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Volume 42, Number 1January/February 1991

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Fortified Oman

Written and photographed by Lynn Teo Simarski

Much of Oman's tumultuous history is written in the stone, stucco, and mud-brick dialects of its defensive architecture. The craggy countryside bristles so naturally with fortifications that it is difficult to imagine the landscape without them, from the chains of watchtowers perched along strategic mountain passes, to the great bastions guarding the coast and the historic capitals of the interior. As the political turbulence of the past subsided into history, however, the fortresses coveted by conquerors seemed destined to crumble into oblivion - until the 1980's, when the government of Oman began an enterprising program to restore the country's fortifications using traditional techniques and materials.

The government selects monuments for restoration based on their size and complexity, and the importance of their role in history, explains Malallah bin Ali bin Habib, advisor to the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture. Oman is fortunate, he adds, that its ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has an intense personal interest in history and preservation. Still, the sheer abundance of Oman's heritage of defensive monuments - more than 500 forts and castles, not to mention fortified houses and towers - makes conservation a daunting prospect.

The preserved forts will eventually constitute a collective record of how fortified architecture developed in Oman. Defensive elements such as towers, battlements, walled enclosures and gateways comprise "the most distinctive aspect of Omani architecture," according to archeologist Paolo Costa. Today, architectural features reminiscent of the old forts appear as artistic rather than utilitarian attributes in modern villas and commercial buildings. Even the smallest shops often feature crenelations decoratively painted across their facades.

Rulers over the ages built forts as the physical manifestation of their authority in Oman and the lands Oman once controlled in India, southwestern Iran and East Africa. Yet the forts are frequently assumed to be a foreign legacy, largely because of the prominence of the famous twin sentinels of Jalali and Mirani, built by the Portuguese to guard Muscat bay. "It is not true that many of the forts in Oman were built by the Portuguese," stresses bin Habib. "The vast majority of forts, castles, and watchtowers are the work of [Oman's] Ya'ariba and Al Bu Said dynasties."

Nonetheless, in the past, travelers sailing toward the coast first saw the Portuguese-built bulwarks of Muscat and nearby Mutrah. Muscat was an important naval base for the Portuguese during their century and a half of domination, and they built fortifications there early on. After Ottoman naval forces temporarily dislodged them from the town, they returned to fortify the natural defensive pinnacles of Muscat, completing Jalali and Mirani - the latter still houses a small Portuguese chapel - by 1588. But the Portuguese were confined to coastal Oman. Donald Hawley describes them in Oman and its Renaissance as "locked up in their great forts,.. .unsympathetic toward the local people."

After the Portuguese were expelled by the Ya'ariba dynasty, the Omanis enlarged and transformed Jalali and Mirani into "purely Omani fortresses," according to Enrico d' Errico, who supervised restoration of a number of Omani monuments. The coastal forts continued to draw the envious glances of those who wished to control the trade of the Gulf and Indian Ocean. "I have little doubt," observed Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, in 1903, "that the time will come... when the Union Jack will be seen flying from the castles of Muscat." His prediction did not come to pass, however, and the forts of Muscat and Muttrah have now been restored as patriotic symbols of Oman's independence.

Another element in the defenses of Muscat was Bayt al-Falaj fort in nearby Ruwi, built in the 19th century by the Al Bu Said dynasty to which Sultan Qaboos belongs. Surrounded by steep mountain slopes, the whitewashed fort commanded access to valleys leading to Muscat, and was the stage in 1915 for a heroic victory by a small force of defenders over thousands of rebellious tribesmen. Headquarters for the Sultan's armed forces until 1978, Bayt al-Falaj is now a museum with superb carved doors and painted ceilings.

To the south of Muscat in the town of Sur, Snisla fort, with its fanciful wedding-cake tower, has also been restored, and restoration on two more forts, Bilas and Ras al-Hadd, is in progress. North of Muscat, along the miles of date palms and fishing villages, a string of clean-lined, dun-colored forts guards the shore. Perhaps the most impressive of these massive sand castles is the restored fort of Barka, where an inscription features the name of Ahmad bin Said, the first imam of the Al Bu Said dynasty, and winner of what became Oman's final victory over the Persians. In the palm groves some distance behind the fort nestles Bayt Naman, an elegant example of a 17th-century fortified palace now under restoration.

