Al Hamra’s window to the past

Two hours away from the capital city of Muscat, hidden away in the midst of a modern rural town is a forgotten city that although abandoned, still stands today. These are said to be some of the best-preserved ruins present in the Sultanate of Oman. The partially restored ruins that sit at the foot of the Hajar Mountains, cradles in it a time capsule of Oman’s fascinating past and traditions.
Al Hamra is located in the Al Dakhiliyah Governorate in the Northeast of the Sultanate. Along with the ruins of the old village, the region is also home to a number of other tourist areas like the picturesque village of Misfat Al Abryeen built on the mountain sides.
Also known as Hamra Al Abryeen, Al Hamra village is dated over three centuries old. This quaint town is known for its historic mud wall buildings preserving the tales and stories of what makes Oman a unique destination. The wooden windows, decorations, painted ceilings and the architecture of the now abandoned area shows proof of a once thriving and exciting civilisation.
Unlike what is seen in the rest of the country, many of these houses were built with 2 or more floors, some even at four floors, the ceilings were made with palm beams that were painted in various patterns of choice using natural dyes like red stone and indigo and topped with straw and mud.
Walking down these tattered alleyways and surrounded by tall mud walls almost gives one a nostalgic and realistic experience of walking through history. Although abandoned, it isn’t difficult to imagine what it must have been like to walk these roads in the days of its glory during the hustle and bustle of the traditional Omani people.
Amongst these ancient dwellings, renovated and re-animated is Bait al Safah, a living museum presenting to its visitors a chance to experience the life of the old Al Hamra.
Bait Al Safah is not your usual run-of-the-mill tedious museum but a one of a kind place where the local men and women openly perform everyday household chores that took place (and still do in many families) in Omani homes — weaving and spinning, creating perfumes, making of Omani bread and coffee which are shared with the visitors.
The building has been restored to resemble its early days with traditional furnishings and decorations akin to the local Omani housing styles. Also displayed are Omani handicrafts, utensils and traditional kitchenwares that have almost disappeared in the modern times.
The aim of this museum is to give the people of Oman and those visiting a chance to experience a traditional and now forgotten past of ancient Oman.
As is part of their customs, before entering the inside areas of the house, visitors are asked to take their shoes off at the entrance — a sign of respect for the owners and a way of keeping the insides of the house clean. Once inside, the house gives one a mnemonic of what the house looked like back in the day.
In the atrium of the museum that is located on the first floor, guests are welcomed with a gift shop selling traditional Omani delicacies from the area — Honey, frankincense, bakhoor (a traditional Omani incense), Dates along with handicrafts like khanjars, keychains and other keepsakes. The museum provides tour guides who are well versed in various languages most of whom grew up in this remarkable town. The locals, most of whom have either moved to the cities in other parts of the country or built more modern houses outside these old dwellings still feel strong connections to these houses built by their ancestors.
The main attraction of this museum is the traditional kitchen where the women of the house came together to prepare food, make oils and grind and brew the popular drink kahwa (Omani coffee). Visitors get an interactive experience of the various mentioned activities of Omani bread making, grinding coffee and wheat and making of the special Moringa oil — a sought-after and expensive commodity in the region.
The processes of these activities are long and tedious and require a skill that is only known to them.
During our trip to this historic side of the sultanate, our guide was a young man named Khalid who took us around the building and told us in detail about what was being shown to us. Our tour started in the kitchen where we were introduced to the women who were giving us the demo of these household activities.
The women were dressed in traditional Omani dresses in bright colours as is visible throughout the Sultanate, They gave us a glimpse of the traditions in an Omani household. It is visible from first meeting them that these women still lived the traditional lives, untouched by the invasion of modernity. All the women were warm and welcoming and enjoyed sharing their culture with their guests and visitors.
The first lady showed us how traditional Omani bread was made — a crepe-like paper thin bread cooked on a heated flat surface. The bread is made with a sticky batter consisting of home ground flour, salt and water. Using just her hands, the woman picked up a dollop of the sticky batter, created a thin layer of it on the hot surface and voila! in a second, the fresh crisp Omani bread was ready.
