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Volume 34, Number 3May/June 1983

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The Forts

Written by John Lawton

Oman is a land of 1,000 forts - at least. They tower above the treetops of inland oases. They ding 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.

Many of the forts date back several centuries - magnificent reminders of Oman's turbulent past - and though most are crumbling, some have been, or are being, restored and one was defended in cattle as recently as 1972. During decisive rattles in the Dhofar rebellion, the sultan's small garrison in a fort beat off a superior force of rebels a Hacking the port of Mirbat - probably one of the last battles in history n which besieged defenders fired rifles ram the battlements of a fort.

Today, Shaikh 'Amr' Ali, wali of Mirbat, still governs, as his father and grandfather did before him, from the fortress - now reshly whitewashed, and with the red flag of the sultanate flying unchallenged from the top.

The red flag of the sultanate also flies today from the great circular fortress of Mizwa, Oman's inland economic center. But it was not so long ago that the white flag of tribal rebels fluttered defiantly over the tower - about 30 meters (100 feet) high and 36 meters (120 feet) across. In 1955, - a leader in the interior - rebelled against the rulers of the coast.

Today, bullet holes still pock the parapet, and a guard with an old Enfield Mark II rifle still keeps a watchful eye on the fort as visitors peer into dungeons or through slits in the walls, through which defenders once fired.

This masterpiece of fortification was built by Iman Sultan ibn Saif, who ejected the Portugese from Muscat, in 1650, without - so the story goes - firing a shot. It seems an Indian merchant named Narutem had a daughter whom the Portugese commander of the Muscat garrision wanted to marry and the only way Narutem could prevent this was to have the Portugese driven out. Narutem persuaded the commandant to replace the water, food and gunpowder in Muscat with fresh supplies. But when the cisterns and stores were emptied, Narutem sent a message to the imam to attack before they were restocked.

In Muscat, there are two special forts-twin, fairy-tale forts built by the Portugese in the 1580s to protect their Far Eastern trade routes - which featured in several other colorful episodes in Oman's history. In 1782, for instance, the two forts bombarded each other across the harbor - Ahmad ibn Sa'id in one, his two rebellious sons, Saif and Sultan, in the other.

Despite this, and other fierce battles fought in Oman's history, the two forts remain in near-perfect condition, providing visitors with one of their most vivid memories of Oman though as sentinels these forts, like the others scattered across the crags and cliffs of the coast and hinterland, are now entirely symbolic. Oman's main form of defense falls to the jet fighters, missile boats and other sophisticated weaponry of the country's modern armed forces.

This article appeared on pages 24-25 of the May/June 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: OMAN

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1983 images.