The Bait ar Rudaydah Centre of Excellence for Historic Arms in Birkat al Mouz, at the base of Jebel Akhdar, finally opened earlier this month after being in the works for 14 years. The centre is the brainchild and managed by Dr Christopher H Roads and his company Historic Arms, Exhibitions & Forts. Roads has restored close to 1,500 small arms, most of which are Martini Henrys, popularly known as somma in the region, and a sizeable number of Enfield No 4s too, besides canons.
While there are no canons in Bait ar Rudaydah, with a collection of 400 guns - 25 of which were found in the castle itself - the centre is the most unusual museum in the country, even if Roads says so himself. However, a delegation of the International Council for Museums of Arms and Military History held in Nizwa University two years ago that visited the centre while still under construction put on record the fact that it is among the best in the world.
The delay in the official opening of the centre is attributed to the absence of rules and regulations in the sultanate for investment in heritage sites.
According to Roads, Oman has a reputation of having many guns, and immense interest in them. "There is no other country in the world that accepted the gun in its culture as much as Oman. Guns stated social status." But what is required is an understanding of the presentation of that heritage to the upmarket tourist, and Roads has taken it upon himself to get the rest of the world to understand and enjoy Oman's heritage and explain its importance to the country itself.
Explaining further the need to showcase this heritage, Roads said there are about 5mn people in Australia, Europe and the US who are interested in historic guns. “These are all potential visitors. The obvious result of that is we need to complete the picture." In all, he guesstimates there are about 80 canons on 30 different kinds of gun carriages in 20 castles in the country (some canons like in the town of Hail al Ghaf are not in castles). "We had more than 30 different kinds of gun carriages here; no other country in the world can equal that."
Roads' passion is evident when he talks about canons. "We have mounted about 70 large canons on their correct carriages in the country. We've done a great deal of work improving the appearance of the castles by researching and building the correct carriages. Nizwa Castle, Jibreen Castle, Al Hazm, Mirbat, Quriyat and many other castles have our gun carriages. What you will find is the barrel of the canon. The carriages have rotted away because these are made of wood."
Roads can't emphasise enough that the historical military heritage of Oman is the most remarkable in the Middle East. "I've worked on historical military heritage all over the Middle East - Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, - and can say that Oman's heritage is better than any other. It deserves to be preserved and maintained."
And his experience obviously came in handy. Before coming to Oman 23 years ago after retiring - "We don't think of age but rather ability; age might disturb some people" - he had designed and created the Duxford Aviation Museum in England, Europe's largest aviation museum which opened in 1970. He was also the deputy director general for the Imperial War Museum for 17 years and president of the International Film and Television Council in Paris for two years. Those connections gave Roads access to 44 original videos to be used in Bait ar Rudaydah. "All together I've designed and created about 30 audio-visual archives around the world."
His experience extends to one end of the barrel having won the National Championship for Long Range Shooting five times, the second place in the Queens Prize for Commonwealth states in 1964 and is the lifetime president of the Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association of Great Britain. "I've been fighting an international battle for the recognition that shooting is the most important part of research into understanding guns and why they were introduced in that time and place. If you don't shoot a gun, it’s just academic knowledge. You don’t know what you're talking about."
Roads claims Oman is now a leading country for muzzle loading artillery - there is no country in the world with a better collection of canons on their original carriages - or authentically copied carriages. "If you went to Portugal or Spain and expect to see more canons properly mounted on their correct gun carriages, you won't. We have here more Spanish and Portuguese canons than they have in Spain or Portugal. All I'm illustrating is that this is the country most of the 5mn people out there would like to come and visit. So far, no one has projected this image."
Heritage tourism in Europe is a massive business, he reiterates, while it's only beginning here and this centre is in that direction.
The gun collection includes…
A .303 short magazine Lee-
Enfield presented to Dr Christopher H Roads by King Abdullah of Jordan
The rarest gun in the collection - a bullpup rifle designed by Major Philip Thomas Godsal between 1890-1910. Only 30 of these were made, not to sell but only for friends
Lee-Enfield training rifles used by the British Army, Navy, Air Force and cadets from 1908 to 1945
A Martini Henry prototype, of which only 200 were made
Some of the breechloaders are the only specimens in the world
A LeMat revolver from 1856 that shoots rifle cartridges as well as shotgun pellets
(The Bait ar Rudaydah Centre of Excellence for Historic Arms is open 9am to 4pm, Wednesday to Sunday)