Fewer than 200 Latter-day Saints have so far had the chance to visit the site. A fortunate few will be added to that number in Meridian‘s Lehi‘s Trail tour to be led by Scot and Maurine Proctor this October. For tour details click here. Come join us!
Regular Meridian readers will be aware that most LDS researchers have long regarded the inlet of Khor Kharfot in southern Oman as the most plausible location matching Nephi‘s very detailed description (1 Nephi 17:5-16, 18:1-8) of “Bountiful,” the place of abundance where he built his ship. Despite this, as of early 2013 most of the basic scientific research into the geology, fauna, paleo and modern flora and archaeology of the place remains to be done.
Over several decades of exploration and research at the site, I have benefited from the generous assistance of many non-LDS scholars. Indeed, most of the data we have about the place has come from non-LDS researchers. For example, the only proper archaeological appraisal of Khor Kharfot ever made was by an Italian archaeologist back in 1992.
The site is now threatened by development and is already under stress. Most of the abundant water run-off from the surrounding mountains has been diverted to local villages and no longer reaches the inlet. The large trees there are dying and the vegetation is visibly changing.
In the hope that additional non-LDS scholars will recognize that Kharfot deserves attention for reasons other than what may have happened there 2600 years ago – and become involved in teasing out the parameters of the place and placing it on record – I have published a paper titled “Arabia‘s Hidden Valley: A Unique Habitat in Dhofar Captures Arabia‘s Past.”
The paper has just appeared (in print and online) in English and Arabic from one of the organizations encouraging the awareness and conservation of wildlife in the Middle East, the Dubai-based Wildlife Middle East News (www.WMENews.com). Because this article was designed for a non-LDS audience, I do not specifically mention all the ways that it matches Nephi’s description, but in the photos and perspectives below, you will see why scholars look to this spot as Nephi’s place of building the ship (including sufficient large trees for lumber, food to support a population, water, signs of former habitation, iron desposits etc.). It also makes the looming threats facing it of all the more concern.
A secluded valley on the southern coast of Dhofar in Oman is a unique microcosm of a distant era in Arabia’s past. It is the last vestige in Oman of the subtropical deciduous forests that flourished in parts of Arabia anciently. Fed by monsoonal run-off from the Qamar mountains that have isolated it, Khor Kharfot protects an extensive range of fauna and flora. Some extant species, such as the Arabian Leopard, are critically-endangered. However, some other species are known of only anecdotally as no thorough survey in any field has yet been made. The opportunity to do so, and to perhaps implement protective strategies, is fast vanishing as this once pristine site is now under severe environmental stress.
A Hidden Paradise
After sailing along the eastern coast of Arabia on the survey ship Palinuris in 1824, the British geographer Andrew Crichton was unimpressed, writing that the coast was “a wall of naked rocks as dismal and barren as can well be conceived” (FOSTER 1844). These words were thought accurate enough as a general description of the eastern Arabian coastline to be published quite recently (PHILLIPS 1966).
Other travelers, before and long after Crichton, left no mention of exceptions to this uninviting perception. It included the Qamar coast, a twenty mile stretch of abrupt limestone mountains pushed up eons ago when Arabia separated from the African continent. These mountains constitute the westernmost coast of the Sultanate of Oman.
What lay hidden from the view of all those passing ships still surprises the visitor today, for reaching the sea in the midst of those mountains is a valley almost defiantly lush with greenery, Khor Kharfot. Its name encapsulates its two main features: the Arabic Khor refers to a sea inlet; while Kharfot is an expression in the pre-Arabic Mahri tongue, meaning that “abundance“ has arrived following the annual monsoon rains.
A Unique Environment
It is small wonder that the outside world was slow to recognize that such an anomaly was preserved on the Arabian coast; after all, even people in the region were scarcely aware of it until recent decades. Without road access and hemmed in by forbidding terrain, Kharfot is unpopulated and has had no inhabitants in living memory. The ocean once extended inland perhaps a kilometer here, creating a sheltered inlet. Now, in common with the other inlets in southern Oman, a sandbar stretches across the mouth of the bay, closing it from the sea. At Kharfot, the inlet has been replaced by an extensive freshwater lagoon.
