Dhofar’s unsullied traditions

The historical significance of Salalah comes alive in the photographs of Al Balid, wadi Maqashan and Shisr near the Empty Quarter. The Royal governance of Oman reflects in the photographs of Al Hisn Palace while the country's fame as a maritime trading hub is seen in the photograph of Mirbat harbour

Al Hisn Palace photographed by B Thomas in 1928

A link to the past always reinforces the rich heritage of a nation and the Sultanate has been diligently following this track, amassing a wealth of historical, cultural and social legacies.Often, one may not realise the significance of adhering to social customs and traditions handed down through centuries. However, this leads to the preservation of the identity of a nation despite corrupting influences seeping into society. Fortunately, the Sultanate has been successful in warding off these interferences and retaining its rich traditions, heritage and culture.

A RESIDENT of a mountain village in Dhofar stands in front of the model of his traditional stone and mud house and, above, the interior of a mountain dwelling in which logs weave the roof
Pictures by Abdullah Ibrahim al Shuhi

The records of history include photography and its role in faithfully depicting the life of a particular time is vital as revealed in an exhibition of photographs opened as part of the ongoing khareef festival. The rare photographs taken during the 1930s feature the then significant places in and around Salalah.The photographs were taken by Bertram Thomas, who was in Oman as a political emissary from the United Kingdom. During his spare time, B Thomas gave free rein to his hobby of photography and ventured into the various regions, spending days together to capture life in all its aspects, which now points to the rich past of Salalah.

A town house which still holds sway in Dhofar

The black and white photographs are remarkable for their subjects ranging from Dhofari men in traditional dress, folklore dance by women, hairstyle of boys in which they partly shaved, and girls' hairstyle.The impressive photographs also include a ritual performed by two men to ward off evil, extraction of frankincense, a traditional water channel near Ain Sahanwoot, traditional method of drawing water employing camels, and camels as a mode of desert transport.The realities of life in the 30s are reflected in the photos depicting hunters, horsemen and habitations. The significance of Taqa during those days is underscored in the photo depicting its entrance and animal enclosures.

The 1930 photograph of Salalah's horsemen

The historical significance of Salalah comes alive in the photographs of Al Balid, wadi Maqashan and Shisr near the Empty Quarter.The Royal governance of Oman reflects in the photographs of Al Hisn Palace while the country's fame as a maritime trading hub is seen in the photograph of Mirbat harbour from where thoroughbred Arabian horses were exported.The priceless photographs taken by Wilfred Thesiger during his adventurous crossing of the Empty Quarter are also displayed at the exhibition. The photographs include that of Mohammad, a Rashidi shaikh who gave Thesiger's party their first major meal for weeks after crossing the Empty Quarter.

Women wait to welcome the bride with frankincense

The photograph of Suhail Tahi, a notorious outlaw when younger, is striking. Tahi was well-known for his knowledge of every waterhole in the desert.The photo of Mohammad al Auf is also notable as the incomparable Rashidi guide who led Thesiger across the Empty Quarter. A photograph of Jabal Qarra, near the Kismim Pass is also displayed at the exhibition. This area was a watershed which divided the green meadows and spreading trees from the empty desert.If proof of these valuable photographs was required that the traditions, heritage and culture of the Sultanate are intact, a visit to the Heritage Village set up as part of the khareef festival is sufficient.

A woman sells frankincense and perfumes at the traditional souk of the Heritage Village

Oman's heritage, including habitations, costumes and ceremonial customs which were practised in the past are all being pursued today.With regard to traditional dwellings on Dhofar’s mountains, desert and coast, the necessities of modern life have forced many people to adopt city and town life.. However, those who remain in these environs have not abandoned such dwellings.The abodes on the mountains called strait are absolutely stunning for their aesthetic design and utility. The houses comprise two parts, the circular stone and mud structure which forms the walls, and the roof made of neatly arranged wooden logs that go up from the wall structure in a weaving pattern.

The houses possess a neatly plastered look as grass adorns the roof externally. Identical structures are also built for animals by the mountain people.In the desert environment, the Bedouin tents are striking with their black woolen rugs pieced together to form the roof and walls. The tents keep the cold climate in check. The shelter for animals in the desert areas is called Deema, which is an enclosure made with a tree serving as the main pillar, from which several logs are attached and thatched with grass to provide cool shade to camels and cattle.In the wilayat of Shlim, the traditional stone houses are built without any plastering material.

The circular stone houses have coconut palm leaves providing the thatched roof. The wall structure is built by piling stone upon stone which poses no danger even during extreme climatic conditions.Among the items reflecting Omani heritage is silver jewellery which is the speciality of Salem Saleh Ismail, who has been working as a silversmith for the last 40 years. The exquisite pieces of silver jewellery are still a rage among Arab women, he said.Curiously, not many people are continuing with the vocation of silversmiths, Ismail said adding that even his son who was being groomed as a silversmith abandoned it and preferred a city job.

The rich cultural heritage of Oman, Ismail stressed, would always remain and hence one need not worry that the hand-crafted silver jewellery will at any point of time lose its demand.The social and cultural heritage preserved through the ages is well reflected in a town house set up at the Heritage Village where marital customs and traditions are on display. An authentic bridal room forms part of the house with the traditional cot and cradle, jewellery and cosmetics. Handwoven mats made of date palm leaves make up as carpets besides new pillows for the newly wed couple.The traditional town house is built at two levels with the upper rooms serving as the bridal room or Mahalla adjacent to the the sitting room called Mutawal.

A Bedouin tent which characterises desert life and, above, Salem Saleh Ismail with his exquisite silver jewellery

The downstairs part of the house is known as Dahariz.According to traditions, the bride joins her husband on the wedding day and for a year will remain with him, without even visiting her parents.In case of emergencies, she may visit her parents only during night and has to return also during night during this one-year period.The bridal cot is provided by the bridegroom's parents while its decoration and the remaining furniture for the room will be brought by the bride's family. The cot is brightly decorated and covered at the bottom while the top part is covered with fine cloth and a decorative band in the centre.

The traditional cot is made of strong wood with four pillar-like supporters which are also decoratively painted. The cot has room for hanging a cradle beneath it.The cloth decoration on the cot is called Ausabeh and the sheet used for covering the top part is known as Dair. The bride is ceremonially led into the room as women await to welcome her with frankincense.The opportunity to see and understand the Sultanate's rich traditions, heritage and culture is no doubt the result of the pains taken by the forefathers to protect and pass on the rich legacies to posterity.

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