A picture-perfect mountain settlement with an enduring legacy – Birkat Al Mawz should retain its old charm and nature’s bounty as local tribes ardently plan to restore it, says Swati Basu Das.
Silence creeps into its fragile lap. Its crumbled walls reflect glimpses from the olden days, and faint whispers from the past echo into oblivion.
It lies eroded under an enormous blue sky. It shivers when the soft breeze blows, caressing its wrinkled structure. Lush green farms fringe its ruined borders and burbling aflaj meander through its alley, splashing a daily dose of nourishment to the plantations.
Welcome to the ancient city of Birkat Al Mawz. A heritage village dating back to the 17th Century, Birkat Al Mawz can be found on the way to Jabal Al Akhdar, and is a fascinating stopover on the way up to Al Hajjar.
This ruined vernacular settlement juts out of a craggy backdrop and slides down into the valley of the Al Hajjar at the base of Jabal Al Akhdar.
The roofs of these tattered uninhabited dwellings have collapsed, the floors shake with each footstep, and the walls and wooden planks are infested with termites.
Despite the dilapidation, Birkat Al Mawz is but an architectural wonderland.
The soil and water from the wadi have been mixed to build these typical old mountainside mud-homes. Water content in the soil is adjusted and seasoned for two months to build the houses.
Ali Bin Hamood Al Mahrooqi, an administrative manager at the Ministry of Heritage says: “This is a typical way of building a mud house. Each house has a shelter built for the cattle on the ground floor and large storage rooms for grains and dates on the lower-ground floor.
“Alongside the entrance, one can spot the majlis (meeting area). The ceilings have decorative features. Each wooden door of the house has intricate carvings. The first floor had kitchens and washrooms. The top-level consisted of bedrooms, terraces and a meeting area for the ladies.”
The dwellings in Birkat Al Mawz overlap one another, making them seamless. They all conjoin to symbolise the typical Omani hill-type settlement, one that indicates a close tribal and familial relationship and bonding.
The nine tribes Al Tawbi, Al Fahdi, Al Sarqi, Al Riyami, Al Siyabi, Al Na’bi, Al Abri, Al Rukaishi and Al Hadrami inhabited this ancient city and still reside in their new homes, further from the ruins.
Ali Al Mahrooqi says: “All these groups belong to the dominant Al Riyami tribal confederation either closely associated with them like the al Siyabi tribe or as direct descent groups like the Al Fahd, Al Tawbi and other tribes.”
Determining its course through Bait ar Rudaydah (a notable castle), a falaj system passes this village helping the oasis to maintain its greenery. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Falaj al-Khatmeen is a 2,450 metres long, rain-fed Dawoodi falaj.
Ali Al Mahrooqi says: “Its source is the rainwater that floods wadi al-Mauydin. Several smaller channels running down the hills extend to the north and south truncating the east-west linearity of this oasis. It is the only source of water at Birkat Al Mawz.”
The old denizens have shifted to their modern homes, and many now live in the city neglecting their ancestral properties. The quest for modernism might soon witness a fall of this ancient city if overlooked.
Ali says: “The abandoned homes may soon fade away if not restored on time. Though there is no interference from the Ministry, it is a World Heritage site. The owner who wants to restore their house or turn them into inns, therefore, requires permission from the Ministry of Heritage. The owner has no right to tamper with the floor plan of the house. Maintaining its traditional look is a must.”
Here at Birkat Al Mawz, I meet Issa Nasser Al Sarqi, who belongs to the Al Sarqi tribe and presently lives in Nizwa.
A 250-year-old mud house in this ancient city was handed over to him by his forefather, and is his most prized possession. With all permissions granted and required documents correctly signed by the Ministry of Heritage, the restoration work of this old house is currently in progress.
Issa says: “The roofs and walls of some rooms have collapsed, and the doors and windows require restoration. More than 100 tourists visit this place daily during the winter. My old mud-house will serve the guests who want to stay here and enjoy our hospitality.”
He goes on to say, in Arabic, that the word Birkat means “pool” and Al Mawz stands for “banana”. A ‘pool of banana’, this village was named so because of the large number of banana plants cultivated in the past.
Strolling through the green shades of date palms and pomegranates, it is a real challenge to find a thick banana plantation at present.
“Why the village is named ‘Pool of Banana’?” I query as I spot only a few.
Issa replies: “It may now seem to be a bit of an exaggeration but nearly 15 years back, there were more than one thousand banana plantations in this area.”
The right climate and the fertile soil make the place perfect for banana cultivation.
“The rainwater from the mountain which flows down to the valley brings mineral-rich mountain soil to the farmland,” says Issa.
“This is appropriate for the growth of banana plants but now the locals have no time to care for their farms. Therefore, there are not many banana plants now. I plan to restore the banana farms very soon.” ν