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Beauty has an address ~ Oman

Musandam in the Morning

Patricia Groves

Musandam is the stark sentinel of the Gulf. It is on the sea, as much as in the mountains, that the essence of this place is experienced. Drifting in a dhow through translucent air which seems to whisper of veiled infinities, I look down through the crystal waters to where the mountains are deeply anchored, where once there were valleys. All the while birds sail by - gulls, bridled terns, cormorants

Up before the sun, I open the curtains at the water’s edge. A warm wind is blowing; the sea is silvery, the mountains cast in indefinable grey. By the time I have made tea, the fishing dhows are distinguishable in the bay and Monet’s palette is spreading across the eastern horizon. As the sea turns emerald and turquoise, we are on our way from the seaside into the wadi valley and up a steep track to the heights from which the northern mountains of Oman take their plunge into the sea.

The edge of the world
On the summit of the mountain overlooking Khor Nejd, we are stilled by the sudden silence. The vista seems even more magnificent than when I first saw it seven years ago. This time, the grey hairpin road seems like the trail of a primordial snake which made its way down the mountainside to the sea; and vanished.  Dressed in majesty, the mountains set their shadows on the surface of the bay as if to say, “This is our realm, and ours alone”.

I wonder what lies beyond the multitude of towering islands which frame the distance in receding layers of blue. It really does seem like the edge of the world. This is Musandam, stark sentinel of the Gulf. It is on the sea, as much as in the mountains, that the essence of this place is experienced. Drifting in a dhow through translucent air which seems to whisper of veiled infinities, I look down through the crystal waters to where the mountains are deeply anchored, where once there were valleys. All the while birds sail by — gulls, bridled terns, cormorants.

Khasab Castle — a living heritage
Well before the morning is over, we are at Khasab Castle which stands firmly on the plain just as it has for the past four centuries. It is the Castle which is the object of our visit; and we will spend the rest of the day here, as well as the next morning, researching and photographing for a book on the forts and castles of Oman. The Castle was built by the Portuguese at the beginning of the 17th Century to guard the Strait of Hormuz.

The structure is laid on a square plan with three corner towers acting as keeps and providing strategic overviews of the landward and seaward approaches. In the fourth corner, facing the bay, is a round watchtower with an elevated firing platform and multiple cannon ports. Made of stone, a crenellated curtain wall joins the four towers. In the centre of the courtyard is a much older construction — a large round tower.

The Tower Museum
The old tower in the central quadrangle makes this fortification distinctive for two reasons; first, because it breaks the classic design; and, second, because it is most likely an Omani building, pre-dating the Portuguese construction, perhaps by centuries. This thick tower, which, in days of old, provided the last bastion of defence, is today an inviting museum with wheelchair access to the top chamber. Here we find a dozen striking exhibits providing in-depth information on the history, geology, wildlife, architecture, art, culture and daily life of Musandam.

Housed in tall, hand carved cabinets bordered with sewn designs made by ship craftsmen, museum-style displays featuring artefacts are arranged to complement giant posters or panels which describe and illustrate key points of interest about Musandam. The Rock Art panel places the petroglyphs of Oman and Musandam in the context of world examples of this genre of prehistoric art. While images on rock surfaces are found throughout Oman, and tend to feature domesticated animals, wild animals are depicted in some of the hill caves of Musandam. The cabinet contains a reproduction of a particularly interesting slab of Musandam rock art which depicts what appears to be a battle scene on horseback.

The Geology cabinet reveals that the deep bays of Musandam were once fertile valleys and its rocky islands are the peaks of mountains. Musandam is apparently still a habitat for two of Oman’s most endangered species, the elusive Arabian leopard and the rarely seen tahr (Omani mountain goat).  An intricate model of a 3rd Millennium reed boat is featured in the cabinet on Seafaring where there is information on the traditional boats of Musandam including details of their construction, decoration and rigging. The distinctive pottery of Musandum is displayed and explained in the panel on craft heritage.

Among the treasury of artefacts is a splendid collection of antique jerz, the small, long-handled axe that has become a central symbol in the heritage of Musandam. While I studied all the panels carefully and emerged with quite a rich understanding of the area; even the more casual visitor who spends fifteen to twenty minutes looking at the exhibits and watching the film will leave with a deeper understanding of this unique part of the world.

Two houses of Musandam
Leaving the tower, I am drawn to the shaded environment of the palm frond (arish) summer house and the old stone bait al qufl (house of the lock) which blend so well into the courtyard that it seems they have always been there by the well under the date palm trees. Elevated on pillars of stone, the arish house, an orderly latticework of vertical palm branches, was designed to catch breezes from the sea. These light, airy houses were occupied by mountain dwellers and inhabitants of remote coastal settlements who came to Khasab in the summers to fish and harvest dates.

