Historic buildings that testify to Oman’s rich culture and heritage are collapsing in a state of neglect, say Kate Ginn and Tom Robertson
In the small village of Al Hamra, quietly nestled in the shadow of Jebel Shams, something extraordinary awaits visitors.
Just past the donkeys eating grass by the side of the road, with the sound of fresh mountain water running along the nearby falaj, are some of the most well-preserved mud brick houses in the country, many of which are more than 400 years old.
A few are still inhabited but most have long since been abandoned, empty shells filled with the ghosts of the past.
The chance to step back in time and see a glimpse into Oman’s olden days should be an unforgettable experience.
It certainly is for visiting Lianne Roberts but not for the reasons that you might think.
Picking her way gingerly along one of the alleyways of the mud-brick homes, the American tourist is trying to avoid treading on shards of glass from smashed bottles as she navigates her way through discarded plastic bottles, shoes, bits of dusty rugs and even old nappies.
Inside the mud-brick buildings it’s worse. Detritus is flowing out of the doorways and windows. On an earlier visit, there was the body of a decomposing cat.
Piles of rubbish are everywhere. The stench is unbearably strong at times, the air abuzz with flies.
“I had high expectations of it here, given its cultural significance,” says Mrs Roberts, 41, who is visiting Oman for the first time with her husband, Greg.
“As a visitor to this country, I was shocked to see the state it was in.
“We don’t have anything like this back home, so it’s very exciting to see. I am walking around history here.
“I was really disappointed to see the neglect and lack of respect of what is to me a valuable monument and important part of Oman’s heritage.”
It certainly won’t make pretty photographs to show the folks back home in the States. Nor, you imagine, is it the sort of image that Oman would want to portray as it seeks to attract more tourists to these shores.
What should be a proud testament to the Sultanate’s fascinating heritage has been left to wrack and ruin, a piece of Omani history slowly crumbling away and used as a place to dump rubbish.
And it’s the same story to the south, in the town of Sinaw, where the sprawling old quarter lies abandoned behind the town’s more modern centre.
Exposed wooden beams are broken and damaged, ceilings have fallen through and walls wait for the final moment when they’ll crash to the ground.
Speaking to Ali al Mahrouqi, director of forts and castles at the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Y learnt that a management plan is in the process of being developed for the area, which will also be discussed with the town’s residents.
Because, according to Mr al Mahrouki, although the Ministry overseas heritage projects, the responsibility for keeping the buildings in a proper state is the responsibility of the owners and, for protected buildings, the local municipality.
So for the moment, visitors are free to clamber around over collapsing roofs and decaying buildings, whose architecture and construction all hold the key to a historic past.
Yet in among this chaos, valuable objects remain: ornate wooden beams with hand-engraved patterns stoically hold up doorways through which inhabitants of the Harat (quarters) passed for hundreds of years.
At the moment, Oman’s cultural heritage sites are protected under a 1980 law, which covers buildings that have historical, archaeological, artistic or scientific value.
But the Government has recently announced a new tougher law to address shortcomings in the former legal framework. Four years in the planning, the legislation aims to fill gaps in the 1980 law and better preserve artifacts and buildings. It will also address punishments for violators flouting the rules, although full details have yet to be released.
For those buildings and zones that are privy to proper maintenance and legal protection, the rewards are great.
One of the oldest and largest in Oman, Nizwa Fort dates back to 1650 and has underlying structures from the 12th Century. A huge renovation project has made the fortification a sparkling example of Oman’s history and how to preserve the past for tourists and residents to enjoy.
Rustaq Fort, dating from pre-Islamic times and fortified further under the Al Bu Said dynasty, has also been subject to renovation and the efforts are paying dividends for Oman’s tourism. During 2013, the number of visitors to castles and forts from January 1 to October 31 totalled 150,000 people, of which South Al Batinah attracted 18,000 people.
It’s also a move that has seen Rustaq fort, along with Al Hazm Fort, placed on Oman’s list for consideration as a UNESCO world heritage site. It’s the first stage of a process that may eventually see the buildings inscribed on the World Heritage list. If successful, Al Hazm and Rustaq fort would join their Ad Dakhiliyah cousin, Bahla Fort, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987, when it received international financial assistance for necessary renovations. It’s now beautifully restored back to its former glory.
It’s this sort of investment that other sites are so evidently sadly lacking.
Back in the crumbling streets of Al Hamra and Sinaw, the historic sites have unofficially become dumping grounds. With an apparent lack of controls to stop the damage, people are free to fly tip at will.
