Bahla, Oman’s magical oasis

Sunday 09/10/2016
The Great Fort of Bahla in Oman’s al-Dakhiliya province after restoration.

Bahla, Oman - It is called Madinat al-Sehr — the City of Magic. Bahla, one of Oman’s oldest oasis towns and once the capital of the sultan­ate, is home to many myths and legends of magic. A mysterious aura surrounds the walled city, a sign many say proves that magic is still practised in Bahla, deep in the country’s heartland, 200 km south-west of Muscat.
Although people are reluctant to talk about witchcraft and consider it a feature of the past, Bahla is known as the birthplace of “jinn” or black magic, a reputation that predates Islam.
“No, no, there is no black magic here,” residents insist, but legends about Bahla’s magical past include tales of people being turned into cows or goats, haunted by spirits or vanishing when they stood in cursed places or leaned against cer­tain fence posts.
Besides its reputation of black magic, Bahla is in itself a magical place with an impressive fort on a promontory dominating the oasis below, its ancient 12km wall whose construction dates to the pre-Is­lamic era, its souqs and traditional trades and artefacts.
The road to Bahla crosses be­tween the majestic Jabal Akhdar, the western chain of mountains towering more than 3,000 metres, and the unique chain of black vol­canic mountains or ophiolites. The road passes near Nizwa, another old capital of Oman that also has a fort and an old souq.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987, Bahla Fort with its attractive towers, including a wind tower, known as Burj-al-Reeh, be­came accessible to the public a year ago after a restoration that took more than two decades. It is among the oldest forts of Oman and the largest.
The age of the fort has not been confirmed but the diverse architec­ture indicates that it was built in different phases as successive rul­ers added to or renovated parts of it through the centuries.
Bahla is also home to “magical” pottery creations, copper artefacts and silver daggers that adorn many homes in Oman and abroad. All these traditional industries are con­centrated in the old souq, a short distance from the fort.
“I learned this profession from my father and himself from my grandfather. I will transmit my knowledge to my elder son Yusuf, inshallah,” said Ahmed while pol­ishing a silver dagger in his work­shop near the souq.
“I have an obligation to transmit my ancestors’ skills to the next gen­eration and keep the torch burning otherwise all these traditional pro­fessions will just die down, disap­pear.”
Bahla potters are reputed to have magic in their fingers but their tra­ditional trade is being increasingly displaced by mass industrial pot­tery production.
“Yes, unfortunately the tradi­tional pottery making with the wheel and a pedal that used to be transmitted from father to son is slowly disappearing,” said one visi­tor to Bahla Souq who asked not to be named. “You have now Bengalis and other foreign workers produc­ing pottery in loads.”
Pottery jars dating from the sec­ond half of the fourth millennium BC have been found in old tombs in the oasis city. Today, one can visit a few old workshops near the souq where craftsmen use traditional methods to make clay utensils and decorative objects.
The clay comes from the canyon bed and is labouriously crushed and squashed to make it malleable and then fashioned on the wheel — as potters have done throughout history. Potters mould and curve the clay into shapes and pots of dif­ferent sizes, which are placed in a dome-shaped kiln heated with wood and palm fronds.
Although the electric potter’s wheel has been introduced, one can still see the kick-wheel used to make snake pots, which are popu­lar decorative objects traditionally used to store dates.
Another particular feature of Ma­dinat al-Sehr that has nothing to do with the “jinn” is the weekly cattle sale, where farmers from surround­ing villages converge on Bahla to sell their animals.
“Here is the place where all the citizens from Bahla come to sell their cattle every Friday,” said Ab­dullah Al Shueily, pointing at an old tree in the middle of the souq’s square.
“The farmers display their ani­mals by walking them around that old tree while potential buyers stand in a circle and offer a price. It is like an auction. They will keep on exhibiting their cattle until they find a good deal with one of the buyers. You can find this kind of market mostly in Ad Dakhiliyah governorate,” said Abdullah, who is from Al Maamoor, a small village near Bahla.
With its fort, oasis settlement and perimeter fortification, Bahla is an outstanding example of de­fensive architectural ensemble that enabled dominant tribes to achieve prosperity in Oman and the Arabian peninsula during the late medieval period. It is also rising as a major touristic spot in the sultanate.