To be Bahla born means to enter a world where the ancient art of vessel making is the way of life. Oman Today is beguiled by the spin of the potter's wheel
Any day of the week – except Friday – it is easy to find a metal worker tooling next to his red-hot furnace, or a weaver assembling a goat hair cloak. But the king of craft in Bahla is pottery.
This exceptional art is famous throughout the Sultanate and beyond. It is said that the potters of Bahla – apart from being born of land containing very special clay – are born with magic in their fingers. The fruits of this magic can be seen in modest homes through to top hotels from Mutrah to Mikonos.
The clay used in these vessels comes from the wadi floor, and to make it pliable enough to be worked on the wheel, men trample upon it. Any workshop in Bahla worth its salt has at least one dining-table-sized slab of clay covered in footprints fresh from its latest stamping. It is a time-honoured way to soften the clay before it is worked and reworked into a thing of beauty.
A potter working at his wheel is oddly like creation itself. As long strokes are performed time and time again on the damp clay, shapes and sizes start to emerge. Patterns being seemingly woven into the air transpose themselves onto the object. Slowly and patiently rims develop and spouts appear as the magic fingers mould and curve the softened earth. While the electric potter's wheel is in wide use, it is possible to find a traditionalist or two who continue to cling to their much loved kick wheel.
It's a mesmerising vision so don't be surprised to suddenly realise an hour has passed just watching the potters' hypnotic performance. After this ritual of creation, the objects are packed carefully into a huge kiln to be fired.
Over the years kilns have changed significantly in Bahla from the original small dome-shaped oven that was a little more than a metre wide to huge multi-level structures that, while still very traditional, are stacked and only sealed and fired up when they have dozens of pieces inside.
Bahla has literally hundreds of potters and the region has always been considered a market leader when it comes to cottage industry. However, as fine workmanship became more widely known, demand increased and many industries have gone from simple backyard businesses to thriving industries.
In fact, the elaborate kilns that dot the lovely landscape flatly show that the pottery pursuit for many has surpassed the 'cottage' cliché. The most contemporary type of kiln is large and square with four posts at each corner acting as chimneys. It is easy to not realise what these edifices are until to you get too close to one in action. The heat can be felt from several metres away and a mirage radiates around them. While most of these ovens are still fed traditional palm fronds, the voracious appetites of more recent arrivals require fronds and a rich supply of firewood.
In Bahla a small bowl will cost as little as 100 baisa while a large decorative pot has a price tag of RO12.
Cottage industry cliché
One business – the Alladawi Clay Pots Factory – typifies the growing nature of traditional pot making. Four industrial size kilns are in constant use and each oven produces about 100 large pieces a month. The grounds of the factory are connected to current and defunct pits from where the clay was drawn. It also has its own industrial mixer that saves time and money on the immense task of creating the clay by hand.
The end result is a seemingly endless source of bukure burners, bowls, water holders and storage urns. The current factory has been operating since 1993 but its earlier life as a backyard business is evident when you observe the different styles of architecture as buildings have been added on.
At the entrance to Bahla is a small pottery works that was developed by the government with some help from Chinese experts. In fact, Beijing has donated a lot of equipment and provided some technology to help further establish Bahla as a pottery capital. Shards of brightly coloured Chinese pottery have recently been excavated on Omani sites.
While Bahla is historically known for its genies and alchemy, it seems the best magic is in the beautiful care taken when establishing the souk, which is in the town square and shaded by a huge tree. In this souk, arguably like every souk in the Sultanate, the magic of the potters' paw is for sale in solid clay.