Bait Al Safah Nizwa

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19 Dec 2019 Posted By Alvin Thomas

Overview

Aftab H.Kola immerses himself in Omani heritage at this living museum in Al Hamra where local culture comes alive to ignite the senses through sight, smell, taste, and sound.

The all-pervasive scent of frankincense remained suspended on the air, mingling with the ever-inviting aroma of ‘kahwa’ and fresh ‘rukhal’ bread to tease the senses as I entered Bait Al Safah – a 400-year-old house-cum-‘living’-museum in Al Hamra, where Oman’s fascinating cultural heritage thrives within the walls of its ancient mud buildings.

Al Hamra – a non-descript small town at the foothills in Al Dakhiliyah Governorate – once prospered under the Al Yaribah dynasty four centuries ago. Today, it’s an open-air museum of historic mud architecture and traditional ways of life that have yet to lose their foothold in the face of change.

In spite of the modernity ushered in with the discovery of petroleum in Oman, some enclaves within the Sultanate have managed to keep their heritage intact – serving as a reminder of the its simple traditions. Al Hamra is one such settlement where the vestiges of the past still reverberate in all their glory.

And it’s here in Al Hamra that Bait Al Safah – which means the ‘house on the shiny rock’ due to its location on a large, flat slab of weathered granite – serves as a microcosm of traditional Omani architecture, culture, and heritage. Converted into a so-called ‘living’ museum, this four-storey edifice is a favourite tourist destination.

Through its living displays of heritage it becomes a unique identifier – a symbol of the country’s cultural vibrancy, its traditions, cuisine, clothing, jewelry, and more. It’s a place where visitors to the Sultanate can become completely immersed in Omani culture with all their five senses.

With its compact, narrow alleys lined with mud-brick homes, Al Hamra is a town caught in a time warp. Set at its center, Bait Al Safahis a graciously-restored dwelling – almost as old as the town itself – that presents a ‘living’ version of what Omani homes and households looked like several centuries back.

Entering through a rustic engraved door which opens onto the first floor with its high wooden ceilings adorned with hand-paintings, an earthen pot captures our attention. Once used as a natural cooler for water storage, these vessels are now almost extinct. Water would evaporate through the pots clay pores, causing it to be become cool as energy is consumed during the evaporation process – thus lowering the temperature of the water remaining in the pot. In the centuries before modern methods of refrigeration it was an ingenious way to make sure you always had cool, cold water to drink and bathe in on a hot summer’s day.

As we pass further through the first floor of Bait Al Safah, a young girl carrying a ‘mijmar’ passes by, welcoming us with the perfumed aroma of Omani frankincense as the delicate smoke wafts around us. The scent of rose water is also prominent in the the ‘al barzah’ – or ‘living room’ here. Sitting down, we’re offered hot cups of ‘kahwa’ – strong, bittersweet coffee dashed with cardmom – along with lusciously sweet Omani dates. As we tuck in, we’re transported to another place and time.

Amidst this traditional setting of hand-woven carpets and exquisitely carved rosewood doors are women performing the daily tasks required in a household. We sit near one Omani lady dressed in traditional attire who demonstrates to us the preparation of ‘rukhal’ bread – a thin, round crêpe made of flour – a favourite in every Omani kitchen.

We also had the privilege of watching the preparation of fresh juniper oil, the grinding of coffee beans, the extraction of oil from local nuts, and examples of weaving and spinning. The Bait Al Safah house also houses examples of Omani handicrafts, utensils, and traditional kitchenware that are now seldom in use today – all to our delight of stepping back in time.

There’s also a gift and curios shop that sells ‘kahwa’ powder, Omani honey, local spices, frankincense, ‘bakhoor’ (a traditional incense), Oman halwa and dates, along with handicrafts like ‘khanjars’, keychains, and other keepsakes.

On the uppermost floor of Bait Al Safah we paused to drink in the panorama view of the surrounding village from its window. It’s here where visitors are entertained by Omani folkloric troupes who perform traditional dances and battle scene re-enactments. Multilingual local guides who are well-versed in several languages are also available to escort tourists around this ‘living’ museum and help them make the most of what is nothing short of an unforgettable experience where tradition thrives among the echoes of a cultural history that has shaped Oman indelibly.


How To Get There?


From Muscat’s Seeb area, take the Burj Al Sahwa roundabout past the Wholesale Vegetable Market and onto Route 15 towards Nizwa. Continue on for an hour-and-a-half until you see the exit for Route 21 bypassing Nizwa. Connect onto Route 21 and follow the signs for another hour until you reach Al Hamra. Once there, follow the road to the centre of the village, keeping an eye out for the signs to Bait Al Safah. 

GPS Coordinates:  23.1026° N, 57.2875° E

Location

Nizwa
Length:
Difficulty: Easy
Dist. from Muscat:


GPS Location

23.1026° N, 57.2875° E


Known For

Adventure, Family Tour


TRAVEL GUIDE

From Muscat’s Seeb area, take the Burj Al Sahwa roundabout past the Wholesale Vegetable Market and onto Route 15 towards Nizwa. Continue on for an hour-and-a-half until you see the exit for Route 21 bypassing Nizwa. Connect onto Route 21 and follow the signs for another hour until you reach Al Hamra. Once there, follow the road to the centre of the village, keeping an eye out for the signs to Bait Al Safah.


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