All countries have a custodial and moral responsibility to shape and protect their culture. And to keep alive the past’s history, culture and traditions about a people is a significant role – not only for the next generation, but also for visitors curious about a country’s heritage.
Bait Al Zubair (House of Al Zubair) is a private museum that opened to the public in 1998. Located in the former Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali Zubair family house in Old Muscat, built in 1914, it displays the Zubair family’s private collection of Omani artifacts, including clothing, household items, artwork and maps, and swords and firearms, with detailed descriptions as to their origin and use.
No graceful architecture and no opulent furnishings, no sweeping views of elaborate staircases. Nevertheless, the individually-styled museum features century old, authentic Omani displays resonating from the past.
The explanations are excellent, and although the museum is small, it was well organized and very educational. The complex is broken into four individual buildings showcasing clothing and furniture along with weapons, early maps and prints of the Arabian Peninsula, typical Muscati furniture, a replicated Omani Bedouin home within a garden setting, a gift shop, and art gallery/coffee shop. The latter was under renovation the day we visited.
Set up as a self-guided experience, we spent two hours at Bait Al Zubair, and enjoyed every minute. The artifacts were impressive and with the explanations so detailed, time-honored traditions came to life.
Omani women have distinctive, colorful national dresses that vary widely from region to region. Women’s attire is often complex consisting of many layers. Clothing is frequently handmade and usually features intricate embroidery around the neck, wrists and ankles. An Omani girl would usually start to cover her hair at puberty, and if it is her tribal custom, she may also veil or mask her face.
Jewelry is very important to the Omani women. Jewelry designs are ornate and can feature Quranic and Arabic script, geometric patterns, and stylized floral decorations.
The dishdashe, the Omani national dress for men, is a simple white or ivory gown. Men wear matching pants underneath. The dishdashe has a single tassel at the neck that can be perfumed. On formal occasions, a kanjhar (the Omani dagger) would be worn on a belt around the waist with a bisht, usually a brown, cream or black translucent cloak etched with gold or silver trimmings. The man’s head would be covered with a turban called a msarr.
The shal, a long strip of fabric, is worn around the waist of the dishdashe with a kanjhar (dagger) tucked into it. The shal and the msarr (the turban worn by Omani men and usually made from embroidered cotton or wool) will always be the same design of material and come as a set. When the shal is worn, the bisht is usually not, at least not in the Muscat area.
Kummah is a simple cap for everyday use for males. It consists of two pieces of cloth sewn together, a circular top with a rectangular strip attached to form the sides. The cap is made of crisp white cotton that is embroidered in many different colors with unique, highly decorative designs. Traditionally, the women in the family would make them for their menfolk.
Other male accessories include the Al Mhahil, Al Abzim and the midwakh/mushrab. The latter is a small silver pipe used by the Bedouin, and its style varies from region to region.
Mhahil are silver kohl containers that were used by men. Kohl was applied to the eyes to protect them from the sun. The containers were hung from belts or stored in the headdress. Baseball players in the U.S. put this black kohl under their eyes today to block the sun. The containers are bullet shaped with an application stick fastened to a chain on its lid. It is often highly decorated with floral or geometric designs, and worn exclusively by men.
Al abzim are belt buckles that can be divided into three major categories. Two types are worn on an embroidered belt, one of which opens in the center, and the other opens at the side. The third type is a small buckle that fastens the kanjhar, gun powdered horn strap or a sword belt. The mahfadh is a decorative silver cover for a pocket on the kanjhar or a bullet belt.
The home is a place of comfort and security and plays a very important part in Omani family life. The Omani people are renowned for their hospitality, which I observed firsthand. The legacy of a desert-dwelling culture where a friendly welcome and the offer of refreshment have always been the established custom still survives. Today, visitors to an Omani home will invariably be offered halwa, a gelatinous sweet meat greatly enjoyed in Oman. This is traditionally followed by kalwa (Arabic coffee flavored with cardamom).
Dallah is the coffee pot made from copper and brass. The Omani coffee pot design features a hinged lid attached to the handle and a curved spout. Some coffee pots were made out of silver and mostly used for decorative purposes. Coffee pots are still manufactured primarily in Nizwa, using the same traditional craftsmanship as before. Sahalah are Bedouin drinking vessels, which look to be made of copper. They would be hooked to the side of camel trappings.
Incense burners and rosewater sprinklers made of engraved and decorated silver are all items commonly used throughout Oman. After guests are served coffee, they are offered rosewater sprinkled over their hands. Incense burners are then taken around to the guests who can enjoy the scents that rise from the Frankincense oud.
Ornate incense burners called magmar are made from clay or silver. They can also be made of wood; however, the Bedouin type is clay. Hot coals are placed in it, which is then sprinkled with incense to produce the perfumed smoke.
