the Hajar region, the importance of the Bisya Area Site lies not only in the richness, quality and variety of its ancient remains, or in the fact that it was a leading centre for the exploitation of local resources, trade and foreign contact with neighbouring countries both near and far (as evidenced by the presence of Hafit (Mesopotamian), Umm an-Nar, Wadi Suq and Harappan Indus visitors, and by the manganese producing site of al Haisha, immediately southwest of Bisya), but also in the fact that it is the most complete example of a site of this type in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. It thereby constitutes an outstanding model for the interpretation of similar archaeological landscape sites, both within the Hajar region and around the Arabian peninsula.
Criterion (ii): The Bisya Area Site exhibits important developments in technology and landscape design, which are represented by its Hajar Oasis Towns, and by the earliest known use of the falaj system without which pre-modern agricultural settlements in interior Oman could never have existed.
- Hajar Oasis Towns were characteristically c. 200-400 hectares in size (including agricultural and grazing land), were defined by high-rise religious monuments laid out in four-point diamond formation, and were distinguished by impressive cemeteries of so-called beehive tombs prominently deployed in rows and clusters on the ridges and slopes of nearby Mountains. While similar beehive/turret tomb cemeteries occur in a great southward sweeping arc from the Hajar region to Sinai and testify to the existence of a pan-Arabian culture with shared customs, religious beliefs and trade, there has, as yet, been no in-depth search for the settlements of these other cemeteries. The Bisya Area Site, therefore, with its intact layout of Hajar Oasis Towns, constitutes a prime exemplar for the understanding of this important type of landscape design.
- In the absence of permanent surface flow anywhere in the Hajar region, groundwater, in a complex aquifer of flow-paths, provides the most reliable water supply. The extraordinary response of the oasis farmers to this environmental constraint has been to develop falaj (pl. aflaj) irrigation technology, whereby a system of sub-surface to surface channels convey groundwater, by means of gravity, from a mother-well (umm) to the settlements and date plantations they serve. The Hajar Project’s groundbreaking discovery of a 5000 year old 14C dated falaj system in a Hajar Oasis Town at the site of Al Ghubrat Bahla, followed by the discovery of a falaj system in the area of 3rd millennium BC housing within the earlier Hajar Oasis Town at Bisya, has opened the way to exploring the internal landscape of the earliest oasis towns and enabled the study of their land usage, field systems, agriculture and the key role the falaj would have played in the community. It also contributes to the hydrological study of this type of technology. These exciting discoveries point to Arabia – and not to Iran, as formerly thought – as the falaj system’s place of origin and testify to its antiquity as well as its continuity to the present day (See Criterion (iii) below).
Criterion (iii):The Bisya Area Site bears exceptional testimony to the surviving cultural traditions of an ancient civilization that has now disappeared.
It confirms the continuity of the oasis phenomenon – with its reliance on falaj technology – from its first known appearance in the Hajar region (sometime in the late 4th millennium BC) to the present day.
It demonstrates that oasis towns of all periods essentially occupy the landscape in the same way; each being a discrete, demarcated unit organized around a cultivated territory in which the date-palm is the primary perennial crop.
The survival in the Hajar region of the term ahram as the land in which a community as a whole holds grazing rights, indicates that the organization of such communal territory has ancient roots. There is good reason to propose that the Hajar Oasis Towns identified at Bisya – which, demarcated by religious monuments but open and undefended, were, therefore, apparently protected by a common religious belief that held the territory of each to be sacrosanct – were the ancestors of the ahram or hawtah (traditionally, the sacred oasis settlement of Arabia where no killing may take place) of which examples (notably, Miqshin in southern Oman) still survive to this day [Criterion (vi)].
The variety, quality and profusion of its architectural remains enable the study of construction methods over time and establish that while the buildings of the oasis towns of all periods take a variety of forms - ranging from the circular monumental platforms of the earliest to the houses, forts and watch-towers of the more recent - they overwhelmingly display a structural and architectural homogeneity based on a solid platform construction.
Criterion (iv): The 5000 year old falaj irrigation system located at Bisya and its contemporary falaj system discovered at the al Ghubrat Bahla site together comprise the earliest examples of this type of irrigation technology found to date. As such, the ancient falaj system at Bisya and the oasis landscape, which it has shaped and of which it forms a part, constitute an outstanding example of a technological landscape illustrating a significant stage in human history.
Criterion (v): The Bisya Area Site is not only an outstanding example of traditional human settlement and land-use representative of a culture, it also exhibits human interaction with the environment. First, in a semi-arid land it owes its location and size to a large amount of easily abstracted and potable groundwater resulting from local hardrock constriction of the groundwater pathways. Second, it demonstrates not only the manner in which environmental constraints (notably, the reliance on groundwater) have influenced the settlement history of the ancient oasis towns, but also the various ways (oasis towns, falaj systems, highly visible monuments and tombs) in which the landscape has been modified as a result of the practical and spiritual responses of the oasis inhabitants to these environmental constraints. However, despite its importance, the Bisya Area Site is threatened by both modern development and environmental hazards. Thus, indiscriminate house and road building, the establishment of farms and fields, stone robbing and flooding are all factors to which it is vulnerable. Substantial and informative features (including imposing stone walls and clusters of Hafit tombs), observed by archaeologists in earlier years, have now disappeared as a result of stone robbing, while modern roads and farmsteads have flattened and removed large areas of ancient remains and continuously threaten to encroach further onto the site. The measures now being taken to counteract these threats are described in statements of authenticity and/or integrity.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
Despite the threats described above, the Bisya Area Site has retained its integrity so that its size, the spatial organization of its ancient oasis towns and their extensive cemeteries, and the monumentality of its architecture and massive stone masonry continue to impress and inform. Apart from some reconstruction of the Islamic fort on the outcrop of Salut Castle, the site retains the intrinsic qualities of its physical remains and it is intended that all conservation treatment undertaken on site will continue to maintain this authenticity. Equally authentic are the sub-surface to surface falaj systems - from the most ancient to the still viable - that are gradually being located, traced across the landscape and investigated. Recently, in order to protect and preserve this outstanding cultural landscape, the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture took possession of the Bisya Area Site within its nominated boundaries and imposed a preservation order on it. In addition, a Site Management Plan, including a Programme of Conservation, is currently under discussion.
Comparison with other similar properties
While the Bisya Area Site may be compared in terms of features and layout with the archaeological landscape sites of the Hajar region and, more specifically, with the sites of Bat (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Hili, within Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, UAE (which is on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites), it is in a number of ways a more complete example of an archaeological landscape site in that it impressively demonstrates human interaction with the environment, displays most clearly the layout of the Hajar Oasis Towns, indicates the religious dimension detectable in their highly visible monuments and tombs, contains fascinating evidence for both trade and foreign contacts, possesses a 5000 year old falaj system - with its potential for the study of hydrology, landscapes, agriculture and society - and exhibits the development and continuity of the oasis phenomenon from its inception in Oman to the present day. In view of the latter, perhaps to truly understand the appearance and nature of the ancient oasis towns, one should look to the modern, traditional oasis towns of the Hajar region which, for reasons of hydrology, often occupy the same localities as the ancient archaeological sites and tend to be discrete, agricultural landscapes – based on the date-palm and watered by aflaj - that constitute a controlled response to their environmental constraints.