Kharfot marks the end of a major wadi leading from the interior desert, Wadi Sayq (“River Valley“) and the much shorter (12 km) Wadi Kharfot (EL-BAZ 2004), but this fact is hidden by the oblique angle at which the two wadis arrive at the coast. The high beach obscures the lagoon and most of the vegetation and trees from passing ships. In fact, viewed from the sea, Kharfot appears rather unremarkable.
Each May to September the Indian Ocean monsoon rains touch land only in southern Oman, bringing constant rain and mist. Forced higher by the mountains, the clouds release their moisture quickly along a narrow band of coast, leaving the interior deserts dry. Until recent years substantial water arrived at Kharfot through the sinuous Wadi Sayq, the main drainage of the Qamar ranges, as it descends some 38 km from the interior plateau. The water reaching the inlet accumulates in the lagoon, but it also feeds two large permanent springs.
Biodiversity at Kharfot
The abundant water results in an unusual micro-environment (JOURNAL OF OMAN STUDIES 1977, 1980). A spectrum of luxuriant vegetation lining the sides of the bay includes large trees, notably Tamarind (Tamarindus indica), Sycamore Fig (Ficus sycamorus) and various Acacia species. On the higher terrain inland, Frankincense and Myrrh trees are a living reminder that Arabia‘s greatest commercial activity before the discovery of oil, incense production, began in this area.
Both gums are still harvested by local families and sold locally. In addition to figs, wild passion-fruit and other edible species on offer, clusters of date palms stand close to the beach. Some 800 other plant species are believed to grow in the region, pollinated by wild honey-bees, providing an impressive range of possible resources.
Wildlife here, as any visitor can attest, is prolific. Whale, dolphin and whale-shark species thrive in the almost-untapped waters and the area‘s beaches have recently been declared a protected area for two turtle species known to nest there. Ashore, indications of other rare animals such as the hyena and wolf have often been noted by local villagers.
The Rock Hyrax and a variety of porcupine, fox, snakes and lizards are readily seen. Most significantly, the numerous caves and gullies are home to a handful of the Arabian Leopard (Panthera pardus nimr), a sub-species now listed as Critically Endangered (SPALTON et al. 2006). It is estimated that about 50 leopards are left in all of Dhofar.
Abundant bird-life, both resident and migrating species, has attracted a trickle of ornithologists; at least one species never seen before in Arabia, the brilliantly coloured Malachite Kingfisher (Alcedo cristata), was first recorded at Kharfot in September 2000 (BIRDS OMAN 2000).
Occasional Human Presence
Visitors today also see the more familiar shapes of cattle and camels, brought down from the mountain villages above to graze. Herders and local fishermen, who occasionally visit for easy catches of fish, lobster and sardine in the untapped waters of the bay, are normally the only human presence in this pristine ecosystem.
There are abundant signs, however, that people have lived here intermittently. Among the numerous ruins overlooking the bay, Paolo Costa of the University of Bologna, one of the few archaeologists to have visited the site, has traced at least four periods of settlement. They show waves of human activity dating from the distant Neolithic, thousands of years ago, to after the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. The outline of a tiny mosque sits, oriented toward Mecca, not far from older, more enigmatic structures (COSTA 1994). To better understand these other ruins more research will be necessary, but their presence assures us that Kharfot‘s marine and land-based resources can support a human population.
Dr Costa points out that despite its many attractive features, people seem to have not remained long at Kharfot because of the difficulty in accessing it, other than entering via the long Wadi Sayq from the desert, or perhaps by sea. Then too, the four months of rain and high winds each year would discourage long-term settlement. A leading authority on the ancient incense trade, Nigel Groom of London, has suggested that the bay should be considered a possibility for the site of “Moscha,“ an important trading port spoken of in early classical writings (GROOM 1995). For the time being Groom‘s idea remains speculative, but certainly all the features needed for a small port exist here, perhaps one where ships collected incense and re-supplied with fresh water, fruit, honey and meat.
21st Century Challenges
Kharfot‘s unique concentration of fauna and flora led to it being designated in 1987 as a “Site of Special Value“ by the government of Oman‘s Planning Committee for Development and Environment in the Southern Region, in 1990 becoming a “Nature Reserve“ within the larger Jabal al-Qamar Scenic Reserve.
