T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR –
MUSCAT, FEB 4 –
After all, what is significant about tradition, particularly examined against the terrific lifestyle and cultural changes driven by technology, innovation and the slow yet confirmed evolution towards supra-consciousness?
The answer is, tradition ensures existential continuity across generations, and offers a sense of security and humility at the psychological level, apart from acting as a convenient backdrop for us to contrast the now with the past. It also constantly reminds us of humanity’s collective efforts at giving a meaningful definition to life.
Thus, we all agree: traditions matter. However, given that traditions lack the power to dodge changes at the social, cultural and political levels, isn’t it crucial that communities support efforts that preserve our bio links to the past?
Omanis are known to value their culture and heritage, even as they excel in riding the crest of the technological wave. Villages in the Sultanate such as Al Ashkharah, Mirbat, Al Hamra, Misfat al Jabreen, Wakan, Qannah, Balad Sayt and Nizwa — to name a few — are living proof of communities’ collective desire to hold on to their rich traditions and cherished living ethos. They beautifully portray how their ancestors found the perfect existential harmony with nature, never ever venturing into the territory of mindless consumerism.
However, Al Hamra, nearly 40 km northwest of Nizwa, is distinct; and here one can actually “experience” the thriving ancient ways of Omani life, at the thoughtfully designed museum Bait Al Safah, the Sultanate’s only living museum. It makes one wonder how an unsatiated affinity for technology and “the modern” can alienate one from their roots.
Here, local people (men, women and children) go about their traditional daily life, including hand-spinning and weaving, making herbal perfumes and cosmetics using oil manually extracted from the seeds of shua — a wildly grown indigenous herb, and baking the Omani bread and cooking genuine Omani dishes at the traditional kitchen. Omani women grind coffee beans in the traditional way filling the entire area with the intense smell of coffee, while wheat grains are ground using a traditional hand-mill, in front of delighted visitors.
It was Sulaiman al Abri, a lover of Omani traditions, who identified the potential of a living museum dedicated to traditions, and established the Bait al Safah Museum in 2005, at a four-century-old two-storied adobe house. Today it attracts more than 100 visitors a day, and is ranked as a top destination by Lonely Planet and international travel websites.
Adding to the eerie charm of age-old traditions are the first-of-its-kind horse-drawn carriages that take the museum visitors on a tour of the village. The museum also has a rich collection of traditional household items, pottery, silver antiquities and handicrafts made of wood and palm leaves. One also gets to appreciate the traditional Omani sartorial legacy, and even try them as well.
The finely restored traditional house has a dedicated majlis for community gatherings and celebrations, and an old mosque. There is a room with an ancient loom used to weave Omani carpets, on the ground floor. One can also see the falaj water system outside the museum, and the traditional market place, giving an integrated experience of a bygone era.
The structure itself is a tribute to the acclaimed Omani architecture and the design aesthetics of the Al Yaarubi era, which is reflected in the decorated ceilings, and exquisitely sculpted doors. Ancient wall inscriptions offer a rare glimpse into Omani history.
Omani kahwa (coffee) and dates are offered to every visitor. The museum is closed in summer.
It is befitting that the museum is in Al Hamra, a 400-year-old village in Al Dakhiliyah (and home to the Al Abri tribe), with the ancient mountainside settlement of Misfat Al Abryeen, Ghul and Bimah as its neighbours. As one of the most carefully preserved ancient villages in Oman, Al Hamra is dotted with adobe houses and structures, many of them two, three and even four-storied, with roofs made of palm beams, and thatched using palm fronds and straw. This is quite significant as such ancient dwellings are increasingly being abandoned in some parts of the Sultanate.
And enhancing the authenticity of the whole experience are the highly knowledgeable guides who belong to the family of Shaikh Abri.
Another unique attempt at promoting traditional Omani life is the Misfah Old House at Misfat Al Jabryeen, located in Al Hamra. In 2009, Ahmed Mohammed al Abri converted his 150-year-old ancestral house into a bed-and-breakfast lodge for visitors, allowing them to experience traditional Omani life and hospitality.
Bait al Jabal, again, an ancient house converted into a museum showcasing priceless ancient artefacts and items of cultural and historical significance, is nearby.
With tourism-oriented projects focusing on Oman’s tradition and heritage gaining increasing acceptance among locals as well as international tourists, let’s hope there will be more such daring attempts outside Al Hamra as well.