A 300-year-old castle still packs a presence within the Muscat Governorate at Bait Al Maqhham. Swati Basu Das hears some of the stories behind this bastion of bold wonder while enjoying the warmest of welcomes.
It may not be easy to find the ‘Big House’ without a guide or a tip from the locals who reside in the Wilayat of Bausher.
Bait Al Maqhham is a massive castle that boasts a treasure trove of tales seldom told as well as a litany of little-known historical facts. All that makes for a most fascinating place to visit.
A 20-minute drive from the city-centre via the Muscat Expressway brings you to this 300-year-old historical edifice, which is a veritable tourist attraction in the Muscat Governorate.
The Bait Al Maqqham signpost stands erect at the end of Boushar Street, directing you precisely to the right of the roundabout.
The collapsed mud walls, a few tattered houses, a dried date palm garden and a falaj system can all be witnessed on the way before you reach this fortified castle, and all contribute in spreading its historical flavour all around.
With its century-old, unknown legend, this ‘Big House’ also called Bait (meaning ‘House’ in Arabic) Al Maqqham opens its well-guarded gates to the visitors to witness a majestic patio.
The two cannons on either side of the gate are well displayed. The wooden doors at the entrance are well carved, and exhibit the wooden architecture of Oman in the past and a fascination with wooden doors. Lovingly crafted, these old doors have a certain grace. Like all typical Omani doors, the front door here too is double-sided. Studded with ironworks and a protruding wooden frame, the gates of the castle are an ornate feature of the ‘Big House’.
The massive entrance door opens up to a courtyard. It is cobbled and neat, and the boundaries around it are built high. Part of the yard was once a stable and breeding ground for cattle.
Soon after entering the main entrance, I catch sight of a venerable and learned-looking guide sitting in his office at the corner of the patio.
Welcoming his guest (me) with a bright smile and a cup of ‘khawa’ (Omani coffee) and dates, he wastes no time in describing the 300-year-old castle.
His name is Khalfan Saleem Al Shabibi, and he certainly knows his stuff.
He says: “The site belongs to Sayyidah Thurayah Bint Mohammed Al Busaidiyah. She held an esteemed status in Al Maqqham village. The nearby land and the farms too belonged to her. Most of it has been given away by her to the locals of this area.”
Khalfan clearly knows the castle inside out but declines to expand on what happened to the lady owner.
“The entire castle has nine rooms in total and three watchtowers for the guards to keep an eye on intruders. The first and the second floors have four rooms each, and the third floor has one room,” he says.
A narrow dark tunnel runs through one corner of the hallway and the other end of the tunnel has recently been sealed.
According to Khalfan, the locals used this 25-metre long tunnel as an escape route during the times of tumult and enemy attacks. He adds that residents crawled, two by two, through this narrow tunnel whenever their lives were under threat.
The series of staircases to the other two floors is a bit like a maze. Watch your head as you climb; the roof here is low. There are small window openings by the stairs. Once used to keep a watch on potential intruders, these openings are now shelters for nesting parakeets and doves.
Each room on every floor has a small window. These offer a clear view of the verdant area around the castle. Light plays something of a shimmering, ‘hide-and-seek’ game through them in each room. Each offers an array of Omani artefacts and a display of decorative and useful items that have been really well preserved.
“The items once used by the family are at the terrace of the castle,” says Khalfan.
The third floor has only one room, which Khalfan says was the meeting room.
“Lady Sayyidah Thurayah held her official meetings in here,” he says.
The open terrace atop the castle offers a stunning view of the Hajjar Mountains, the lush green farms around it, and the new construction that is now encompassing the historical fortress.
Khalfan says: “The restoration work of the castle was done in 1993 and then again in 2010 by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture.
“It is one of the greatest tourist attractions in Bausher, and we have more than a thousand visitors every year.”
Khalil Al Baloushi, an official at Wali Office Bousha, says: “Located off the Bausher Street, this historical site is much underrated and we are working on promotional activities to attract more visitors.”