Oman // Musandam //

Bait al qufl: the house of the lock

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Almost every village in the mountains of Musandam is home to at least one bait al qufl (“house of the lock”), a distinctive type of local building – looking more like an antique bomb-shelter than a traditional house – which is unique to the peninsula. The bait al qufl developed in response to the migratory lifestyle of the local Shehi, who would leave their mountain homes during the summer months to go and work on the coast. Valuable possessions which they could not carry with them were left behind in the village, locked up in these miniature vaults. Although designed primarily for storage, bait al qufl were also used as living quarters, particularly in the depths of winter.

The bait al qufl was designed with the emphasis firmly on strength and security. Walls often reach thicknesses of 1m or more, fashioned out of enormous slabs of stone; the thickness of the walls had the additional benefit of keeping the interior cool in summer and warm in winter, as well as protecting its contents (and anyone inside) from the ever-present threat of rockfalls. Bait al qufl are usually around 6–7m high, although they look smaller from the outside since the floor is dug out 1m or so below ground level for additional strength and security; the buildings are also often surrounded with a raised platform to help drain rainwater and provide something to sit on. Huge earthenware jars were placed inside to store provisions such as water, dates and grains – the jars were often bigger than the actual door to prevent them being carried off, and had to be put in place before the walls were built up around them. Access is usually via a single tiny door, formerly secured with one or two chunky wooden padlocks, although most are now left open.

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