Bait Al-Qefel

Were these walls in Wadi Saham once a lock house?

In our travels through Musandam and the mountains of the northern UAE we have often come across low stone structures with very thick walls. The picture to the right was one of several such ruins we came across in Wadi Sahm & Wadi Helo this weekend. They are usually abandoned and roofless today but were once strong rooms know as Bait Al Qefel literally “House of the Lock”.  NB: the Arabic word  for “lock” is a great illustration of the problems of transcribing a spoken language I’ve seen it spelt “qefel”, “qafl” and “qufl”!

These modest stone structures reveal a little of the pre-oil nomadic lifestyle of the Omani and Emirati people. In the northern tip of the Arabian peninsula it is hard for a visitor to differentiate between the people of the two countries. Indeed Oman has enclaves within the Emirate of Fujairah and the citizens of the GCC pass freely between Musandam and the UAE whilst tourists and residents will find no border controls when entering the enclaves. There are slight differences in national dress but that is a topic for another day.

Kevin demonstrating the door height

The residents of this part of the world migrated seasonally (and to a lesser extent still do) from the mountains to the cooler coast in summer. Whilst they were away at their other home there was a need to safeguard vital supplies of oil and grain as well as household goods from marauders. The Lock House evolved into the ideal architecture for this purpose. First a floor was dug out at least a metre in depth, usually more, no mean challenge in the rocky terrain. Low walls maybe a metre thick are then built around with only one aperture, a low doorway less than a man’s height. It has a stout wooden door with two locks to prevent entry.

Storage jars wider than the doorway were put in place before the roof was added so could not easily be removed. They would contain items like water, dates, date honey, grain, palm oil and other provisions to ensure the returning members of the family had food to sustain them when they returned to their mountain farms in the cooler, wetter winter months. Some Lock Houses, over 200 years old are apparently still in use today. There is a superb reconstruction of a Lock House in the museum in Khasab which is well worth a visit.