“Without water, neither here nor there”: how the ancient aflaj irrigation system became the center of life in Oman

“Water wears away stone” – this proverb succinctly describes what is happening in the mountains of Oman, Jebel Akhdar

More than one and a half thousand years ago locals built the aflaj irrigation system by hand, which still irrigates the farms. Farming is the only occupation of the inhabitants of the mountain villages, and aflaj is the only running water.

«Without water — neither here nor there»: how the ancient aflaj irrigation system became the center of life in Oman

The houses of the Al-Akr settlement in the Omani mountains of Jebel Akhdar were built 500 years ago from stones and fastened with “cement” of grass and mud. They cracked, crumbled, went into the ground, overgrown with weeds. No one has lived in a village resembling a dried-up riverbed for a long time.

Suddenly, in a dilapidated doorway, behind which there is a gaping void, an ancient old man grows up. He is dressed in a long gray-brown dishdash shirt and a flowery round kummu cap. It seems as if grandfather was formed directly from stones and flowers.

“This is Salim al-Atubi,” explains my guide, Omani Maher al-Riyami, “he watches over the falaj, the canals of the aflaj irrigation system (in Arabic, “aflaj” is the plural of “falaj.”  – Note “Around the World”). The old man was left alone in the village. When the water ran out here, everyone moved to a new settlement, Saykh-Kutnakh. We call it the New City. Of the 55 mountain villages, 20 are abandoned. And Salim couldn't leave the farm. And manages to collect water for irrigation.

The name of the village, Al-Aqr, means “gardeners” in Arabic. Everywhere -to the left and to the right, from the peaks in folds, as on the dishdash of the old man al-Atubi, -there are terraces carved into the rocks with silvery threads-channels through which water passes. It boggles my mind how people managed to manually build such a perfect system.

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Historians have not agreed on exactly when the aflaj irrigation system appeared. According to one version, the first falaji were laid by the inhabitants of Persia (present-day Iran) about five thousand years ago. And in Oman, aflaj allegedly appeared thanks to the prophet Suleiman ibn Davud (aka King Solomon).

According to legend, Suleiman traveled to Jerusalem via Jebel Akhdar and stopped at a Bedouin settlement. Upon learning that the locals did not have running water, the prophet called the jinn and ordered them to build a thousand canals a day during the entire time that he would spend visiting the Bedouins. Ten days later, 10 thousand falaj appeared in Oman.

Later, the Omanis learned how to build canals without the help of jinn. Now there are about four thousand falajs in the sultanate, of which three thousand are active. Five falajas are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List: Al-Khatmin, Al-Malki, Daris, Al-Mayassar and Al-Jila.

Locals say that there are three types of falaj in the mountains of Oman. The first is daudi: the water in them comes from underground streams. More than 23 percent of the falaj in this type of country. They are common in the Nizwa region, where there is a lot of groundwater. The second type is ghaili, channels filled with rain. This is the main type of falaj, almost half of them in the sultanate. The rest belong to the third type – aini: water will fall into the channels from mountain springs and waterfalls. By the way, the word “ayn”, which means “source” in Arabic, is often found in toponyms. Here is the village that we visited with Maher, called Al Ain.

– All three types of falaj are similar. High in the mountains, a well or pool is hollowed out, which is flooded from the ground, from rain or from a mountain spring. From this reservoir, a main canal is cut leading to the village. It happens that several villages draw water from one well, says Maher.

He draws a diagram of the falaj. The main canal branches into medium ones, those into small ones that wash the terraces (platforms carved in the mountains for gardens and kitchen gardens), deliver water to houses and mosques. The junctions of the channels are blocked by “gateways” – stones or trees.

— For drinking water, we lay a separate channel with filters every 10 meters. Just like that,  – says Maher.

I step on the edge of the channel, lined with stone slabs, about a meter deep. It encircles the village of Al Ain. The filter is a rectangular recess with a spiral canal made of small stones. Water enters this tubule, seeps through the sand and pebbles, and already purified, it goes on.

In good times, the falaji of Jebel Akhdar irrigated 26.5 thousand hectares of plantations. The name Jebel Akhdar itself means “green mountains” in Arabic. Now there is less and less greenery, and the canals are dying of thirst.

– There has been practically no rain since 2008, – my guide laments. – And once here, in Al Ain, there was such a a stormy waterfall that he carved in the mountains of a cave 20 meters deep. These caves once saved the Imam,” says Maher.

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In the 1950s, a war raged in Jebel Akhdar between Sultan Said bin Teymur and Imam Ghalib bin Ali al-Hinai. The ruler of the Sultanate of Muscat, with the support of the British government, claimed to drill wells in the hinterland of Oman, in the possessions of the imam. The head of the imamate for several years tried to block the Sultan's access to the mountains. But in 1959, two British squadrons attacked the slopes of Jebel Akhdar and killed the rebels.

The survivors fled and, together with Galib, hid in the caves behind the waterfall. The soldiers of the Sultan were frightened by the turbulent flow of water and left the search for the fugitives. The imam later fled to Saudi Arabia. And in 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the son of Said bin Teymur, came to power in Oman and proclaimed Imam Ghalib a national hero. In memory of the struggle for the mountains and the falaj of the “true Ibadi Muslims”, as they are called here, the Omanis set up a religious library in one of the caves of Al Ain: they put old editions of the Koran here.

«Without water — and neither here nor there»: like an ancient the aflaj irrigation system has become the center of life in Oman

Now, in a cave behind a thinned waterfall, the Koran is kept in a green cover, which seems brighter than the green of the mountains. And the pomegranate trees along the canals, once lush and fresh, on the contrary, turned black, withered, as if all their juice had boiled away under the hot sun.

