12 days in the Sultanate - Oman field trip 2023


For 12 days, 24 students from RWTH Aachen University spent time in the Sultanate of Oman as part of their geoscientific studies. On the stops along the approximately 2000 km long excursion route, the focus was not only on the breathtaking geology of Oman, but also on the topics of urban development, natural hazards, environmental protection and the (pre-)Islamic archaeology of the Gulf state.

  Group photo infront of the "mother of all outcrops" Copyright: © T. Biallas

Leap into the modern age

The Sultanate of Oman is an interesting excursion destination in many respects. The rapid population development and modernization since the 1970s is expressed in a modern infrastructure and in the growing urbanized area of the capital Muscat, which the excursion participants tried to survey during the first two days. Over the decades, an elongated city emerged with a relatively low population density, but with a high volume of commuters between the older parts of the city and the newly built settlement areas on the outskirts of the capital.

The extraction of large quantities of oil and gas brought prosperity to the Omani population and catapulted the country into modernity. The car has become an indispensable means of transportation for most Omanis. This is mainly due to modern, multi-lane highways, a low level of public transportation and low fuel costs (about 50 cents per liter of gasoline). While fossil fuels are coming to an end, Oman is investing in new ports and innovative energy storage technologies, which also makes the country geopolitically interesting for other Asian and European countries.

Thriving trade and sophisticated irrigation systems

On the first day, the excursion participants learned what traditional Omani life was like before the oil boom at the National Museum, located in Old Muscat, the historic old city of Muscat. Fishing and trade in goods such as incense and spices shaped the country for centuries. Boat building also has a long tradition in Oman, with its extensive coastline on the Indian Ocean. In the port city of Sur, the students were able to visit a shipyard for the construction of traditional Omani wooden sailing ships, which were mainly used as trading and transport vessels. Finds from the coastal archaeological sites from pre-Islamic times, which the excursion participants visited during the first few days, also prove the flourishing trade between Asia and Europe. Together with other scientists, Gösta Hoffmann, who led the excursion and lived in Oman for several years, was also able to document the demise of pre-Islamic cities due to earthquakes or tsunamis.

In stark contrast to life on the coast is the traditional life in the mountain villages. Many mountain oases, mostly invisible from the valley, are crisscrossed by an elaborate irrigation system called falaj. Many such falaj canal systems are fed from an elevated spring. The water channels further lead to terraces where fruits such as mangos or pomegranates and various vegetables are grown. The microclimate in such a mountain oasis is also usually more pleasant than in the valley, despite the lack of wind. Mountain oasis villages are usually spared from flash floods and hostile attackers due to their topographical location, which makes traditional life in the mountains much easier.

  Yardangs: geomorphologic, tabular erosional form in unconsolidated sediments Copyright: © T. Biallas

Sabkhas and mangroves - two special ecosystems

The students made another stop in the mangrove ecosystem, where they were able to observe highly specialized plants and creatures such as crabs that have adapted perfectly to the tidal zone with high water temperatures. The fact that the mangroves represent a valuable ecosystem has also been recognized by the Omani government: Several successful mangrove reforestations were able to restore the mangrove forest in many places, which is also beneficial for the population by protecting them from tsunami waves. In a coastal sabkha, a shallow basin near the sea with no drainage and temporarily filled with water, the excursion group was able to vividly demonstrate the existence of mangroves by means of a hand-held borehole. Half a meter below the earth's surface, they encountered a fine-grained layer with a foul odor and irregular contact with the overlying layer. They were able to identify the foul odor as an indication of organic material, and the irregular layer contact was caused by the roots of the mangrove plants.

The Semail Ophiolite and the Fossil "Moho"

Oman is best known among geologists and geology students for its well-preserved ophiolite complex. These are rocks of the oceanic crust and mantle that came to the earth's surface through special tectonic processes ("obduction"). The Semail ophiolite, formed in the late Cretaceous, is exposed over an area of about 100,000 km2 and is an important source of raw materials because of its rich copper and chrome ore deposits. A unique geological feature is located in Wadi al Abyad, where the (fossiliferous) Mohorovicic discontinuity, or "Moho" for short, is exposed. It represents the transition zone between the outer mantle and the earth's crust, which manifests itself in the field as a contact between ultramafic rocks and gabbro. The pillow basalts belonging to the ophiolite sequence also left a lasting impression on the students.

  Camp in the middle of the Wahiba Sand Desert Copyright: © T. Biallas

Traveling during Ramadan

The excursion participants traveled to the various stops in seven off-road vehicles, sleeping in tents on beaches, on a farm and in the middle of the sandy desert. They were accompanied by two Omani cooks, who always prepared a vegan dish and a dish with meat, including grilled camel meat, in the evening. On the penultimate evening there was the Omani speciality "showa". For this, sheep meat was cooked for 24 hours in an earth oven, finally dug out together and eaten after sunset.

A special feature for the excursion participants was that the excursion took place during the fasting month of Ramadan. In the Muslim sultanate, eating, drinking and smoking in public is prohibited during the day out of respect for fasting Muslims. As a result, tourist sites were also less visited and there was less traffic on the roads until just before iftar, the breaking of the fast after sunset.

Plan for the tsunami

On the field trip, students not only learned a lot of technical information, but also acquired practical travel and survival tips. These included how to always park your car facing inland, because the first tsunami waves can reach the coast within 15 minutes of an earthquake. Also how to climb dunes by car, that one should rather not drive into a sabkha by car and that on rainy days one should avoid the mountain roads and wadis, i.e. the (mostly) waterless river valleys, because of mudslides and flash floods, the students had internalized at the latest after the 12 excursion days.

The annual Oman excursion is a unique feature for the geoscientific courses of RWTH Aachen University compared to other German universities. Next year, a group of RWTH students will again travel to Oman to experience the breathtaking geology of Oman. Registration for this will take place in early 2024 via RWTHonline.