Travelling down the narrow roads leading into the old village from the town is like stepping back in time. The vestiges of modernity seem to become evanescent as the ancient dilapidated houses spring up in view.
Located in Al Humra, on the outskirts of Nizwa near Tanuf , in the Ad Dakhiliya region, in what looks like the ruins of an age-old civilisation, is kept a well hidden secret – the Bait al Safah Museum. Dating back to about 400 years, most of the houses in the village are but ramshackle remnants of the times gone by. There are very few houses which continue to be habited today, of which the best preserved is Bait al Safah.
A grand mansion that was once the abode of the ruler of the village – the sheikh, the building has been converted into a museum that displays the historic traditions and ways of life in Al Humra. Built during the era of Al Ya’ariba, the house is owned and maintained presently by Sheikh Sulaiman Said Zahran Al Abri, to whom it was handed down by his ancestors.
A visit to Bait al Safah is an enriching experience in learning about the authentic Omani culture and customs where the inhabitants demonstrate the time-honoured ways of their quotidian routines. It is for this reason that the house has earned the sobriquet of the ‘living museum’.
Upon entering the village, signboards guide the path with arrows towards the museum. A board that is marked by the weight of time, proudly displays the name ‘Bait al Safah’ near the emerald door of the house. Stepping in, another board points the way further into the house towards the reception.
The grand house, made completely of mud, straw and date palm leaves, is built on two levels. A receiving room for guests, a room with a loom that displays the original method of weaving Omani carpets, and a store room complete the ground floor. A narrow mud staircase adorned with a richly weaved classical Omani red carpet conducts the path to the upper floor. Six rooms greet the visitors at the upper level, with each room giving a glimpse into the distinct parts in the day of the life of the people centuries ago.
The floor harbours a long dining room. A dressing room where traditional Omani dresses for women and men are exhibited invites tourists to wear them and take photographs. It also has a delightful traditional wooden swinging cradle for a baby, in which now lies a doll. Two other store rooms and a kitchen make up the rest of space at this level. However, the life of the house, where the real activity takes place is in another kitchen area.
Descending from the first floor, one enters a large airy cooking space. One is instantly drawn in by the aesthetic beauty and rustic charm of the room. Thick beams of golden sunlight stream in from the slatted roof, giving it a breathtaking allure. Like a spotlight, the rays fall upon a woman working at a grinding stone. She is extracting oil from the seeds of the herb shua’, that grows widely in Al Humra.
The process involves soaking the seeds in water, then grinding them to a paste and kneading them with hands till the oil is derived. She then collects the oil with a spoon and transfers them into glass bottles. This oil is used for both medicative and cosmetic purposes. It can be internally consumed to treat ailments of the stomach, and can be topically applied to bruises and injuries on the skin. The oil is also popular among women for its moisturising property and for enhancing the natural glow and complexion of the skin. Once the oil is drawn out from the green herbal mass, the remaining dough-like matter is then used to mould into toys for children and as small figurines, that become hard after drying.
Adjacent to the grinding stone and oil making process, another woman sits at a traditional hand-mill which is used to powder wheat. She invites the curious tourists who look on in amazement to try their hand at spinning the wheel that grinds the coarse grains. After the wheat is ground, the lady collects the flour and takes it to a fire stove burning nearby to make traditional Omani bread. The flour is mixed with salt and water to form a wet, semi-liquid paste. The woman then uses her hand to skillfully spread a handful of the dough on a hot flat iron pan. It is spread to a very thin consistency and cooked till both sides have browned and become crispy. The woman fans the flames with a dried palm frond, after which she scoops out the cooked thin sheets of bread. The flat iron pan is wiped clean of all traces, before a new handful of the dough is spread again. Visitors are given a taste of this freshly made bread.
At another corner of the kitchen, an old man sits in a dark corner roasting coffee beans. He then powders the beans with a pestle and mortar, and the powder is passed around to the onlookers to get a whiff of the fragrance. The man then proceeds to brew the coffee into piping hot kahwa.
As the kitchen grows hot with the fumes from the fires, the guests are led to the dining room. A long majlis style layout welcome the visitors, who are served the freshly brewed kahwa and the choicest Omani dates. The walls of the room are bedecked with photographs of His Majesty Sultan Bin Saeed Bin Qaboos and his father, from the various stages of their lives. Though, one of the framed pictures that catches the eye is of a family tree, that lists out in Arabic, the names of the family members from the various generations of the family of the owner of the house, Sheikh Abri.
A small exit on the floor leads upstairs to the terrace, which offers magnificent views of the village. The rest of the arena inside the house displays traditional artefacts such as antique water bags made of camel hide; earthen pots to store water, hung from coir ropes; traditional Omani weighing scales made of wicker baskets; rundown tin trunks that were used for storage many aeons ago; old lanterns; ancient wooden yokes used on cattle while ploughing; and age-old cane wood furniture.
The house, being made of mud, feels cool throughout and is well-lit and well ventilated. The hospitality of the people is remarkable, as they welcome guests with warmth and wholeheartedly.Members of the younger generation of the family of Sheikh Abri act as guides who take the visitors through the museum, explaining the nuances of the heritage. While the old man and women in the kitchen are unable to converse in English, it is the constant smile on their faces and the intense friendliness and affection that they bestow in their manners and acts that steal the hearts of the visitors who throng Bait al Safah.
A visit to the ‘living museum’ is an immensely rewarding experience as one returns with fond memories of an almost dead culture that is preciously kept alive by the thoughtful efforts of Sheikh Abri and his family.