What Americans know as a hope chest, Omanis call sandouq. These wooden chests with ornate tops decorated with carvings and brass, serve a multitude of purposes, and can be dated back to the 16th century. Different styles found reflect the Sultanate’s rich sea-faring heritage with influences from Persia, Asia and Africa. Chests in Oman are a very important part of the home and were generally given full of treasures as a bridal gift to girls getting married.
Swords and Firearms
Omanis are historically renowned for their prowess and swordsmanship, according to information at Bait al Zubair. From early descriptions, Oman men were traditionally armed with a sword and a dagger.
This dagger, known as a kanjhar in Oman, is curved and worn on an embroidered belt. The kanjhar is an essential part of male dress and symbolizes manhood, courage and tradition. The ornate silver and gold work on the kanjhar reflect techniques and craftsmanship passed down through families from father to son, and it is this that sets them apart from other regional daggers.
Omani sword styles have remained essentially the same for 600 years, where the sword was used as a weapon until the introduction of the rifle in the 19th century.
The saif is an Omani straight sword with intricately cast and engraved silver mounts. It is particularly rare. These swords would also have been disguised as a walking stick when it had the scabbard on, a use still common today. This type of Omani sword has a flamboyant early 17th century double-edged blade that is extremely sharp.
The gracefully curved blade Omani sword, with a Yemeni influence, is known as a kitarah. These swords usually have an ivory grip bound with silver or gold wire and decorations. The blade is usually made of Damascus watered steel with patterns that resemble ripples of water, and created on the blade by highly specialized forging and fabrication techniques.
The matchlock, known in Oman as the abu satiyalah, the user of the match, was first featured in Arabia in the 16th century. It was probably invented in many places quite independently in the 15th century as a natural progression from the hand cannon. By the 17th century, matchlocks were manufactured in Oman’s interior and were in great demand until the 1880s when they were replaced by the rifle.
With the introduction of the modern rifle late in the 19th century (1897-1898) in Oman, Muscat became established as the center for arms and ammunition traffic and trade in the region supplying the Gulf area including Persia and Afghanistan.
The mahzam, a bullet belt, held a variety of different sized cartridges for matchlocks or rifles. The belt for the matchlock held cartridges with enough powder for a single shot. These belts were often elaborately woven with silver thread and usually had small pouches on either side of the buckle for keeping small items safe.
In Oman, rifles were brought out in times of war and times of peace. They were also used for hunting. At weddings and Eid festivities, rifles are fired into the sky to add excitement to the celebrations.
As we finished in the main portion of the museum, we made our way to a second building housing artwork, Arabian Peninsula maps and early printmaking items. Typical furniture dating back 100 years was featured on the first floor, along with Sheikh Zubair’s office furniture, while subsequent floors displayed artwork and the maps, a renewed geography lesson for me.
Prior to the 18th and 19th centuries AD, few people from the west had traveled to the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa due to adverse natural climatic, economic, religious and social conditions. It was, therefore, difficult for artists producing prints to draw from life, so they would have relied on previous artwork, and travelers’ and explorers’ accounts of a place or people. Artists that traveled to the places specifically to record them visually, originally sketched some of the artwork, while others are artist impressions that were then made into prints that would have been hand colored. There is also an extensive display of historic cameras.
Once hidden in dusty periodicals or travelers’ accounts recounting the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa, from 1670 AD until the end of the 19th century, these prints are important works of art from Europe originating predominantly from the United Kingdom, Germany and France. They can be considered among the first images of Oman and the region prior to photography, and feature historic pictures of the royal family and their court, gifts and palaces. Muscat and other locations in Oman, as well as people, costumes, camels and education are also featured artwork. These prints are important to the world because they impart geographic and cultural information about the Arabian Peninsula, and serve as valuable historical and artistic documents. Although they were reproduced many times when first made, they are now very rare. These prints provide data available in past times and those on display showing the Arabic Peninsula represent a period of about 200 years dating from the 17th – 19th centuries AD.
Printmaking was the essential medium for communication prior to photography, and is a method of making multiple works of art by transferring images, texts and colors, usually to paper on a printing press, through a variety of processes. The prints on display were mostly made of wood, copper and steel engraving in chromolithography.
There are many different methods of printmaking that have evolved over hundreds of years. Engraving is one of these earliest forms. For thousands of years this technique was used to embellish seals, jewelry and metalwork.
Outside and part of the museum grounds is a gorgeous garden that features a traditional barasti (palm frond) hut, a falaj (ancient water distribution system) and a small-scale replicated souq area. At the far end is a model scale city of Muscat in the old days.
This house that became a museum has a lot to say through its images and information from the canvas of life for visitors to learn and draw from, thus enriching and influencing its Muscati society in a positive way. If you go to Muscat, I highly recommend a visit to Bait Al Zubair.