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Oman’s museums: A portal into the Sultanate’s treasured past
October 31, 2019 | 3:16 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan
 
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With Oman’s deep-rooted traditions, extensive culture and storied history, it has plenty to share of its heritage with the world.

Across Muscat and the rest of the Sultanate, several museums featuring Oman’s evolution have been setup, where its accomplishments and interactions with other countries that lay in distant lands across the seas are showcased.

With the weather now steadily improving and seasons changing, your plan for this weekend can probably be to take a walk in the by-lanes of history, one paved with Oman’s rich culture, and you can be guided by a desire to learn far more than you could have imagined, just like the Arab pioneers of old. Here are six museums across the country that are definitely worth a visit...or many for that matter.



The Land of Frankincense Museum

Located in the Dhofar Governorate, the Land of Frankincense Museum — more commonly known as the Museum of the Land of Frankincense — celebrates the extensive history of the frankincense resin, a crop so coveted by royal families around the ancient world that it was shipped to faraway kingdoms in China, Egypt and even Rome as early as 400 BC.



“The Land of Frankincense Museum is considered one of the most prominent historical museums in Oman because it includes historical and cultural features from different eras,” according to the Ministry of Tourism. “The museum is located in the Dhofar Governorate, in the heart of a historic site that was registered in UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000, as an archaeological and tourism park after consultation with the international organisation.

“UNESCO chose the Al Baleed site, considered by archaeologists as the most important remnants of an ancient Islamic city on the coast of the Arabian Sea, as being part of the historic home of the frankincense tree the Sultanate of Oman is renowned for, especially since frankincense was the most important Omani export in ancient times,” added the Ministry.

The museum is located in the region of Al Baleed in Salalah. It is divided into two main halls: the ‘Hall of History’ which branches into six sections, and the ‘Marine Hall’ which is divided into seven sections. The Land of Frankincense Museum in Salalah borders the ruins of Al Baleed Archaeological Park and is dedicated to the trading history of this ancient port. Visitors can discover how trade with Frankincense and maritime strength ensured the region flourished in the 12th century.

According to UNESCO, “The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah and the remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr/Wubar and the affiliated ports of Khor Rori and Al Baleed vividly illustrate the trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries, as one of the most important trading activities of the ancient and medieval world.

“The four components of the Land of Frankincense dramatically illustrate trade in frankincense that flourished in this region for many centuries,” said the organisation. “They constitute outstanding testimony to the civilisations in south Arabia since the Neolithic era. The successive ports of Khor Rori (4th century BC to the 5th century AD) and Al Baleed (8th century to the 16th century AD) and an outpost close to the Great Desert Rub Al Khali, Shisr, about 170 km inland, represent in a unique way the distribution of frankincense which was produced in the wadis of the coastal hinterland.

“All three sites were exceptionally fortified. Wadi Dawka is an outstanding example of the growth of the frankincense tree (boswellia sacra) from which the resin was produced, collected and traded,” added UNESCO.

The property is protected according to Royal Decree No. 6/80 —on the protection of the national heritage, and its buffer zone was given legal status by Royal Decree No. 16/2001, says UNESCO. The property is managed through a management plan. The sites are fenced and the buffer zones are marked.

In Shisr, a small settlement of the Bedouins lies within the buffer zone (radius of 700 metres from the property centre). Also in Shisr the palm trees of the oasis, part of the buffer zone, will be replaced by young trees by the authority. The re-generation and maintenance of plantation schemes will be essential in the future.



Bait Al Zubair

Initially begun as a private collection of artefacts and antiquities that was made accessible to the public in 1998, Bait Al Zubair has since installed its collection in a cluster of buildings – each with a different theme – so that people can learn about the fascinating history created by and interactions of the Omanis of the past.

There are also a number of social laboratories each one of them having been designated a different subject – poetry, arts, youth, children, translation, theatre and culture – where people can enjoy an in-depth look at the evolution of these subjects and how they impacted and affected society through the years. Other cultural labs are also organised from time to time.

