The World Heritage Sites of Oman

unesco world heritage sites oman

Oman is a country with a wealth of history stretching back to antiquity. It is not surprising that a number of its buildings, ruins, and forts have been designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Visitors to the Sultanate of Oman can go to each of these monuments and experience the history of the nation at the southeast of the Arabian peninsula.

The page lists Oman’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and provides information about their importance and how to visit them with an Oman tourist visa.

What Are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Oman?

Oman is home to 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, located in different parts of the country. These sites are:

Each of these locations has a great significance both in terms of the history of Oman and in the progress and achievements of mankind.


The Ancient City of Qalhat

ancient city qalhat

Located around 20 km to the north of the city of Sur, the Ancient City of Qalhat is the most recent addition to Oman’s list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, having been added as recently as 2018.

The impressive mausoleum of Bibi Maryam is the main focus of the site and the last structure that is largely intact. The site covers over 60 acres (240,000 m²) and was once protected by fortified walls.

For centuries, Qalhat was an important trading city on the Indian Ocean—artifacts from locations as distant as China and Persia have been unearthed by archaeologists. It was recognized as the second city of the Kingdom of Ormus.

Marco Polo visited the city in the 13th century. In the 1500s, the focus of trade shifted to Muscat and the Qalhat was captured by the Portuguese, speeding up its decline and eventual collapse.


Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman

aflaj irrigation system

The Aflaj Irrigation Systems are ancient water channels that date from around 500 AD. It is believed that the design of these works is far older, representing a type of irrigation system developed as long as 5000 years ago.

The systems use gravity to bring water from underground sources and springs to settlements for both agriculture and home use, dividing the water among the inhabitants.

A number of watchtowers were constructed to guard the systems and some still stand. Mosques and other buildings also form part of the complexes.

Five of Oman’s oldest Aflaj Irrigation Systems were made World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2006. These are found in the regions of Dakhiliyah, Sharqiyah, and Batinah. However, there are many more throughout the country and many are still in use for both agriculture and domestic water in some regions of Oman.


Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn

archaeological sites bat

The 3 archaeological sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn, all located close together, represent evidence of civilization in Oman from the 3rd Millennium BC. It is one of the most complete sets of settlements from this period found anywhere in the world.

These sites are a group of necropolises connected to an ancient town or village at Bat.

The core site at Bat includes over 100 tombs found in different clusters and the remains of circular buildings that are around 20 m (66 feet) in diameter.

Al-Khutm, 2 km (1.2 miles) west of Bat, is marked by a monumental stone tower that measures 20 m across in addition to various burial sites.

Al-Ayn is found further away, 22 km (14 miles) southeast of Bat. It is regarded as being in the best condition of the 3 necropolises, with a large number of “beehive tombs” from different periods.

The archaeological sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1988.


Bahla Fort

Bahla Fort is a large and impressive fortress in the town of Bahla in the foothills of Oman’s Jebel Akhdar highlands. It is thought to have been constructed by the Banu Nebhan tribe at some time between the 12th and 15th centuries.

Built from mud bricks laid on top of stone foundations, the fort is built around a hidden oasis watered by wells and underground channels.

Visitors can climb the watchtowers and main walls and explore the streets of mud-brick dwellings within the fort.

Tour guides may explain the legends and superstitions surrounding Bahla Fort. There are many tales of magic, sorcerors, and supernatural events happening in and around the stronghold.

Bahla Fort was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1987 and is the only fort in Oman to be listed.


Land of Frankincense

land frankincenseThe Land of Frankincense in southern Oman includes various sites that were integral parts of the transcontinental incense trade in the Middle Ages.

Groves of frankincense trees can be found in Wadi Dawkah and the remains of the oasis of Shisr/Wubar represents a vital station for water supplies for caravans of traders bringing frankincense from inland groves to the coastal ports.

The fortified port of Khor Rorī is designated as part of the Omani World Heritage Site, as the center of the ancient southern Arabian town of Sumhuram and the hub of trading posts at the height of the frankincense trade.

In 2000, these locations were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site named the “Frankincense Trail”. In 2005, it was renamed “Land of Frankincense”.


Why Are They Designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites?

Oman’s various World Heritage Sites were selected by UNESCO because of their importance to the history of the world.

The archaeological sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn date back thousands of years and form a well-preserved Bronze Age landscape, giving us insight into this moment around the start of recorded history.

The Ancient City of Qalhat, Bahla Fort, and the Land of Frankincense each provide a window into the past and mark important moments in the history of Oman and the cultures that were present.

Finally, the Aflaj Irrigation Systems represent a great feat of human engineering that has survived for hundreds of years.

Each World Heritage Site features ancient buildings or structures that have survived the ravages of time and are well worth visiting.


How to Visit Oman’s World Heritage Sites

Travelers who want to visit Oman’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites must first ensure that they have the necessary travel authorization to enter the country. Nationals of many countries are eligible to obtain an Oman visa online (eVisa).

Individuals must complete the simple Oman eVisa application form online, submitting some basic personal details and their passport information. This takes a matter of minutes and eliminates the need to go to an embassy or consulate to apply.

Check which nationalities are eligible by consulting the Oman eVisa requirements.

Once the traveler has their visa, they are free to enter the country and visit the World Heritage Sites from the closest major towns and cities:

  • The Ancient City of Qalhat – 20 km north of Sur; 170 km south of Muscat
  • Aflaj Irrigation Systems of Oman – various locations, e.g. Wilayat Al Rustaq and Barkat Al Mouz, Nizwa (both around 130 km from Muscat)
  • Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn – around 150 km from Muscat
  • Bahla Fort – Bahla (around 180 km from Muscat)
  • Land of Frankincense – 40 km east of Salalah

Public transport is widely unavailable in many parts of the country, so it is advisable to hire a car and drive around Oman. This has the advantage of giving travelers the flexibility to visit the World Heritage Sites and leave when they please.