Holqa Sof Omar: Natural and Cultural Heritage (Sof Omar: Caves of Mystery)

Date of Submission: 14/12/2011
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Authority for Resarch and Conservation of Cultural Hritage
State, Province or Region:
Oromia National Regional State, Bale Administrative Zone, Dawi Qacha District Hamera kebele
Coordinates: N6 54 E40 45
Ref.: 5651

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Holqa Sof Omar: is one of the most spectacular and extensive underground caverns in the world: the Sof Omar cave system. Formed by the Weib River as it changed its course in the distant past and carved a new channel through limestone foothills, the Sof Omar cave system is an extraordinary natural phenomenon of breathtaking beauty.

Here the Weib River vanishes into this giant underground world with its arched portals, high eroded ceilings, and deep, vaulted echoing chambers. These caves, now an important Islamic shrine named after the saintly Sheik Sof Omar Ahmed, who took refuge here many centuries ago (around early 11th century AD), have a religious history that predates the arrival of the Muslims in Bale — a history calibrated in thousands, not hundreds, of years.

The traditional belief of this part of Africa revolved around spirit worship and ghost cults in which the most powerful supernatural beings were believed to attach themselves to age-old trees, boulders rocks, and, inhabit caves which became place of veneration where prayers were offered up and sacrifices made. Even today, in this Sof Omar cave system and catacombs there are so many signs of the persistence of such African traditional beliefs and practices. Ever since the coming of the saintly Sheik Sof Omar Ahmed and through its long period of existence the religion Islam is now indigenized into this African traditional belief. For this part of Africa Islam has now become a culture in a unique way and not only a religion.

The approach to the caves is made through the tiny village of Sof Omar, perched on the cliffs above the Weib River. To the rear of the village is a dark, gaping crevice down which a precipitous narrow footpath winds to the floor of the first cave. The total length of the Sof Omar cave system is about 16km and all along the cave system there are more than 40 main entrances and exits. Throughout the cave system, frequent crossings at the Weib River are necessary. It is possible to explore the caves on foot, torches and other lighting are needed, since it is a very long and dark journey that can be accomplished with a help of map indicating the different ground references of the underground cave system.

In this realm of dry, cool caves nature has worked a marvel of architecture — soaring pillars of stone twenty metres (66 feet) high, flying buttresses, fluted arch ways, and tall airy vaults. Finally the river itself is reached, a sunless sea flowing through a deep gorge. Standing on a natural balcony of the last cavern near the roof of the outlet, one has a spectacular view of the river rushing along its course below.

The large central hall of Sof Omar, the 'Chamber of Columns' — so named after the colossal limestone pillars that are a dominant feature — is one of the highest of the cave system. At another part of the net work there is a small gap in the rock through which the river passes, about two-and-a- half meters (eight feet) wide, where a bridge can be made with driftwood to go across. The most direct route through the caves passes these and many other remarkable sights, and takes about three-and-a-half hours at good walking pace.

Inside the caves, the only living creatures are bats (which do not usually give trouble, if they are not deliberately disturbed), fish, and crustaceans. Crocodiles are to found in the river nearby but, fortunately seem to shun the caves themselves.

Holqa Sof Omar is a well preserved sacred place of worship, which has helped the preservation of the indigenous forest environment of the area and still serving as a natural habitat of the wildlife resources. The countryside around abounds with wildlife dik-dik and kudu, serval cat, rock hyrax, giant tortoises, snakes, and lizards as well as more than hundred species of birds.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Sof Omar Cave System features a spectacular limestone karst landscape with its underground river, irregular lime stone sinks, cave passages and caverns. It represents exceptional geological processes, krastic limestone landforms, and physiographic features that would qualify the site to be considered as a place of the most significant geological and geomorphological formations. The concentration of caves and karstic limestone land formations with its geomorphic and structural characteristics is an outstanding geological feature which allows a greater understanding of the Earth's history.

The caves are profoundly important for their classic features of underground geomorphology, demonstrating an evolutionary history of millions of years. Caves and krasts are important as store houses of past climates, vegetation, fauna and human cultures, and the same is true for Sof Omar cave system. Sof Omar cave system is estimated to have been created between 23 and 5.3 Million of years B.P., in the Miocene geological period.

The outstanding universal natural heritage values of Sof Omar Cave System can precisely be stated in terms of the following two basic perspectives:

- Sof Omar cave system is an outstanding example to represent the major stage in the earth's evolutionary history.

- Sof Omar cave system contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and natural aesthetic significance.

The karst features of the cave system, the spectacular limestone pinnacles, the cave passages and the underground stream as a singular outstanding cultural landscape demonstrate the incomparable geological and natural phenomenon it is endowed with. This reveals the story of the cave systems formation over hundreds of millions of years, and helps unlock the story of the earth's history.

As a sacred place of worship Sof Omar cave system is believed to be the Caves of Mystery where the ancestral cult of Sheik Sof Omar Ahmad, his families and descendants is observed and practiced annually. Each and every cave structures are assigned and designated to diverse ritual practices. Annual festive events with comprehensive Islamic religious processions and traditional beliefs and practices are conducted in the cave shrines and mosques of this underground karstic limestone caverns. Thus this site has exceptional cultural significance to the spiritual life of the Islamic community making pilgrims visit this site of outstanding cultural values as specified under the above criteria (iii), (v) and (vi). These ancestral cult beliefs and practices have revived for nearly 1000 years and are still a living culture for the Islamic community of this part of the region.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Sof Omar Cave system and associated powerful spiritual meanings with outstanding cultural and natural values have a high degree of authenticity and integrity. The integrity of the cave system has been sustained through cult practices by the spiritual guardians of this sacred cave system with life time dedication; while performing their religious duty and providing ecclesiastical services to the community. The impacts are predominantly the result of the activities of these spiritual guardians although tourism also has the potential to uphold the values.

The cave system, and the powerful meaning and mystery associated to this site as a holy place, are exceptional testimony to the cultural tradition which is still living and provide a significant chapter in the story of human occupation of cave shelters for religious purposes. Thus one can consider this combined feature of the cave system with the ritual practices to be exceptionally beautiful and inspirational.

The authenticity lies in the formation of the caverns, cave passages with underground stream and spectacular karstic landform which are dramatically sculptured structures, unrivalled in their scale, extent, grandeur with diversity of forms that can rarely be found anywhere in the world. Thus there is no doubt that Sof Omar Cave system is extremely impressive, which can be authenticated by anybody who managed to go through the 16 km cave passage following the underground stream as the natural road map to the outlet.

Comparison with other similar properties

Caverns like Sof Omar Cave System and Karst landforms are more commonly associated with limestone landscapes and erosion processes of high energy streams.

Thus the majority of caverns and karst landforms already inscribed on the World Heritage List are found in limestone landscapes. There are World Heritage Sites inscribed specifically for their Cave system and Karst land forms which we can compare to this Sof Omar cave system that we are applying for nomination. Some of the most important world heritage sites for comparison are stated as follows.

World Heritage Sites of caverns in limestone karst formations




Under Old Criteria


Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park



N (iii), (iv)


Gunung Mulu National Park       



N (I ),(ii),(iii),(iv)


Carlsbad Caverns National Park



N (i), (iii)


Mammoth Cave National Park  



N (i), (iii), (iv)


Skocjan Caves  



N (ii), (iii)