“Bait Al Zubair is cultural foundation started initially with a private museum that opened its carved wooden doors to the public in 1998,” said the museum management. “It is funded by its founders, the Zubair family. In 2005 the family established the Bait Al Zubair Foundation as the cultural and social arm of the family-owned business, The Zubair Corporation. The foundation manages the cultural space and develops projects relating to culture and heritage, the arts, the community, history and publishing.

“Bait al Zubair displays the family’s collection of Omani artefacts that spans a number of centuries, and is considered to be the finest that is privately owned,” added the museum. “Its ethnographic artefacts reflect highly specialised inherited skills that define Oman’s society, both past and present. It is one of the country’s architectural icons and in 1999 was the proud recipient of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos’ Award for Architectural Excellence, the first time it was awarded in Oman.”

The complex consists of five separate buildings (Bait Al Bagh, Bait Al Dalaleel, Bait Al Oud, Bait Al Nahdhah and Gallery Sarah) as well as a garden with a number of traditional features, café and gift shop. The museum aims to be Oman’s leading and pioneering privately owned cultural hub that enables and fosters cultural art that promotes the legacy of Oman, its environment and its people through cultural responsibility.

The museum is “fully committed in protecting, preserving, presenting and promoting Oman’s rich cultural heritage, and continuously provides support for both established and upcoming young creatives to learn, develop, explore and exhibit their works.”



The National Museum of Oman

Aimed at preserving Oman’s lengthy history and vast heritage, and sharing it with visitors, the National Museum of Oman houses an impressive and awe-inspiring collection of artefacts and antiquities that have been painstakingly gathered over the centuries and lovingly housed in this temple of great learning.

No museum can fully share with travellers its responsibility and the history of the country in which it is located, but the National Museum of Oman does come quite close. While the museum does aim to share the country’s legacy with those who visit Oman, it also collaborates with other museums in the GCC and the world-over to ensure that people can get a glimpse of Oman’s legacy, even if they are outside the Sultanate.

An example of this cultural artefact exchange, the National Museum of Oman shares ancient relics with the Louvre in Abu Dhabi — the capital of the United Arab Emirates — providing more people the opportunity to learn about the Sultanate’s history. Among the relics that had been sent there were an old frankincense burner that dated back to between the 14th and 16th century, and coins that had come to Oman when it was still an empire.

“Opened in 2016, the National Museum of Oman is located opposite the Sultan’s Palace in Old Muscat and showcases the Sultanate’s rich history and heritage, from its earliest settlement through to present day,” says the Ministry of Tourism. “Housed in an imposing new building in the heart of Old Muscat, the National Museum makes a fitting consort for the Sultan’s Palace opposite.”

“The emphasis of this contemporary museum is on quality rather than quantity, with space, light and height used to enhance the selective displays showcasing the heritage of Oman. Giant screens and high-tech devices bring the artefacts alive. There’s a particularly strong and innovative multimedia section on maritime history,” the Ministry added.

The museum was designed by the Spanish firm Accionia, which constructed the building in which it was housed, to both allow for Oman’s traditional, simple and elegant architectural designs to shine, as well as give every artefact and activity in the museum its proper place.

Visitors are at the epicentre of the experience, and the museum does provide them with one that is more memorable and insightful.

“The new building in Old Muscat is modern, light and airy, and there is sufficient variety and depth in the display and interpretation across the numerous gallery spaces to keep the visitor engaged and enthused,” said the Culture Counsel, a group of artists that lend their expertise in history, art, architecture and antiquities to those that require them.

“Unlike many other museums in the Gulf region, the NMO has a bountiful collection of interesting, important and oftentimes beautiful objects.

“The maritime story is, of course, strong. Dhow boats take pride of place, and clearly present the ongoing tradition of sophisticated design and skilled craftsmanship,” added the Culture Counsel. “

Other stories explore Oman’s extended connections with other parts of the world, reaching back some 5,000 years and continuing till today.