When Y visited Al Hamra last weekend, the state of neglect had gone beyond mere rubbish disposal. Doors to the ancient homes are either broken or missing, stripped away by someone. Lanes that snake through the dwellings are barely safe to traverse with all manner of waste on the ground – even, in one case, an old dirty toilet bowl.
In Sinaw, trying to explore the ruins has become an obstacle course through piles of discarded household rubbish. Y went to the site three years ago and found it in a lamentable state with rotting animal carcasses and garbage strewn everywhere. We had hoped to find some improvement.
If anything, it was worse. We found the badly decomposed body of what appeared to be a goat emanating a terrible smell lying on the floor. No attempt appeared to have been made to clear up the mounds of rubbish, plastic bags, bottles and old clothes.
It’s a far cry from the visitors enamoured with the sleek and clean walls of Nizwa fort, and makes for unpalatable viewing.
Even basics such as signposts or information boards giving visitors a greater appreciation of the cultural centres in which they stand are nowhere to be seen in places like Al Hamra.
Instead, tourists are left to wander around the narrow lanes and cobbled alleys at will.
“It is a real wasted opportunity,” says Mrs Roberts, the American tourist we came across trying to avoid a mishap with all the rubbish.
“I’m not saying it should be turned into a Disneyland-type attraction, that would spoil it but it needs to be looked after. You would expect better for an important part of Oman’s history.
“A lot of countries neglect their monuments. I’ve been to Egypt too and seen the same sort of problems with their artifacts and ancient buildings.”
But the prospects for improved protection for Oman’s heritage are looking up.
Along with the new legislation, other efforts are being made behind the scenes.
The Ministry of Heritage and Culture is reportedly in the final stages of a new heritage plan that documents and analyses possible management measures for heritage buildings, such as the one being drawn up in Sinaw.
89 sites have been prioritised above other listed sites for documentation and management.
A joint project between the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, Sultan Qaboos University, Nizwa University and Nottingham Trent University, UK, the study sets strategies and guidelines.
Soumyen Bandyopadhyay, Professor at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment, was one of those awarded a grant by the Ministry to research heritage significance, preservation and potential reuse of sites.
“Human settlements are expressions of culture, social order and political intentions in space,” says Bandyopadhyay. “They are tangible representations of historical events and illustrate cultural continuity through the built environment. With Oman’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, it is vital to preserve it.”
An official at the Ministry of Heritage and Culture also confirmed that conservation work and information centres are planned for Bat near Ibri, and Qalhat, Sur, which was recently added to UNESCO’s tentative list in 2013.
But for those sites without this kind of kudos, such as Al Hamra, there’s little tangible evidence of work being carried out to make the sites of interest to visitors.
At one time there was a small museum in the village but Y’s journalists found little sign of it other than a faded handwritten note stuck high up on a wall of a house.
Al Hamra, however, does offer visitors a taste of the village’s traditional past, preserved in the form of Bait al Safah, a mud-brick house, which has been restored to its magnificent former self.
It’s here that visitors can talk to one of the guides about the history of the area, how the houses were made and meet some of the local village women doing traditional crafts.
When asked about the terrible state of the mud-brick houses, one member of staff at Bait al Safah blamed outsiders, saying: “It is down to foreign people who live in the area, coming here to put their rubbish and throw things away.
“It needs to be cleared up. I agree that it does not look good.”
The potential in developing heritage sites, as has been seen in the better-known forts and castles like Nizwa and Rustaq, is to give areas a boost by attracting jobs and investment in tourism and services for visitors.
The preservation of sites like Al Hamra and Sinaw could offer a means to generate new business and employment, such as in cafés and small shops selling craft souvenirs.
It’s a business dynamic that the Ministry of Tourism are well aware of, as they investigate new possibilities for using Oman’s heritage sites to generate income from tourism.
Paradores, a Spanish company, is currently delivering a study which assesses which of Oman’s forts and castles would be suitable for turning into hotels.
It’s a laudable aim but, meanwhile, the likes of the historic Al Hamra are left to decay.
“I just hope the government of Oman will do something to save this place. It would be a shame to lose it or see it ruined,” says Mrs Roberts.
“It’s still great to see and really fascinating, despite the lack of support, but it could be so much better.”
Fancy a trip to the historic old quarters of Sinaw and Al Hamra?
Here’s some of the sights that visitors will find:
Wire, lightbulbs, tyres, plastic piping, chicken feed, dead animals, plastic bags, bottles, cigarette packets, cardboard boxes, bottles of medication, pottery, shoes, sandals, furniture, clothes, blankets, rope, glass, plastic chairs, a toilet bowl, used nappies and old rugs.