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Traditional Arts of Oman

Al Sawadi fort, Oman

Rock art, found on formations alongside normally dry river beds (wadis) in the Western Hajar (Jabal al-Akhdar), dates back to at least the 3rd millennium BCE. Men, women, children and animals are depicted in a large variety of manners. Intricate floral and geometric designs are typical in Omani jewellery, woodwork, metal, leatherwork, pottery, weaving and other textiles.

Oman’s architecture is impressive. Traditional monumental forts and palaces, mosques and residences made from mud-brick or natural stone blend in with the impressive landscape. The architectural style of most forts and large residences is typical for the Arab and Islamic world. The buildings have high, thick walls, few windows and usually a square plan with round towers at the corners. Stern and strong on the outside, they have a monumental entrance with large wooden doors often decorated with brass spikes, in which there is a small door for daily use. On the inside, there are vaulted arches over the gateways and high windows, carved wooden ceilings, and roof beams decorated with colourful floral and geometric designs. Elegantly carved wooden window screens (mashrabiya) let the wind blow freely, but keep the sun out. They give way to spacious and sun-lit inner courtyards. Water running through a falaj (the ancient irrigation system, that still functions) and from wells inside the building ensure the residents of water and constantly moisten the hot and dry air.

Jabrin castle, near Bahla, situated on the planes leading to the Jabal al-Akhdar region, is a typical example. It used to be the palace of the Yaruba dynasty (1624-1741), a period of cultural renaissance. The palace has a Koran school and a mosque on the top floor, which offers a magnificent view over the oasis with palm groves. Other forts built in the same period are al-Hazm on the Batina plane and Bayt al-Naaman near al-Rustaq.

In Matrah and Muscat other styles are found. The Portuguese, who dominated the Omani ports in the 16th and 17th century, built the two forts of al-Mirani and al-Jalali at the entrance of the Muscat harbour. The beautiful houses bordering the Matrah Corniche with elegantly decorated windows and wooden balconies bear witness to architectural influences from India, with which Oman always had close ties.

In many towns the traditional houses and living quarters, often located in or near the palm gardens and the market, have been abandoned and look dilapidated. The inhabitants have built their houses in new quarters near the sortie roads of the towns. Restoration of the older districts has now been put on the agenda. Nizwa is a successful example of this process. Oman’s contemporary architecture is also inspired by Islamic motives and designs. New buildings display many characteristic features such as vaults (mashrabiya), scalloped and polylobate arches, curved lines, cupolas and fine decorations of circles, squares and octagons as well as arabesques. Koranic inscriptions are sometimes applied in various calligraphic designs on the outer and inner walls, above doors or on bands in the cupola. The new style sets examples for today’s architecture in the Arab world.

A magnificent example is the Sultan Qaboos Mosque in the Muscat governorate. This building combines traditional simplicity in forms and modest use of colours with an impressive grandeur in graceful design. The interior decoration is  stunningly elegant, with crystal lamps, large Persian carpets, stained glass windows and marble decorations displaying the most famous decorative styles in the Islamic world.

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