The richness of the interaction between Oman, it’s near Arab neighbours, Africa, India, Pakistan, the Far East, Europe and North America is richly evident in numerous galleries.”



Turtle Museum, Ras Al Jinz

Part of the Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve that was set up in the Sharqiyah Governorate to promote conservation of turtles that are indigenous to Oman, the Turtle Museum offers visitors an insight into the behaviour of these amazing reptiles, as well as scientific programmes aimed towards their research, care and conservation.

This museum contains several state-of-the-art laboratories where experiments on optimal turtle care are conducted, and visiting it is part of the turtle-watching trips that many people who both live in and visit Oman regularly embark on. That these expeditions often begin early in the morning, before the sun has risen, which is peak egg-laying time for the turtles, shows the curiosity, interest and passion people have in learning more about this amphibian.

“Turtle nesting tours at Ras Al Jinz allow visitors to witness the spectacle in an intimate fashion without fear of interrupting the creatures themselves,” said the reserve’s management team. “The turtle sanctuary at Ras Al Jinz combines an interactive museum with research laboratories and a wide range of amenities for visitors to learn all about the wonders of these ancient creatures in a family-friendly environment.”

The Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve is owned by Omran, the Sultanate of Oman’s tourism investment arm, with a view to developing the country’s tourism sector, and in addition to this reserve in Ras Al Jinz, has similar centres on Masirah Island, which is home to the loggerhead turtle.

Close to the reserve is Ras Al Hadd, where around 13,000 sea turtles come ashore every year to lay their eggs. It is among the largest nesting sites in the Indian Ocean and the only one in the world where Green Turtles come ashore every night all year round. The area is also home to an ancient fishing village which dates back to about 3,000 BC, proof that man and animal had been sharing the beach for close to 5,000 years.

“One of the most popular eco-tourism activities in Oman is turtle viewing,” added the reserve. “Oman is home to several important nesting sites for four different species of turtle: the endangered Green Turtle, the Olive Ridley Turtle, the Loggerhead Turtle, and the critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle.

“Not known to many, the best time to travel and see the turtle hatching is during summer time, between May and September. Being in the Middle East and understandably so, there is always that hesitation in travelling due to the temperature and humidity,” they said. “Truth is, Ras Al Hadd enjoys comfortable weather all throughout the year and during summer time averaging 25 and 35 degrees Celsius.”



The Maritime Museum in Sur

Decades before Oman became a modern nation, the Sultanate was an empire that ruled as a thalassocracy.

What is a thalassocracy, you ask? A thalassocracy is a seaborne empire that rules over large parts of the seas that were (and to some extent still are) used by trade ships that used to cross these waters to sell goods, before taking on merchandise to sell back in their own country.

While Salalah in the south was an important point in Oman’s sea trade, Sur was by far one of the most important ports in the region. Here, merchants who braved the rough waters of the open oceans would halt for a few months, selling wares such as various silks, dye and ivory, before loading up on incense, dates and coffee, which were in great demand in their homeland.

Sur was also the centre of Oman’s famed traditional boatbuilding industry, and had dozens of yards that built hardy dhows that would take to the seas, as Omani sailors went forth for search of lands they’d previously only heard of. The Sur Maritime Museum is a treasure trove of Oman’s seafaring history, and is located in the same town.

“The Sur Maritime Museum charts the history of shipbuilding in the town,” says Oman’s Ministry of Information. “With its strong seafaring connections, it is hardly surprising that the legendary sailor, Sinbad, is thought to have originated there. A replica of the type of boat Sinbad sailed is situated in the Al Bustan roundabout in Muscat. The maritime museum is Sur houses pictures and models of Omani ships and their captains and shipbuilders, the ports the ships frequented, as well as the equipment and tools used for navigation, such as instruments, maps, and manuscripts.”

