Issa Nasser Said Al Saqri gestured with pride at the grand old house standing tall in the Harat Al Saybani area of Birkat Al Mouz, where many of the houses are around 400 years old. The Bait Al Hadith, or ‘modern house,’ stands at one of the entrances to the old town, and its wonderful green wooden door has been used as a distinctive backdrop for thousands of tourists. Now, the family is breathing life into their once majestic home, again.
“I was born in this house,” said Al Saqri, “and I remember it as a house that was always full of people and laughter, always busy, always something happening. And my grandfather, Said bin Sulieman Al Saqri, lived here until relatively recently in 2003, when the stairs became too much of a challenge for him. But he did love his house, beyond measure.”
Al Saqri explained that all those years ago, when his ancestor arrived from Zanzibar with his family and housekeepers, and no little wealth, he was able to ‘purchase,’ two days of the nine day falaj water rights, and he immediately set about creating a family home with the builder probably named Al Saybani, after whom the area is named. It was certainly a home for a large family, and the farm and garden area outside was the family hub, with all of the wider family living in houses that bordered the acres of date palms at their centre,” he suggested.
Entering the main house through its side entrance the first thing to note is the width of the walls, all of mud, straw, and Omani cement ‘sarooj’ brick, and all around two to three feet wide, and once inside you are struck by the incredible coolness of the rooms, another unexpected feature. The main room, in the very centre of the house has a ‘cathedral’ ceiling aspect, rising maybe twenty-five feet, with the other ground floor rooms having fifteen feet ceilings, and Issa noted, “With no steel or wood in the main structure. It is all built with the special shaped bricks, and using engineering techniques from so many years ago.”
Some of the rooms leading off the central room would have housed goats, sheep and cows, which obviously provided warmth in cooler times, and were close at hand for milking, shearing and the like. A date store off the entrance still has dates in it, and the walls of this entrance room bear the immutable evidence of the original occupier’s enthusiasm for his favourite pets, white pigeons.
Where the house really unfolds though, is as we mount the marble stairs, yes, marble! The house opens up like a flower, revealing new sights at every turn. A massive kitchen sits over the entrance, with a myriad of shelves and recesses. A bread making kitchen sits separately, as does a ‘long drop’ toilet with a small narrow entrance. Among the bedrooms gracing the first floor, the master is cool, light and airy, with numerous little shelves, both for evening lighting, and bric-a-brac.
A very practical water butt, shaped as a hand basin, though simply, effectively created to fill many needs, graces an open terrace which one can imagine would have been often used, as even in the heat of the mid-afternoon, a gentle zephyr cools delicately, like the most gentle air conditioning system you have ever known.
Then, dragging yourself away from the architectural features of the house, one turns North, to the magnificent view of the old village rising before you, every house, every narrow street and walkway opening up like a National Geographic poster, with the watch tower looking back, and the mighty Jebel Akdhar towering in the distance. Turn West to see as far as Firq, with Nizwa beyond. Then, looking South and East, one takes in the surrounding area of Birkat al Mouz and Izki, beyond which a further 120 kms away, Muscat beckons.
However much closer, the family farm and garden are revealed, nestled in the very heart of what is now becoming a very busy service town and tourism destination. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see kids playing, noisily, the aroma of bread and food cooking, and to know the pastoral smells, sights and sounds of this magnificent house when it was in its prime. As Al Saqri said, “My brother and I have a vision, and maybe a mission, to see the house the same as it was when we were growing up here. Inshallah, we will make it happen.”
To do so would not just be a wonderful personal achievement by a prominent local family, and a tribute to their forefathers, but a message to many that although time marches on, memories are priceless!
STORY BY RAY PETERSEN
PHOTOS BY LENA PETERSEN