By Olga Velikaya
White seagulls soared over the shimmering turquoise-blue Gulf of Oman. Many roundabouts around the city were decorated with statues of dolphins, ships, fish, ship’s wheels and anchors. All little details hinted at Sur’s long history of being a glorious port renowned for building ships. From a distance, a brown circular lighthouse topped with a blue dome could be seen on the corniche.
Al Ayjah Lighthouse was a guiding landmark for all travellers coming from the sea or land to Al Sharqiyah South Governorate’s capital. Its design was in harmony with the surrounding flat-roofed white houses, brown watchtowers on hills, and docked dhows. White and blue fishermen’s boats dotted the corniche on one side, while local shops, restaurants and old houses took over the other.
“Allah Akbar,” the sound of the call to prayer echoed across the open sea, and people hurried to the nearby mosques and quickly parked their vehicles. Despite the hot sun, the breeze made the air feel cool. This neighbourhood right in the heart of the city still retained its old charm with its narrow streets, small houses and enchanting doors. The souvenir shop next to the lighthouse had different small and medium-sized handmade replicas of wooden ships, drawings and other keepsakes. The shop’s owner welcomed visitors with Omani coffee and dates and shared true captivating stories of his father’s sailing adventures, his own travels to Kuwait, days of working as a teacher, and his expertise in ship model making (which he modestly called a hobby).
“I wanted to make small models for my kids and grandkids so that they would know about different kinds of ships built in Sur,” said Ahmed al Alawi. “Later, my friends asked me to make some for them... That’s how it all started.” Reminiscently, he looked around the shop filled with ships of all sizes from 20 centimetres to 2 metres. It took him about two months of meticulous work to complete the larger model. A warm smell of teak wood emanated from his workshop, where every inch was covered with wood scraps and panels.
Near the Khor Al Batah bridge, a seaside restaurant served fresh catch of the day for lunch. The smell of grilled fish and the salty scent of the sea mixed together in a unique aroma of Sur. Everywhere I looked, my eyes stopped at something white, blue, or brown. Those three shades dominated the landscape and created a coastal palette.
A full-scale beautiful wooden Ghanja ship and other traditional dhows greeted visitors at the entrance to the Fatah Al Khair Centre. The newly-renovated museum provided an insight into Oman’s maritime heritage. The first ships were built with palm fronds and coconut husks, followed by dugout canoes, boats sewn together with natural fibres, and only in the middle of the sixteenth century AD, Omanis started using nails to build large vessels. More than thirty ships were given the name “Fatah Al Khair”, others received religious names or blessings, and some were named after animals, birds, or stars. During their glory days, Omani ships sailed to India, China, Iraq and East Africa. Despite the difficulty of travelling by sea and frequent storms and winds, the sea was the primary source of livelihood. People believed that anyone who went into the sea was lost, and those who returned were reborn. They were blessed with patience, perseverance and persistence.
If the modern museum was a walk-through encyclopedia of shipbuilding, the Ship Factory was an actual dusty workshop. Located close to the suspension bridge, it allowed visitors to see a real shipbuilding process. The first large ship was still at the initial stage, but the other one, coated in the fresh layer of brown paint, was almost finished. Shipbuilders took full advantage of modern tools such as saws and electric drills, yet traditional techniques and materials were also used.
“I’ve learned how to build ships from my father,” said Ali al Araimi, the factory owner. “Now, my children also work with me.” He mentioned that a ship could be ready to sail in 1,5 to 2 years, depending on its size. The workers used imported golden-coloured teak wood because of its durability to withstand moisture and heat for the ship’s exterior work and Omani wood for the interior.
Inside the shop, young pupils in festive traditional clothes were filming a project for their school. Lujain, dressed in a red and black embroidered dress and golden jewellery, was holding a ship model. Despite the cameras, all kids were enthusiastically speaking in cheerful voices. Sur’s history was created by their great-grandfathers, passed down to their parents, and preserved by the young generation. Due to the dedicated work of its people who poured their hearts into their work, Sur’s shipbuilding glory was destined to continue.