Before 1970 the Sultanate of Oman remained a preserved culture. With the ascension of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, cultural changes were implemented to integrate Oman into 20th century life, rapidly transforming what was once a timeless nation. Flanked by Arabian Sea to the east, the inhospitable desert of the Empty Quarter to the west and encircled by mountainous ranges to the north and the south, Oman had remained for centuries an enclosed, solitary civilisation.
From 1970-1975 Australian couple Daryl and Ann Hill travelled the expanse of the Sultanate of Oman, with official permission from the sultan, to record with both film and photography the undisturbed way of life of Omanis on the cusp of change. Their documentary film ‘The Sultanate of Oman’ was shown at Cannes Film Festival, followed by a photography book of the same title.
Much of the history of Oman is dependent upon the interpretation of ancient tribal lore. According to legend unicorns wandered the land as protective deities, leopards were slain for lavish throws for the Queen of Sheba and fire-breathing flying snakes protected the plantations of trees of the Dhofar mountains, whose bleeding bodies produced the valuable commodity of frankincense – an aromatic resin used for incense and perfumed oil.
The Omanis lived in sync with the natural cycles of their environments. Tribes of the prosperous mountain regions grew roses, jasmine, grapes, apricots, peaches, pomegranates, figs and melon watered with the branching channels of ancient waterways filtered down from the mountain peaks. Women were swathed in traditional Islamic layers, adorned with heavy jewellery and perfumed with jasmine wreaths and lime flowers. Their eyes rimmed with heavy kohl and their cheeks rubbed with powdered saffron.
By contrast the Bedu people of the desert, known at the Empty Quarter, lived in obscurity. Rain is so scarce in the desert regions of the Middle East, that in some areas it falls only once every three years. Like the unrelenting forces of the sea the desert faces continually changing conditions. For the Bedu tribes, settlement is not their way life, they must move with the currents of the desert. The few outsiders who have experienced the Bedu way of life say that their environment dictates their character as people – both conflicting and extreme. They are said to be either generous or mean, patient or excitable, brave or panicked. Theirs is a life that can never be lived in stillness, their strength is the triumph of life over the adversity of the arid sands and broken shale of the desert.
In the years that have passed since the records of Daryl and Ann Hill, Oman has developed at a rapid rate, opening their land to oil refining, mineral mining, and development of natural gas production. They have reached trade agreements with the US and implemented the bureaucratic structures of the Western world.
* All images from ‘The Sultanate of Oman’ by Daryl and Ann Hill, Longman, 1977