This action gave it formal protected status. On November 4th, 1991 Kharfot was chosen for inspection by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, along with Omani officials, in his role of International President of the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Such steps and local recognition of the turtle nesting on its beaches have been important in protecting the bay.
But this most fertile of Arabian environments remains poorly documented. Truly comprehensive biological surveys of many parts of Oman, indeed much of the Arabian Peninsula, are still in the early stages. One assessment in 2000 still largely reflects the situation in 2012 (VICTOR 2000); another recent study noted that most valley forest sites in southwest Arabia had not been surveyed for over 15 years (HALL et al. 2009).
However, efforts are currently underway across a variety of disciplines to more completely survey Arabia‘s biodiversity (see, for example, HALL & MILLER 2011). Their geographical isolation has ensured that the Qamar ranges and the adjoining Mahra province in Yemen, still remain possibly the least understood parts of Arabia.
Over just the past decade, however, the growing awareness of southern Dhofar‘s attractions has seen a spurt of development. Local people have begun seeing concrete benefits from the increased attention. A magnificent new road along the coast now links the area with Yemen. Visiting geologists have found indications of iron deposits that may offer commercial possibilities. There is also growing interest from domestic, regional and specialized international tourist operators. Like other countries in the region, Oman is keen to develop responsible cultural and adventure-based tourism against the day when oil reserves dwindle.
Places that preserve the past naturally, as Kharfot does, will be of particular interest to conservation-minded visitors wanting to see a unique place, one at odds with the popular stereotypes of Arabia.
As so often happens, however, the impact of development upon a fragile environment is already evident. Most damaging to Kharfot‘s environs is a water-pumping station in Wadi Sayq that supplies the villages in the surrounding mountain. The diversion of thousands of litres of water every hour, around the clock, from reaching Kharfot is having a serious impact, one most evident in the steady contraction of the freshwater lagoon in the centre of the inlet. In just a short time we can expect to see the impact on the flora, especially the larger trees species, and then, inevitably, upon the fauna of an ecosystem that is still poorly understood.
With increased safeguards in place we can hope that Kharfot‘s relic fauna and flora populations may still be able to reverse their decline. For a little longer this impressively fertile valley is a reminder that there are still hidden corners of this world that capture the distant past.
BIRDS OMAN (2000): Entry # 831A. – . Accessed 5 April, 2012.
COSTA, P. M. (1994): Khawr Kharfut, Dhofar: A preliminary assessment of the archaeological remains. Arabian Seminar Proceedings. London: The Society for Arabian Studies: 27-33.
EL-BAZ, F. (Ed), (2004): Wadis of Oman: Satellite Image Atlas. Center for Remote Sensing on behalf of the Office of the Advisor to HM The Sultan for Cultural Affairs, Muscat, Government of Oman: 149-150.
FOSTER, C. (1844): The Historical Geography of Arabia. London, Duncan & Malcolm: 2: 82, 85, 185, 194.
GROOM, N. St. J. (1995): The Periplus, Pliny and Arabia. Arabian archaeology and epigraphy, 6: 184-185.
HALL, M; P. SCHOLTE, A. W. AL-KHULAIDI, A. G. MILLER, A. H. AL-QADASI, A. AL-FARHAN & T. M. AL-ABBASI. (2009): Arabia‘s Last Forests Under Threat 11: Remaining fragments of unique valley forest in south west Arabia. Edinburgh Journal of Botany, 66: 263-281.
HALL, M. & A. MILLER (2011): Strategic requirements for plant conservation in the Arabian Peninsula. Zoology in the Middle East, Biodiversity Conservation in the Arabian Peninsula, Supplementum 3: 169-182.
JOURNAL OF OMAN STUDIES (1977, 1980): The scientific results of the Oman flora and fauna survey (Dhofar). JOS Special Reports, Muscat.
PHILLIPS, W. (1966): Unknown Oman. New York, David McKay Co: 168.
SPALTON, J; H. HIKMANI, D. WILLIS & A. SAID (2006): Critically Endangered Arabian Leopards Panthera pardus nimr persist in the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, Oman. Oryx 40: 287-294.
VICTOR, R. (2000): Biodiversity Conservation in Oman: Current Status and Future Options. Department of Biology, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat. Accessed 3 April, 2012.