I have a special affection for the town of Ibra, in Al Sharqiyah North Governorate, as it was my first posting in Oman. I admit it came as a shock to stand on the front steps of my house on the day of my arrival and survey the moonscape of dark jagged mountains all around me. What have I gotten myself into? I thought. Happily, though, that any forlorn feeling I had vanished a couple of days later when I entered the secondary school where I was to teach and was warmly welcomed by teachers and students alike.
It was during my first weekend in Ibra that a colleague, whom I only remember by his first name of Nassir, invited me to his home. After lunch, he took me for a stroll through a nearby village that mostly comprised the wrecks of stone mansion houses. Even then, more than twenty-eight years ago, those majestic dwellings were in a thoroughly ruinous condition, and yet even in their advanced state of dereliction it was possible to see architectonic detailing — polylobate archways, decorative and epigraphic plasterwork, ornately carved doors with inscriptions and metal emblazons — that hinted at their former opulence.
Even way back then when I knew virtually nothing of the history of Oman, it struck me that these and several other enormous stone edifices I’d seen elsewhere in the Ibra oasis were an anomaly, completely different from the humble mub-brick dwellings that were then still ubiquitous in Ibra. This has surely been the impression of many, if not most visitors to Ibra over the centuries. Here, for example, are the observations of one noted traveller who passed through Ibra in 1835:
“There are still some handsome houses at Ibra; but the style of building is quite peculiar to this part of Arabia. To avoid the dame, and catch an occasional beam of the sun above the trees, they are usually very lofty. A parapet encircling the upper part is turreted; and on some of the largest houses guns are mounted. The windows and doors have the Saracenic arch, and every part of the building is profusely decorated with ornaments of stucco in bas relief, some in very good taste. The doors are also cased in brass, and have rings and other massive ornaments in the same metal.” (J R Wellsted, Travels in Arabia, Vol. II, 1838: pp. 99-100)
So when and how did these great houses come to be built in the fertile oasis of Ibra?
While Nassir was showing me around Al Minzfah all those years ago, he drew my attention to a stucco inscription on the wall of one of the majestic ruins and pointed to a date. I knew nothing of the Hijra calendar at that time and so it didn’t register. That inscription is now badly weathered and the date is no longer visible, but I have since found out that it said 1128 AH, which corresponds to 1715-16 CE. From the same research, I learned that another of the great edifices at Al Minzfah once had an inscription with the slightly earlier date of 1123 AH/1711-12 CE.
Both of these dates fall within the brief rule of Imam Sultan bin Said II Al Ya’arubi (ruled 1711-1718 CE), whose magnificent seat of power and last resting place, Al Hazm Fort near Al Rustaq, is one of the finest Ya’arubi architectural achievements. However, I would argue that it to the legacy of his father, Imam Saif bin Sultan (ruled 1692-1711 CE), popularly known as Amir al Bahr, ‘Lord of the Seas’, that we should look to explain the magnificent stone edifices in Al Minzfah and elsewhere in the Ibra oasis.
Like his father before him, Imam Sultan bin Saif (ruled 1648-1679), Imam Saif bin Sultan Al Ya’arubi waged relentless war on the Portuguese settlements of the Indian Ocean and it was during his reign that the European interlopers were finally evicted from their strongholds of Mombasa, Pemba and Kilwa on the East African coast. The tribal allies of the Ya’aruba, some of them from the Ibra area, took control of these important trading ports and some of their newfound wealth found its way back to family members in Oman. It was this inward investment from East Africa that funded the building of the great houses in the Ibra area. As the style of architecture we can still see in the remnants of these building was not indigenous to Oman, it is likely that architects and craftsmen were also imported.
The vast mansions of Ibra were already derelict by the beginning of Oman’s modern renaissance. In fact, as our 19th century visitor to Oman noted, even in the 1830s many were “now greatly fallen to decay.” How should this have been so when the apogee of Omani power on the East African coast still lay in the future?
The answer probably lies in the fact that the great families of the Ibra area who held sway on the East African coast under the Ya’aruba Imams lost some of their power with the ascendency of the Al Bu Said Dynasty and later, with the shift of Omani power to Zanzibar. In these reduced circumstances, the upkeep of their great family heirlooms in Al Minzfah probably became too much of a financial burden and so they were let slide into dereliction.
The dissolution of these great houses at Al Minzfah was not the end of stone architecture on a grand scale in the northern Sharqiyah. New tribal alliances and vast new investment flowing into the area from Zanzibar in the latter half of the 19th century prompted another wave of large-scale building projects to the south of Ibra, in Al Mudhayrib and Al Kamil. These, though, will have to be the subject of a future article.