Times of Oman
Sep 04, 2015 LAST UPDATED AT 06:49 AM GMT
Handwritten heritage
March 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
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Unravelling the history and cultural heritage of Oman are the thousands of private records collected and preserved by the National Records and Archives Authority, a great source for 'scientific research and intellectual innovation'.

Ahmed Al Mahrouqi and Mahmood Al Ghamari are busy in front of the most modern copy machines, their careful hands flipping through the thin and yellow sheets of paper broken at their edges, the medieval manuscripts that have been collected and restored. Kept around them safely in the dim-lit room are small containers with long scrolls inside where ancient scholars scribbled wise words and speeches of leaders, parchments that reveal a country's psyche centuries ago, legal documents from yesteryears that speak of the laws that ruled the land and even simple receipt slips or notes that unraveled family histories!

Besides them, there are many other young citizens like Saud Al Busaidi and Hilal al Shiadi, who have been handpicked to preserve the handwritten or printed heritage of the Sultanate and their job is to collect the records owned or possessed by individuals, families and tribes that contain information or data which exceeds the scope of their owners…documents and agreements on lineage, rights, inheritance, business and agricultural practices spanning centuries, which could constitute a nation's memory.

That's exactly the aim of National Records and Archives Authority (NRAA), which has now amassed thousands of records and manuscripts from the citizens across the country for future research and studies. "We began our work in the year 2009 and so far we have collected more than 100,000 records besides about 15,000 manuscripts," says Hamood Salim Al Hinai, the senior head of Private Records at the NRAA.

The NRAA's main source for records is of course all types of papers and files that are created by the administrative divisions in all governmental bodies. Since its inception in 2007, the authority has transferred into its shelves four to seven percent of all archived records from various ministries and departments which document the social, political, economical and cultural practices in the present time. However, the Private Records section formed at a later stage has gained a significant place in the NRAA as it collects historically significant records from citizens and even from other countries, which are organised in a proper manner for reference and research.

Five options for citizens
in possession of old records

Register with NRAA, which will restore the
records if required and give it back with proper files and bags to preserve them at home
Owners can sell the records to the authority (an expert committee will decide the price)
Owners can gift it to NRAA
Owners can keep the records with NRAA for a period of time based on a contract, free of cost, and take it back
Owners can bequeath it to NRAA
Private Records
Records on lineage, proving of rights,
personal matters relating to the education,
life, orders and business,
personal possessions and achievements,
records showing social,
economic and cultural life in the community including wills, inheritance, power of attorneys, sales, regulation of endowments,
agricultural projects, the regulation of Falajs and records created for implementation of projects.
Records Restoration
A technical process which
includes collection,
fixing and strengthening of papers, making it similar to its original form by treating and repairing it
with natural, chemical and biological substances.

Dating back to the medieval era

The records collected from citizens are from previous centuries dating back to 200-500 years and most of them are lease or sale agreements of lands or properties, says Hamood.  "We also have wills and other legal documents besides the speeches made by imams during Friday prayers and Eid and handwritten by a learned person in the village. One can find the writers' names and the date at the bottom," he adds. A speech by Sultan Ahmed Bin Said Al Busaidi in Hijri, 1183 (1769 AD) on a long scroll, is such valuable record the NRAA collected from a citizen.

The manuscripts in Arabic, however, are older and date back to 800-1000. Most of them are religious books about prayers and Islamic customs and practices and some are written in question-answer format by their forefathers. "We have also procured books that deal with language, medicine and astronomy, almost all written by Omanis. Besides we have collected thousands of records from Zanzibar, which was a part of Oman," Hamood says.

People, he says, usually keep the records on a single or two or three sheets of paper in small containers made of palm leaves and toffee boxes and after many years they will get damaged and will be in shreds. The NRAA team restores most of the records. But some will have better containers like the one made of pure silver in which the merchants and residents of Zanzibar presented a petition before the diplomatic agent and consul general at that time.

"For collection of such records, we approach the walis in wilayats to provide us with the names of individuals or families who might be in possession of them. Our team visits them and present before them several options for preserving the records," Hamood points out. They can register their records with NRAA, which will restore them and provide files and bags to preserve them. Other options include selling or gifting the property to the NRAA, handing it over for a certain period and bequeathing it. "We have official agreements for all these processes," he adds.

Newspapers and maps
Having tie-ups with the archives departments across the world, the team often visits other countries to collect records related to Oman. They have been to USA, UK, France, India, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Turkey, Tanzania, Kenya, Brazil and Belgium and the records collected were mostly agreements and official letters in different languages, maps, photos and newspapers.

"The newspapers we collected are quite interesting and show Oman was known to the outside country in the previous centuries,' Hamood says. Among them are English and French newspapers like L'Illustration Journal Universel which wrote an article about Oman in 1850, about the sultans and the history, news about Zanzibar with sketches in Illustrated London News in 1872, sketches of Muscat and other places in Harper's Weekly in 1873 and news and pictures in Le Monde illustre.

The most striking is the National Geographic Magazine dated January 1911 with an article 'Notes on Oman' written by Rev. S.M.Zwemer featuring 10 illustrations including rare pictures from Bahla, Nizwa, Rustaq. "The capital, Muscat, and the adjacent town of Mutrah have together about 25,000 inhabitants. The ancient capital, Rostak, has declined in importance since Muscat was occupied by the Portuguese, from 1508 to the middle of the 17th century," it reads.

Almost all the maps procured are more than 100 years old and some shows the Gulf of Oman was actually 'Mer d'Oman' (Sea of Oman) some 200 years ago. "We also have documented all the stamps issued by Oman. Oman had its first post office in Muscat but the first Omani stamp was issued in 1966. Till then we were using Indian and the UK stamps," Hamood says.

Hamood Salim Al Hinai
Senior Head of Private Records, NRAA

"We conduct exhibitions and seminars in different wilayats to make people aware of the importance of preserving such records and to tell them how the authority can help them to restore and preserve these ancient documents. That's our aim."

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