 – In the old days, with an abundance of water, pomegranates grew the size of my head. Only one quarter of the fetus weighed a kilo! – recalls Maher.

We stand in front of the terraces of Al Ain. The landscape, lined with canals, between which trees are evenly planted, resembles a cut of a giant pomegranate. By the way, the primary meaning of the word “falaj”  is “evenly distribute limited resources.”

 — Water has always been distributed with the help of heavenly bodies. This was done by the astronomer we call wakel. In some villages, including mine, the “grandfather” method is still used, although clocks and calendars are everywhere. It's just that people are used to it. Everything modern takes a long time and is difficult to take root in the mountains, – says the guide.

From time immemorial, Omanis have been guided by the sundial: next to the falaja well, they stick a two-meter pole between the stones, and around it they lay out a dial made of small multi-colored pebbles. Between them – strictly for half an hour. This interval is called athar. Each farmer knows his athar, and when the shadow of the pole falls on the corresponding stone, he goes to fetch water. Some people get it at night. Then you have to watch the stars.

Thus, each villager is given a maximum of 30 minutes to collect water for various needs and water the plants. At the allotted time, the Oman opens the lock of the main canal (moves a stone), blocks access to neighboring areas with other stones, and water flows to it.

While Maher is explaining this entire celestial system to me on his fingers, a man emerges from around the bend—suddenly and noiselessly, like a shadow from a sundial—a man appears. He jumps briskly along the edge of the canal, ignoring the cliff on the right. Maher recognizes Suleiman Azan al-Zakuani from the village of Al-Kashar. In Jebel Akhdar, almost everyone knows each other. Aflaj draws closer. Suleiman walks through Al-Ain along a mountain path to his village to water roses.

– I now live in the New City, because there is little water in Al-Kashar, but in my village I have a rose plantation and my own production of rose water . Now my athar is approaching. I hope there will be a harvest in April, – says Suleiman.

– And how do you make rose water? – I ask him.

Just like our fathers and grandfathers did. Now some of the neighbors take the petals to modern plants, but this is wrong. Real rose water can only be obtained with your own hands. I put the petals in a vessel, it is called al-burma. I fill it with falaj water. Then I make a fire in the oven – al-duh-zhane. We build stoves out of mud. I put a copper pan on the fire, into it & nbsp; – al-burma. You need to boil the petals for four hours. Water boils and flows into the pan, I report new petals. When the decoction is ready, I let it brew for 30 days, – explains Suleiman. – You need two kilograms of petals to make a liter of rose water. There is water in the falajas – there will be roses and rose water.

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However, there is no need to wait for the harvest of roses this year (2021. Note Vokrugsveta.ru).

– Roses are watered for at least 20 minutes. And now, due to water shortages, wakels are forced to reduce atharas: each farmer is given only 10 minutes,” Maher sighs, pouring thick strong coffee with cardamom and drops of rose water from a thermos.

Many farmers switch to olive oil production. The government of Oman bought 4,500 trees for them in Spain, Greece, and Italy. Olives do not require much moisture. It is enough to water them two to three times a week in summer and once in winter. In 2019, for example, they managed to harvest 60 tons of olives and squeeze out more than eight thousand liters of oil. In addition, the Omani authorities are going to build a modern pipeline to the mountains from the Persian Gulf. Desalinated water will flow through these pipes.

Some highlanders, tired of “pouring from empty to empty”, leave their villages, move to the New City. They retrain as programmers, teachers, oil workers. The Sultan allocates to the settlers in the city a free piece of land – 600 square meters.

“Aflaj unites us, and without it, with these modern technologies, we will be divided,” Maher believes.

Sunset spills over the mountains with pomegranate juice. We reached the mountainous village where my guide was born. It is called Ash-Shiraija – “little waterfall”. There really is a waterfall that comes to life only during the rainy season. In this settlement, the houses are well-groomed, washed, juicy yellow, beige, pink, orange, with blue platbands on the windows and tiled columns. These houses are like well-groomed roses for a hardworking farmer. Sacks of goat manure are neatly stacked at the door to fertilize the plantations. It is hard to believe that Ash-Shiraija is uninhabited.

“The residents of Ash-Shiraija are ready to return at any moment as soon as the falajs fill with water, so they maintain order here,” Maher says. “They come here every Friday, visit the mosque, then gather at one of the neighbors' house, eat all together from one plate, as the prophet Muhammad ordered. And they pray to Allah to send rain and fill the aflaj. Insha Allah, it will be so.


Area of ​​Oman 309,500 km² (70th largest in the world)
Population 4 520 000 people (125th place)

Attractions: Nizwa fort of the 17th century; the Friday Goat Market (souk) in Nizwa, where vendors lead goats around; Falaj Daris (UNESCO World Heritage Site); The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and the Royal Opera House in Muscat.
Traditional dishes: makbus – spiced rice boiled in meat broth; shuva – meat baked in a pit; sahana is a thick wheat soup with dates, molasses and milk.
Traditional drinks: coffee with cardamom and rose water; pomegranate juice.
Souvenirs: kumm cap, traditional khanjar dagger, incense.

DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Muscat — 3960 km (from 5 ,5 hours in flight)
TIME ahead of Moscow by an hour
VISA issued through the website of the Oman Police
CURRENCY Omani rial (1 OMR ≈ 2.6 USD)


Material published in Vokrug Light” No. 3, April 2021, partially updated in June 2023

Katerina Mironova

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