“Showcasing Oman’s maritime history and traditional boatbuilding craftsmanship, the Sur Maritime Museum bears testament to the trade that marks Oman’s rich seafaring heritage,” says the country’s Ministry of Tourism. “The famous, original Fatah Al Khair dhow is displayed here. Sur is famous for its maritime heritage, which highlights the leading role that Omanis played in maritime navigation across a long period of history.

“In order to preserve this heritage, and to ensure that the coming generations know of it, the Maritime Museum in the Wilayat of Sur was established to reflect various types of Omani maritime heritage,” added the ministry/ “Efforts have been made by the citizens of the wilayat and researchers in Omani heritage to preserve this slice of history.

“The Museum was established in 1987 at Al Orouba Club. Since its inception, it has been serving a scientific cause for the benefit of those interested in the Omani maritime history, the Ministry of Tourism went on to say.

“The visitors can see images of famous makers of ships, locally called Al Wistad, in addition to images of a number of sailors and captains of ships locally called Nokhidha, as well as photos of ports visited by those ships.”



Museum of Illusions

One of the newest museums to open its doors in Oman, the Museum of Illusions is located in Muscat Grand Mall in Boushar. It also deviates from the traditional themes of the other museums in the Sultanate, in that in many ways, it depicts the future, and shows visitors things they could otherwise only imagine. Isn’t that what illusions are, in many ways?

The museum only opened about a year ago, and has already proven to be extremely popular among both Oman’s local and foreign population, as well as tourists who come to visit the Sultanate. As museum management themselves put it, if a picture is worth a thousand words, be sure that an illusion hides more than a million.

“The Museum of Illusions in Oman brings you a place that is suitable for both social and entertaining tours into the world of illusions which delights all generations,” they said. “It’s a perfect place for new experiences and fun with friends and family and it’s unique in this part of the Arab World. Not only is it a place for children who adore coming, but also a place for parents, couples, grandmothers and grandfathers.

“Be brave enough to jump in an illusion created by the Vortex Tunnel, the first of such in this part of Arab World! Vortex will drive you crazy and make you believe you’re heavily struggling just to make a step forward through a rotating cylinder – on a surface so stable and flat! Deform the image of yourself in a Mirror Room, let yourself free in an Infinity room, resist the laws of gravity and size ratio, and make pictures of yourself in every possible pose!” they added.

The Museum of Illusion contains a plethora of holograms, optical illusions and other installations that are meant to boggle the mind and tingle your senses. Their aim is simple...it is to challenge your ideals and perception of the world, and remind you that not everything is as it seems. After all, all that glitters is not gold.

“Deceive your eyes and entertain the mind! Enjoy in our collection of holograms, look closer at every optical illusion and observe thoroughly each installation,” said the management team from the Museum of Illusion. “They are such a brilliant, playful reminder that our assumptions about the world we perceive are often, nothing but a spectre of illusions. The genuine heritage of showpieces will more certainly make your jaw drop! Amusing and awesome tricks will teach you about vision, perception, the human brain and science so it will be easier to perceive why your eyes see things which your brain can not understand.

“Make sure you visit our playroom with intriguing and educational games and puzzles. These brain bashers are definitely great fun but tend to be frustrating as well,” they added. “Come and explore the world of illusions. Experience the impossible. Be sure your camera is fully charged with memory space before you visit. By all means take your camera with you.”[email protected]

What Oman’s Ministry of Tourism says about the country’s museums

Oman has a number of museums, primarily in the capital, that are focused on promoting culture, science, and heritage.

In Muscat, attractions like The National Museum of the Sultanate of Oman, Bait Al Baranda and Bait Al Zubair offer a glimpse into the country’s past with well-preserved artefacts from daily life and several works of art. Bait Al Safah is located in Al Hamra, in one of Oman’s best-preserved old towns, and is a living museum. Visitors can experience locals demonstrating traditional ways of making Omani coffee, bread making and more.

The Museum of Frankincense Land in Salalah borders the ruins of Al Baleed Archaeological Park and is dedicated to the trading history of this ancient port. Visitors can find information on how trade with frankincense and maritime strength ensured the region flourished in the 12th century.



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