The second thing demonstrated by the women was how kahwa or Omani Coffee was made. Grounded by the women themselves, they mastered making their own signature blends. Green coffee beans are imported from other parts of the middle east which are then roasted until dark brown. Following this, the women crush and grind the aromatic beans in a large mortar and pestle to create the powder.
Khalid told us, “When the women in the house would grind coffee, the sound could be heard all over the area. People would then know that fresh coffee is going to be prepared in the house and they would go to the house to visit and drink the fresh kahwa.”
The sound was enough to ensure onlookers that this wasn’t a job for the weak or the fragile, one needed strong ears and strong arms to be able to use the heavy utensils to crush the beans into a fine powder. The Kahwa is then made like regular instant coffee, boiled with water. Depending on the region, many households often add spices like cardamom to create a unique, fragrant taste.
The tour then moved onto showing us a traditional household flour mill — two heavy stones sat on a stone base with a hole where the wheat was added.
This simple yet sturdy innovation was a common site in the olden days, men, women, and children would take turns to turn the rock and grind up the wheat into flour. Once crushed, the ground up material would collect in the base, which is then sifted to remove impurities and larger particles. The flour was then put away and stored away for the next batch of Omani bread.
The fourth woman sitting next to the flour mill was using all her strength to squeeze oil out of a green dough. This was the famously known and popular Moringa oil — the women spent their time cracking out the seeds of the Moringa plant which is then crushed with salt and water to form a green dough. The dough is then squeezed for three to four days to extract the oil. This oil is known throughout the region and the country for it’s’ healing properties and health benefits.
The women also used sandalwood and rosewater to create pigments that not just for its health benefits but also to decorate their faces.
Khalid shared with us that traditionally, the women when visiting each other’s homes would not be allowed to leave before applying the yellow pigment on each other
Although to us these activities seem exotic, to these women and to most traditional Omani households of the time, these were the workings of an Omani kitchen.
Another room in the museum showcased the different clothes worn by the people in the area. Unlike what is common knowledge, the abaya is a garment of a more modern Oman. Traditionally, women wore brightly coloured long tops with elaborate designs and embroideries, this can still be seen in the more rural parts of the country. The men, much like their ancestors wear still the dishdasha, a cotton long floor length shirt along with the kumma and massar. Our tour guide Khalid explained to us the significance of various adornments and garments — how they were worn, who wore them and when.
There is a third room that has been converted into a sort of gallery with old photos, news paper clippings and artwork relating to Oman’s vibrant past. Visitors are encouraged to visit this room as it is not only a walk down memory lane, it gives one chance to glance, learn and appreciate what the people in the museum like many others are trying to do. Through these ‘live’ museums and displaying of traditional methods, not only does this interest the visitors but also helps the modern Omani people to reconnect with their roots. Khalid shared us, he said, “Many locals during the holidays, festivals and weekends bring their kids and families to Bait Al Safah. This is not just to spend time with them but also to teach the younger generations of what life was like for their ancestors. This initiative was done to keep these traditions alive in today’s technologically run modern society.”, he also adds, “We the people of Oman are very proud of our culture, heritage and traditions and it is important to spread the information about these places and traditions. We enjoy sharing our food and culture with the people of the world and show to them our beautiful country and its people.”
The final room in the house is the Majlis or the living room. The Majlis is still widely visible through the country in modern and traditional homes, this is where guests were entertained and offered kahwa and dates and the same is down in Bait Al Safah. Free dates, tea, and coffee are provided for its guests to enjoy whilst reimagining themselves in an older time during Al Hamra’s glory years.
Bait Al Safah and the old village of Al Hamra is the perfect place for those who want to get the experience of a more traditional Oman.
Khalid whilst pouring kahwa, shared with us how even in this modern era of a much easier life, “this museum and these houses still leave us feeling nostalgic. Although we now live in nicer houses with modern amenities, we see these architectural marvels and feel nostalgic about the houses built by our ancestors. It is important that we not only respect the things of our forefathers but also learn about their lives and share with others where we, the people of Oman come from.”