The Ships of The Desert

Camels have played an important role in the lives of the Omani people for generations.  The camels provide transport, milk, food and entertainment.  In the Modern South Arabian languages and in Arabic, there are many words for camels which are used to describe their colour, sex and stages of life, highlighting their importance in the culture.

In the Arab world in general, camels are called ‘The ships of the deserts’ because they can make long journeys across the country and to remote areas.  Camels have been given special status in Oman and are looked after by The Royal Camel Corps.  The organisation keeps records of the camels, including their type and ancestry.  As well as being an important resource for their meat and milk, camel racing is also a popular form of entertainment in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the Arabian Gulf.

The picture below shows a camel with its brand mark.  Camels are branded so people know which tribe they belong to.  Branding is done on the left hand side of the animal’s face or neck.  The brand in the picture shows that the camel belongs to the Samodah sub-branch of the Mehri tribe.  The photograph was taken in the Jerbeeb near Salalah, Dhofar, after the monsoon season in late September 2010.

Catalogue number: MCC/OmanIm/2017/1

Camel milk is more popular than cow milk in Oman and is known for its froth, which can be seen in the image below.  The picture shows camel milk being drunk on the central plateau in late September 2010.  The second image shows a camel being milked in the same location.  In Dhofar, only men milk cows and camels.  Among the Mahrah, women milk goats, but among some other tribes, all milking animals are milked by men.

Camel milk being drunk. catalogue number: MCC/OmanIm/2017/2
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A camel in Oman being milked. catalogue number: MCC/OmanIm/2017/3

The Yemeni Landscape

Yemen has a beautiful and varied landscape, with the land being made up of mountains, deserts and coastal regions.  The mountains in the centre and west of the country are home to the highest peak in the Arabian Peninsula, Jabal an-Nabi Shu’ayb, standing tall at 12,336 feet (3760 meters). The country’s landscape means that the climate varies from region to region. In the east is the desert area known as the ‘Empty Quarter’ which is very hot, where temperatures can reach over 50 degrees Celsius during the day, and years can go by without any rainfall. The coastal region is hot and humid, whilst the western and central highlands are cooler and the temperatures can fall below freezing in winter.

There are no lakes or rivers in the country. Instead, there are dry riverbeds called wadis which are filled when it rains. The lack of permanent rivers can lead to a shortage of fresh water. The rainy season in Yemen lasts from April to July or August. This rainfall helps with the growing of crops in the country as the rain runs down the mountains into the valleys.

 

The images in this blog were taken near the city of Taiz in the highlands of Yemen and give an idea of the landscape of the region.

The Cradle

The video  and images shows and describes the portable cradle, which was used and made by people who lived in the deserts and mountains of Oman. The cradles were created in the same way by the people inhabiting the deserts and those inhabiting the mountains, but they used different types of wood to make them.

The cradles have three legs and a wooden frame to prevent the baby from falling out.  At the base of the cradle there is a net made from strings to support the baby.  Before the people living in the mountains and deserts had string they would make rope from dried leaves of the Mazari Palm.  On top of the frame is a cover, which used to be made from leather.

The cradle, with the baby inside, was carried on the woman’s head and her things would be put on top of the cradle too.  She would also sometimes be carrying water in her hands and walking with her goats to reach her family.

To read a full transcript of the video, please see the attached file.

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Yemeni Jewellery

Yemeni society had a creative tradition and is known for its craftsmanship.  In particular, it is famous for its traditional Jewish silver jewellery.  There used to be a large Jewish community in the country, but after Israel was founded in 1948, many left, taking their skills with them.  Some did pass on their skills to Yemenis, but there has been a further decline in the making of silver jewellery in recent years.  Gold has over taken it in popularity, and traditional jewellery is now only really worn on special occasions, such as weddings and religious festivals.  However, there are some silversmiths still keeping this craft alive in Yemen and, before the recent troubles in the country some started, making items for the tourist market.  The image of the silver dagger broach is an example of an item made for the tourist market in the 1990s.

Waterskin

The making of the traditional waterskin and men’s satchels includes a number of processes.  Firstly, the whole hide of a goat is removed in one piece.   A plant, called īrēm in Mehri, is then put inside the hide to remove the hair.  After the hair is removed, the hide is washed in salt and water and then left to tan for one or two days.  The plant acacia etbaica is used to tan the hide.  Once this is completed the front and hind legs are sewn together so the hide will now hold water and straps are added to it.  The waterskin would then be carried by a camel or on a person’s back.  A man’s satchel is made in a similar way to the waterskin, but is more decorative with embroidery added to the hide.  The satchel in the image is embroidered with plastic bags and is from the Modern South Arabian Material Culture collection, whilst the other images were taken in Oman by Janet Watson.

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Man’s satchel made from a goat hide

Waterskins and satchels made this way are no longer common as thermos flasks and jerry cans are now popular.  However, the process used to make them is still known by some people.  Some of the stages of this process can be seen in the images.

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A goat hide being soaked to remove the hair
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A goat hide which had been prepared to be made into a waterskin.
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A waterskin
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A man’s leather satchel.

The Jambiya

The jambiya is an important part of Yemeni culture and tradition.  It is a dagger with a curved blade, held in a sheath attached to an embroidered belt.  The dagger is worn by men and shows their status in society through the design and the materials used to make it.  The most expensive jambiyas have handles made from rhino horns, although the use of this material is now banned in Yemen.  The design can also show which tribe and region men are from.  The making of the dagger and belt are highly skilled and valued crafts in Yemen.  The giving of a jambiya to a boy represents them entering adulthood and it is worn from the age of 14. The jambiya is worn at traditional festivals and is used when dancing.