Forts of Oman: Ancient citadels that remind of the country’s magnificent history

Aftab Husain Kola

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Every country has its historic and tourist landmarks. For Oman, it is the forts. The Sultanate of Oman is blessed with about 1,000 forts including watchtowers scattered along the length and breadth of the picturesque Arab country.

According to Oman’s National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) 319,152 people visited forts and castles in the Sultanate in 2017. Credit goes to the Forts and Castles Development Project initiated by the Government, which is aimed at upgrading facilities at these extant citadels to make them even more tourist friendly.

Oman’s forts rise above the treetops of inland oases. They cling to the cliffs above ancient ports. And over virtually every village fortified watchtowers perch atop handy crags high enough to command a view of approaching enemies.

The first place which comes to mind is Nizwa, once capital of Julanda dynasty in the 6th and 7th century AD and known as a spiritual capital of Oman which is steeped in history.

Nizwa’s important role in the long history of Oman’s interior region is reflected in this massive circular fort situated next to a big mosque. In 2017, Nizwa Fort received 115,284 visitors.

Built by Sultan bin Saif I, between 1670 and 1680, after the expulsion of Portuguese from Oman the fort’s purpose was to control the oasis town and the surrounding routes.

The former prison area of the castle, with its maze of cells and rooms, has been transformed into an Exhibits Hall with a collection of more than twenty galleries, each interpreting a specific theme related to Nizwa’s history and heritage.

But one room is reserved to illustrate the old prison. The date stores, wells and baths have also been kept in their original condition.

World heritage list

From Nizwa 30 minutes’ drive takes you to Bahla, a town known for its fort and pottery. The massive Bahla fort, situated on the main road on an elevated land, is noted in UNESCO’s world heritage list as a monument of global importance.

Walter Dinteman writes in Forts of Oman, “The handsome fort is called Hisn Tamah after the Nebhani chief of that name who is thought to have built it over the ruins of an ancient, perhaps Parthian, structure.” Going inside we could see defence turrets occur at frequent intervals.

The Qasaba (citadel) is its oldest part. It is a five-storey structure comprising a series of integrated rooms. According to historical manuscripts, sections of Bahla fort date back to pre-Islamic Persian occupation of Oman.

For centuries, Bahla was also capital of the Banu Nabhan dynasty that preceded the Ya'ariba. The restoration work being undertaken by the Ministry of heritage and Culture has been completed.

Jabrin castle

Moving further for another half an hour is the Jabrin castle, a splendid structure. Built by Imam Bilarub bin Sultan of the Yaruba dynasty in 1675 this magnificent citadel has strength and gives a majestic view.

Bilarub moved the capital of Oman from Nizwa to Jabreen when he became Imam in 1688. The latticed window, turrets and the trellised balconies of the fort are visual treat for the eyes.

The main edifice consists of a large three-storeyed rectangular block of rows, hallways, corridors, courtyards and chambers. Two cylindrical towers are built at the diagonal corner of this rectangular block.

It is a big rectangular building and consists of three floors and fifty-five rooms. The Sun and Moon Room here was the Imam’s majlis where he met with important guests especially for state and vital discussions and consultations. An audio guides the visitors with exhibits and history of the place.

On a different route is Nakhl, literally meaning date palms or palm grove, which is home to what must be one of the most spectacular and largest forts in the region.

Here, one of Oman’s most dramatically-sited gigantic castles poises upon a precipice, contoured so closely to its natural foundation as to seem sculpted from the rock. From top of the fort, one can feasts on Nakhl town drowned in a sea of date palms.

The large fort of the town of Rustaq, set in an expansive oasis on the coastal side of the mountains, stands on what may have been the site of a fort since two millennia before the advent of Islam.

The present fort, Qalat al-Kasra, includes a tower that tradition holds was originally built by the Persians in the year 600. Rustaq has long been important because of its strategic situation at the openings of mountain passes.

In the capital Region of Muscat, twin forts Jalali, on the eastern side of the bay and completed in 1587, and Mirani, on the western side dates from 1588, are famous. They are situated on either side of the charming Al Alam Palace giving a fortified appearance to Muscat harbour.

Both al-Jalali and al-Mirani are home to ancient war memorabilia such as armour and weapons on display. The Muttrah Fort atop a hillock on Muttrah Corniche was built at around the same time.

Sohar, the legendary home of Sinbad, is home to Sohar fort which has seven towers of its restored fort, dazzling white against the deep blue of the sky and sea.

The Musandum region is attracting tourists like never before. The picturesque Khasab Castle on the inner cove of Khasab Bay overlooks the harbor and represents Khasab’s eastern line of defence.

Featuring three cannons, which face the sea, the Khasab Cstle was used some years ago to signal the sighting of the moon – indicating the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid.

These are some of the famous forts but you will find medium-small forts all over the country. Today, these restored forts are now entirely symbolic though once they were Oman’s main form of defense. They tell tales of Oman’s history.