Wednesday, December 31

Forts, forts, forts

Oman has 1,700 kms of coastline, tracing one of the most lucrative trading routes between Europe and India. To protect this vast area from the ever present threat of invasion, Oman progressively built more than 500 forts, castles and watch towers – often more than once. Many of the nation’s surviving structures rest on the foundations of earlier fortifications. While the architectural style varies, most have a common theme of distinctive circular towers.

Not surprisingly, these buildings often became the seats of administrative and judicial authority in the immediate area. Today, many of the forts remain the focal point of local towns. Inland they were often surrounded by lush date plantations offering both food for the local and a disruptive defense against invasion. Since his ascendancy, Sultan Qaboos bin Said has funded a national restoration program for more than 60 forts. Many are now museums, open to the public for a surprisingly small entry fee of less than a pound.

On our last day in Oman Garry and I decided to complete a popular circuit of four such forts north of Muscat. We made our way 100kms along the coast before heading inland to our first destination, Al Hazm Castle. Much of the drive was along wide, straight dual-carriageways; often lined by trees and decorated with colourful flower beds. It took just over an hour to reach Al Hazm, a quiet town nestled in the midst of a large date plantation, surrounded by almost barren, rocky plains.

Al Hazm Castle was built by Iman Sultan bin Self the Second in 1711. So closely was he associated with this building that his tomb was eventually housed inside. Like all of the castles we visited, it was constructed from local stone that was then surfaced by a brown concrete-like render. Unfortunately, it was closed for further restoration the day we visited. I had hoped to see the artillery museum inside which has cannons dating from 1550. Instead we had to satisfy ourselves with a glimpse of cannon barrels protruding from its circular citadel.

Fifteen minutes further inland was our next stop, the impressive Rustaq Fort. This imposing structure sits on a low mound in the shadows of the Jebel Akhdar, part of Oman’s Al Hajar mountain range. The highest point, Jabal Shams (the mountain of the sun), around 3,000 metres (around 9,800 feet) high is near by. Rustaq Fort is considered one of the nation’s oldest, tallest and best preserved forts. It first structure was built around 600AD and, much like Hazm, is surrounded by an extensive date plantation.

The present structure is the result of reconstruction by the first Imam of the Al-Ya'aruba dynasty between 1624 and1649, when Ar-Rustaq was established as the capital of a united Oman. During this period several impressive watch towers were added to create the complex you see today. However, the oldest tower, an oval-shaped structure known as the Tower of Kisra, was built by the Persians in the 6th century. It’s named after their leader Khisro Anu Sharwan.

Despite its fame, we had the entire complex almost to ourselves when we arrived. This gave us an opportunity to take dozens of photos without a single tourist in sight. The fort itself is entered via a small inner door set into a large, impenetrable wooden gate. As you step across the threshold you’re instantly taken back in time.

From here we made our way past the falaj (or stream) that supplies the complex with fresh water to a small courtyard where a long, narrow stone stairway provides access to its upper reaches. We spent an enjoyable hour exploring the fort’s interior, visiting a remarkable cannon room and clambering over its impressive fortifications, including each of the watch towers.

From Rustaq we made our way to Nakhal, 50km south. This also marked the start of our journey back towards Muscat. For much of its length the road traced the banks of dry gravel river bed, slowly winding its way through stark, rocky foothills. This gave a wonderful sense of how harsh long-distance travel must have been in previous centuries. It also became clear why some many of Oman’s forts sit inland as our route passed a number of wadis, or streams, nestled in the mountain shadows. Travel by land clearly followed these scarce water sources thus encouraging construction of the forts we were visiting.

Nakhal Fort dates from the pre-Islamic era, and underwent significant renovation in the 9th and 16th centuries during the reigns of Bani Kharous and the Al-Ya'aruba imams respectively. It was built on a rocky outcrop that sits above the local town and the ever present date plantation.

This prominent location makes Nakhal all the more impressive as you approach. It literally looms over the surrounding area, rising 200 metres above the surrounding area. Surprisingly, the main road to the fort crosses an empty river bed without any protective structures. Clearly it rarely sees any water flow and thus doesn’t justify more hardy foundations.

Much like Rustaq, we were among the only people visiting. We saw perhaps a dozen people during the hour spent wandering the forts many battlements and towers. However, as we departed a tourist convey of four-wheel drive vehicles came roaring by. We’d clearly timed our visit to perfection.

From Nakhal we made our way back to the coast and on to Muscat. We stopped briefly in the seaside village of Barka to see its impressive fort located on the shore of the Gulf of Oman. Unfortunately it was closed. I later learnt that inscription inside this fort record the name of Ahmad bin Said, the first imam of the Al-Bu Said dynasty, and victor of Oman's final battle against the Persians. While in Barka we drove along the shore past simple brown brick huts and fishing boats. The poverty of the local people was evident, a striking contrast to the clean white buildings we’d seen in Muscat all week.

1 comment:

Bev said...

It sounds a wonderful place to visit - I hope others read it and take the chance to enjoy it all too. We would love to put it on our travel list.