Y recently reported on how Oman’s heritage sites are being neglected, but a group of university students are now on a mission to help save the country’s rich ancestry. Deeba Hasan joins them
It is 6am and a group of students are waiting to board a bus to their new workplace, Hujrat Muslimat in Wadi Ma’awil, an ancient settlement about 50 minutes away from their campus.
The team of 20 youths, from the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), are about to embark on a special project.
Smartly dressed in long overcoats and safety shoes, they will be toiling hard in the heat to help preserve Oman’s historical sites, as they have done for the past two months. Their task is to document the ancient settlements scattered around the Sultanate using photographs, sketches, scale maps and reports. These will be given to the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, which will then try to rebuild the worst ones.
Y revealed in May how some of the Sultanate’s best cultural assets have been neglected and now resemble heritage junkyards. Al Hamra, for instance, has the most well-preserved mud-brick houses in the country, many of which are 400 years old. Sinaw, a town in the south, has similarly been left to wrack and ruin.
But all is not lost.
SQU is working closely with the Department of Forts and Towers at the Ministry, which had carried out a survey to find the ancient settlements, or Hujrats, on the verge of being lost forever. From there, an “endangered” list was drawn up. Those categorised as Level One are considered the most at risk and in need of immediate help.
Researchers from Nottingham Trent University had been working on the project, but the Ministry was keen to nationalise the work, so approached SQU and a couple of other Oman universities.
“We decided that it would be a valuable opportunity for the students from our department to get some rich, hands-on experience and at the same time, study their country’s architectural past,” says Dr Naima Benkari, an assistant professor at SQU and the project director.
The Ministry is slowly but systematically preserving and restoring Oman’s historical architecture and this is the first step. Civil engineering, architecture and archeology experts are also being hired to be part of the dedicated team working on the project. The Ministry compensates the students who take part. Most are in their third, fourth and fifth years at university and did not receive any special training.
“We are now working on documenting sites, which is the most important thing to do at this time,” says Abdullah al Hajry, a researcher from the Ministry of Heritage and Culture. “We have built a barrier and prohibited any construction around these landmarks, so that they are visible from far away. We will also finally be restoring some of the sites that are of significance to our history and archeological tourism.”
Successful restorations so far include Nizwa Fort and Jabreen Castle. The vernacular architecture of Oman is also being looked at, but Dr Benkari believes this will be a challenging task. With more than 1,000 significant heritage sites in Oman that have started to fall into ruin, it could take several years just to document them.
At Hujrat Muslimat, everything is in ruins except the falaj and the mosque, which has been renovated on the inside.
The ruins are uninhabited – and uninhabitable. Those who once lived here now reside opposite, in modern houses.
As the students divided themselves into teams of surveyors, photographers, observers, sketchers and measurers and began their day’s work, one of them, Shaima al Mukhaini, told how the project had been an incredible learning experience.
“I am in the surveying team and have learnt so much about my work and my country’s architectural past,” she says. “But the problem that our team sometimes faces is that the marks we make to define our coordinates sometimes get erased, so we have to find those coordinates all over again and mark them.”
Alya al Hashim, co-investigator and project coordinator and a research assistant at the university’s Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture, showed me around the site.
I discovered that Hujrat Muslimat was a defensive place, which is reflected in the structure of the 400-year-old ruins – the souq, normally in an open area outside a settlement – was inside because the people feared Portuguese attacks.
As well as sketching, taking photos and writing up reports, the team also interviews older people living there to learn about their culture and customs. People in this Hujrat were warriors and the women took pots of boiling oil to the rooftops for when an enemy attacked.
The team finds something very interesting at every site, according to Dr Benkari.
“In Qasra, in Rustaq, we noticed that the people were rich because they lived in double-storey houses. But in Muslimat, we saw that the houses were single-storey and small,” she says. “Qasra was home to several Omani scholars, such as Abdullah al Salmi and Khamis Said al Shaqsi, which is why they probably had a public library there.”
At Qasra, the team found the home of Imam Nasser bin Murshid, founder of the Al Ya’ruba dynasty of Oman.
“His house was in complete ruins and we are trying to get a sanction from the Ministry to rebuild it and make it a museum,” says Dr Benkari. “I am sure it will attract a lot of visitors, mostly those who are into the history, culture and archeology of Oman.”
Elderly residents of Muslimat have spoken about the wars and dangers they faced in the past, while those of Qasra discussed scholarly activities and their great library, which also now lies in ruins.
I chatted with Hilal Ali al Ma’wali, the 68-year-old Sheikh of Hujrat Muslimat.
“It is quite disappointing to see my old house in ruins, but we are happy about modernity because we didn’t have technology back then – no phones, no cars, old houses, no electricity,” he says. “Now we have all of that around us and it feels wonderful.”
After just half a day with the students, I shared their interest and enthusiasm towards the project. Despite the punishing work under the unforgiving Omani sun, they want to stay at the site for as long as possible.
“They are completely immersed in the project,” says Dr Benkari. “I don’t dictate to them what needs to be done, I just guide them and they do it all by themselves. They always fight to get the most intricate and complex of houses to document, so that they can learn more out of that. I am proud to have them with me.”
Their work cannot be underestimated. These young people are documenting the present to ensure the past is not lost forever.