The bait al qufl was not newly constructed but brought stone by stone from its original place at the foot of the mountains and reconstructed in an identical fashion. Built partially below ground and made of heavy stone, the bait al qufl was not primarily a dwelling but evolved as a means of safeguarding vital supplies during periods of seasonal migration.
This ‘house of the lock’ was made virtually impregnable by means of a complex and sophisticated double locking system. We had visited a classic bait al qufl in situ earlier that morning and so were able to note the authenticity of the museum version. In both cases, large storage jars barely visible in the darkened chamber and encrusted with age were the centre of attraction. These enormous jars were placed on the ground when the foundation of the bait al qulf was dug; and the house was then built around them, so that the jars could not be taken through the door by thieves, as the door was smaller than the jars.

Times long past
For a hundred years or so, the Castle was the residence of the Wali (local governor), his family and administration. His chambers, now called the Wali’s Wing, including a waiting room, the barza, and judge’s room, have been restored and furnished both comfortably and evocatively in the traditional style. I sat for a while on the ledge of a window bay in the barza where affairs of state were once conducted, watching the dappled sunlight on the carpet and imagining life as it was in the late 19th Century.

The tower in the opposite corner has been transformed into a library which also captures the atmosphere of times long past. With light flowing through a castellated window, I settled in at a wooden table to read Paolo M Costa’s book, Musandam. Although I had previously studied this book which is subtitled Architecture and Material Culture of a little known Region of Oman, the descriptions and analysis came alive inside the Castle a picture of which happens to adorn the cover. Occasionally I would look up at old manuscripts beautifully framed on the walls, or gaze through a window at sun-splashed palm branches to catch sight of a long-tailed green parakeet.

Traditional boats of Kumzar
Walking along the sentry wall to the Traditional Wing, the name by which the third square tower is now known, I take in the live texture and warm, tawny colour of the far stone wall set against the mountain skyline. Looking down into the courtyard, I see, as if beached on shore, three traditional boats from Kumzar, the most northerly settlement in Oman: the battil, mâshuwah and zaruqah. The battil is a graceful boat with a long stem-piece and a distinctive high stern, decorated with goatskin and cowrie shells on brightly coloured woven bands.

This is a practice found nowhere else in Oman or the Gulf. According to Craft Heritage of Oman by Marcia Dorr and Neil Richardson, “these shell-studded strips, with their even rows of firmly attached shells, bear a marked resemblance to the cowrie money belts once used in the region as a portable means of storing wealth.” Fast under sail, the battil was traditionally used in the Gulf for raiding as well as fishing, pearling and trading. Musandam is one of the few places where this classic Arab boat is still in use.

The zaruqah is similar in design to the battil but more symmetrical and easier to manoeuvre. Fast and quiet, the zaruqah is used for fishing, sometimes guided by a spotter positioned on top of nearby cliffs. The mâshuwah is a lighter boat used for ferrying cargo to and from the large ocean-going vessels which came into harbour. The mâshuwah displayed in the Castle was found submerged in Khasab Harbour, retrieved for the museum and restored by local boat builders.

Life scenes in the Castle
The rooms of the Traditional Wing are set with scenes of life-size figures enacting a Quran School, the dispensing of traditional medicines, a wedding ceremony, and women engaged in home crafts. There are tableaux featuring jewellery and traditional silver crafts, along with shelves displaying porcelains and other treasures of the times. This section of the museum was lovingly put together by the Musandam branch of the Omani Women’s Association (OWA) who assisted with the research and collected many of the artefacts locally. It is here that the visitor gains a ‘live’ impression of the traditional heritage and culture of Musandam. The Musandam OWA also run the castle gift shop, a small treasure house containing fine examples of the crafts of the region, such as the jerz and clay incense burners from Lima.

South to Bukha
After the first day at the Castle, we took the winding road south along the spectacular coast to another famous landmark of Musandam — the iconic, perhaps 16th Century, beach fort of Bukha with its curious inward-curving tower. We arrived according to plan just as the sun was setting, hoping to see the structure reflect, as it sometimes does, the rich red-pink of the falling sun. It turned instead golden brown, delighting us just as much. I tried to imagine the fort as it was a few hundred years ago close to the beach and protected on three sides by a moat of sea water.

Close to the fort is the Great Mosque of Bukha which maintains much of its original grace as it has been preserved rather than fully restored. The mosque was not open, but I looked through small window grilles to assemble a picture of the inside. I caught glimpses of beautiful stucco decoration in raised geometric star designs and broad ogival arches set upon columns amid shafts of dusty light.

Driving up to a small hilltop fort, we could see that the old fishing village of Bukha is becoming, once again, a thriving town. We journeyed back to Khasab for dinner on the seaside terrace at the Golden Tulip and a good night’s sleep in fresh air blowing in from the ocean. Once again it was morning in Musandam. By now, Khasab Castle seemed like home; and I spent much of the day writing in all my favourite spots. All too soon it was time to leave.

The land known as Musandam
Because of strong winds, the late afternoon flight out was delayed long enough for the colours of the disappearing sun to dramatise what was already one of the most breathtaking aerial views anywhere in the world.  Below, a myriad of islands lay scattered like dark chunks of ice caught in wind. The shadowed mountains appeared loftier than the aircraft; and I was struck by the otherworldliness of the land known as Musandam, inhabited but untamed.