The old quarter of Al Hamra is an extensive mud-brick settlement now largely in ruins, though a number of its grander houses are still in tolerable condition. Many have painted ceilings and some still have inscribed or decorated doors. The name Al-Hamra probably derives from the Arabic word for red, ’ahmar, as the clay from which many of the houses in the settlement were constructed glow pinky-red in morning and evening sunshine.
Sadly, though, as with traditional settlements across the Sultanate, Al-Hamra’s now uninhabited dwellings have been denuded of their artifacts by souvenir hunters. It is therefore difficult to fully appreciate what daily life must have been like in the days when these houses were lived in. That is, unless you pay a visit Bait Al-Safah, located midway along what would have been old Al-Hamra’s main thoroughfare.
Like many of the buildings in the oldest central section of Al-Hamra, Bait Al-Safah dates to the second half of the 17th century, the same period that saw the construction of Nizwa and Jibreen Forts. And like most of the dwellings in old Al-Hamra, it is built directly onto the smooth rock of lower edge of the Hajar mountain range. In fact, as its current proprietor, Suleiman Al-Abri, explained to me, the name Bait Al-Safah literally means ‘House on the Shiny Rock’ as it was erected on a large, flat slab of this smooth, weathered granite.
Yet how is it that Bait Al-Safah and many of the neighbouring dwellings were built so large in comparison to the architecture of other traditional settlements in the interior?
The probable answer is that after the expulsion of the Portuguese from Muscat in 1650, the Omani rulers of that time, Al-Ya’aruba, went on the offensive against Portuguese shipping and settlements around the western Indian Ocean. Vast wealth from these punitive raids flowed into Oman, which funded large-scale restoration and extension of Oman’s ancient falaj irrigation system, allowing for the founding of new settlements such as AL-Hamra.
Just how comparatively wealthy Al-Hamra was can be seen in Bait Al-Safah’s large, high-ceilinged rooms with their beautifully painted roof beams, ornate doors and numerous windows for ventilation. The settlement was largely vacated in the 1980s but prior to that, houses such as Bait Al-Safah would have been occupied by different generations of the same families. Suleiman remembers vividly visiting Bait Al-Safah as a boy, which at that time belonged to his grandfather, and not only the house but the whole settlement around was buzzing with activity – men and women going about their daily tasks and children laughing and playing in the narrow streets. Today those same houses and streets are all but silent and empty.
Thanks to Suleiman’s efforts, Bait Al-Safah has been brought back to a condition close to how it was in his grandparent’s time, with hundreds of antique tools and artifacts on display and traditional activities taking place.
But Bait Al-Safah is not some dusty old museum with po-faced attendants telling the inquisitive visitor not to touch anything. Far from it, Bait Al-Safah is a hands-on heritage experience that will transport you back to a functioning traditional Omani house.
Suleiman and his well-informed male guides and female demonstrators are only too happy to let the visitor explore the house and try their hand at such things as making natural oils from seeds, grinding coffee beans, making Omani bread over a wood fire and embroidering and weaving baskets and garments. There is even a room full of traditional Omani clothes for the visitor to try on. As for photography, it is not only allowed but actively encouraged. Indeed, most of the photographs accompanying this article were taken by past visitors to the museum.
Now in case you are thinking that I must have been so generously indulged with Omani coffee and dates by Suleiman that I feel obliged to write kind words about Bait Al-Safah, I will refrain from giving my own opinion and instead describe the reactions of two children who arrived at the museum with their parents at the time I was there.
The boy and girl in question, possibly twins and around ten years old, were German, so I had no idea what they were actually saying to their mother and father in whiney tones when they walked in. I would guess, though, it was along the lines of, “Why on earth did you bring us to this old dump? What could there possibly be of interest to us here?”
When I saw this duo again forty minutes later after they’d completed their tour of Bait al-Safah, their transformation was remarkable. In place of the sulky sneers and whingeing that had accompanied their arrival, the boy and girl were now bright-eyed and smiling. They flopped down on the floor of the majlis near to where I was still sitting and gratefully accepted little cups of Omani coffee and dates from one of Suleiman’s charming young guides. Their parents had a job to get them finally to go.
I could say so much more about Suleiman Al-Abri and his heart-felt hospitality, about his magnificent house, his polite and eager young guides and his hard-working and skillful female demonstrators, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience for you. For a very nominal entry charge, you will find yourself transported back to the enchanted Oman of yesteryear. Chances are, like the two German children, once you are there you will be reluctant to return to the mundane present. Search ‘Bait Al-Safah’ online for directions on how to find it.