Go for a wander around the dry, sandy, mountainous deserts of northern Oman and sooner or later you’ll stumble across a mysterious pile of carefully placed stones. These are the archaeological sites of al-Khutm, Bat, and al-Ayn. There are hundreds of these sites in northern Oman; all were built sometime between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago.
Al-Khutm and the monumental towers
Al-Khutm is one of seven monumental stone towers discovered in the region. Each is cylindrical in shape and measures 20 to 25 metres in diameter.
The structures are described as monumental stone towers but don’t let the name fool you; these are not gravity-defying architectural wonders. What you see in the picture above is what you get; a pile of carefully-placed rocks, no more than a couple of metres in height.
The nature of these towers is entirely cryptic.
What were they used for?
No one really knows.
Who was it that built the towers?
It might have been the Um al-Nar, who lived in northern Oman between 2700 BCE and 2200 BCE. Otherwise it’s possible it was the Hafit, who lived in the area between 2600 BCE to 3200 BCE.
No one knows for sure though; it might have been a third group that history has forgotten.
Too much time has passed to make sense of al-Khutm. Stand beside this tower and try to imagine it in its heyday and you get… nothing.
There is too little to go on.
The archaeological site of Bat
The outskirts of the modest, rural town of Bat are dotted with the remains of more than one hundred structures of the same era as al-Khutm. All have collapsed on themselves; most probably felt apart several millennia ago.
The archaeologists that first investigated these small, dome-shaped buildings called them tombs, but no human remains have been found inside the tombs to support the claim.
Again, too much time has passed to be sure of anything. The lack of human remains doesn’t mean these structures weren’t tombs.
Human beings decompose pretty quickly in the grand scheme of things.
There is a theory going around that these structures were in fact dwellings, rather than tombs. They wouldn’t have been particularly big dwellings, and they would have been cramped, and dark, and uncomfortable. But better that than to sleep unprotected in the desert.
There’s also the possibility that the archaeological ruins at Bat were neither tombs nor dwellings but another type of structure entirely.
Perhaps they were monumental towers, like al-Khutm, with a purpose that evades our reckoning.
The beehive tombs of al-Ayn (once again there is no evidence to support the claim that these structures are actually tombs) are just as cryptic and obscure as the archaeological sites of Bat and al-Khutm.
The allure of al-Ayn, however, is immediately clear.
The Um an-Nar people, or Hafit people, or whoever it was that built these structures, would have be drawn to al-Ayn for the same reason we are drawn to al-Ayn today.
Everyone that comes to this spot is struck by the same sense of wonder.
It’s the feeling of being in the sublime.
Those who climbed to the top of this narrow ridge-line 5,000 years ago would have paused here, and looked around themselves in awe.
They would have stared at the distant, shimmering skylines; they would have lost themselves to introspection, for a moment or two at least. They would have cast their minds back, pondering the centuries and millennia and eons that went before them, just as we do today.
Were these structures once used as tombs?
Short of a major new discovery it’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure.
But when you stand atop this ridge-line, and cast your gaze upon Jebel Misht, you forgive the archaeologists for assuming so. For surely there could be no better way to honour your dead loved ones than to bring them here?
It isn’t particularly easy to get to the al-Khutm, Bat, and al-Ayn archaeological sites, as they aren’t yet signposted, or all that widely known about. There are numerous tour companies that will happily transport you to the ruins, but the best way to reach the site is to hire a car, get a good road map, and make your own way there.
Al-Khutm is two kilometres west of Bat. Al-Ayn is 22 kilometres southeast of Bat.
Read more on the archaeological sites of Al-Khutm, Bat, and Al-Ayn in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.