CLIVE GRACEY –
If you have visited the palace cum fortress of Jibreen, near Bahla in Al Dakhiliya Governorate, built by the Ya’arubi Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan in the latter half of the 17th century, you will no doubt have been impressed by its magnificent painted ceilings. The names and origins of the creators of these masterpieces are lost to time, though Iranian and Indian motifs suggests that foreign artists may have been specially commissioned to execute these ornate works.
Yet it was not only the grander examples of Oman’s traditional architecture that had such decoration. Many of the more humble vernacular buildings around the Sultanate also had painted ceilings, though on a smaller scale and painted in more freehand styles. Although many of these have now disappeared, it is still possible to find examples here and there, as I did last week when I came upon the colourful ceiling in the town of Al-Mudhayrib in Ash-Sharqiyah North Governorate pictured here.
While the painted ceilings of Jibreen Fort may have served no other purpose than to please the eye of a famously cultured Imam, what can have been the motivation of humbler folk to go to the trouble and expense of having the ceilings of their mud-brick houses decorated?
The simple answer is that, unlike the imported hardwoods employed in the construction of the ceilings at Jibreen, those of traditional Omani dwellings and civic buildings were fabricated mostly from the soft and fibrous wood of the locally grown date-palm which, if left untreated, is particularly susceptible to the ravages of termites.
Load-bearing roof beams, fabricated from date-palm trunks split or sawn into quarters lengthways and laid perpendicular to the length of a room, were particularly prone to attack by this ravenous member of the cockroach family.
But by coating these beams with some substance noxious to the termite, their longevity could be greatly extended.
In more distant times, protective coatings for roof beams were made from locally sourced coloured rocks, such as red chert, that were ground into powder and mixed with homemade natural oils. In more recent times, beams were treated with coloured dyes, imported from India, and mixed with paraffin, or with enamel paint procured in the souqs of Muttrah or Dubai.
What is particularly interesting about this process of treating roof beams against attack by termites is that, rather than just paint the beams the uniform monotone colour of the particular medium they were using, some of the people engaged in the activity saw the opportunity to let their artistic inclinations run free by incorporating an array of different designs, motifs, calligraphy and colour schemes into their work.
While a high degree of exuberant spontaneity is evident in the A -Mudhayrib ceiling shown here that would make an academically trained artist blush with envy, in other locales a more mannered style evolved, as can be seen in the many painted ceilings that still survive in the old town of Al Hamra. Almost all of these are similar in colour and pattern even though they are of varying age and created by different hands. This suggests the overbearing influence on individual expression of a central workshop for the manufacture and decoration of roof beams that may once have existed in the town.
Because of the large expanses of arid mountain and shingle plain that separated them and the lack of an efficient communication system, contact between the various settlements of Oman in past times was generally only undertaken of necessity. Although utilizing the same limited range of locally available materials and methods of fabrication when constructing their architecture, different locales developed their own stylistic architectural variations. This can be seen in the wide range of painted ceiling styles that evolved throughout the land.
Oman’s painted ceilings, found throughout the Sultanate in grand and humble buildings alike, eloquently demonstrate that desires to create and to enjoy colour, design and ornament are not the exclusive preserves of highly trained and skilled artists and their rich and powerful patrons, but are elemental facets of the human condition that seek and find manifestation even in humble and deprived conditions.
Let us celebrate, then, not only the pinnacles of Oman’s past artistic achievements, but also its unique and vibrant folk art!