Farther up the coast in Sohar, Oman's northernmost important town, rise the seven towers of its restored fort, dazzling white against the deep blue of the sky and sea. Sohar protected the coastal approaches to several mountain passes, including the route to Buraymi Oasis in the interior. Although bypassed by recent history, Sohar was the legendary home of Sinbad and was called "the greatest seaport of Islam" by the 10th-century geographer al-Istakhri. "It is the most populous and wealthy town in Oman," he wrote, "and it is not possible to find on the shore of the Persian Sea nor in all the lands of Islam a city richer in fine buildings and foreign wares."

In 1507, the Portuguese conqueror Affonso de Albuquerque found at Sohar "a fortress of square shape, with six towers round it, having also over the gate two very large towers," a complex that called for defense by more than 1000 soldiers. The Portuguese transformed Sohar into one of their principal Omani bases. This was but one of many rebuildings; French archeologists recently unearthed the remains of a fort from the 13th or early 14th century within the present fort's precincts. Today, high in the tallest tower, the sea breeze blows gently through the governor's majlis or council chamber - it is still employed as such - and the sunlight casts intricate patterns through the white pargeted windows.

Inland from the coastal belt of palms, across the acacia-dotted plain, looms the purple-gray mountain spine of northern Oman. The massive, round-towered forts standing sentinel on both sides of the mountain, where foreign cultural influence was weaker than on the coast, chronicle the evolution of Oman's indigenous fortifications. From the time of Albuquerque, the introduction of gunpowder and cannon transformed the type of defensive architecture. The plan of the older, smaller, many-towered forts gave way to a new design: a square enclosure fortified, at diagonally opposite corners, with two round towers appropriate to the use of cannon. Walls were thickened to resist cannon-fire, and towers heightened to extend the cannons' reach. When enemies drew near the tower, musketeers could fire at them through narrow, downward-slanted loopholes.

It was under the strong and prosperous rule of the Ya'ariba imamate, from approximately 1624 to 1748, that the distinguishing characteristics of Omani military architecture began to crystallize. The Ya'ariba rulers, effectively uniting Oman for the first time in many centuries, rebuilt the old irrigation systems, renovated the towns, revitalized agriculture, and spurred the pace of trade. The promontories of the Sumayl Gap, the most important route to the interior, were crowned with one watchtower after another by the second Ya'ariba ruler, Sultan bin Sayf. At the coastal end of the pass, Bidbid Fort, now restored, anchored this chain of defenses.

At Nizwa, still a regional capital today, Sultan bin Sayf built the great, round, golden tower - the largest in Oman and one of the largest in the Gulf - that still stands in the oasis, next to the ruler's palace, as a monument to the genesis of the new architectural style. The tower is said to have taken 12 years to build, and its gun-ports command a 360-degree field of fire. Restoration of the tower was to be completed last year, and the town's traditional suq is also slated for renovation.

About a quarter century after Nizwa fort was constructed, Bilarab bin Sultan, son of Nizwa's builder and the third imam of the Ya'ariba, erected the splendid palace of Jabrin in the middle of an expansive inland plain. In the interpretation of Paolo Costa, the square layout of Jabrin palace, with its two towers at opposite corners, surpasses Nizwa by unifying its defensive and residential features. Bilarab, who was known for his benevolence to poets and scholars, endowed Jabrin with a madrasa, or school. The palace, now completely restored, still guards the tomb of its builder, who died in 1692.

According to another scholar, Eugenio Galdieri, Jabrin shows the artistic influence of Safavid Persia in the design of its plaster grates and its general apportionment of space. The flowing patterns of its painted ceilings, such as the one in the Hall of the Sun and the Moon, echo carpet designs, and offer the finest examples of such painting in all of interior Oman.

Another charming stronghold on the inland side of the mountain, also more palace than fort, is Birkat al-Mawz or "Pool of the Plantains." It follows the basic layout of Jabrin. Poised across the yawning mouth of a great pass into the mountains, Birkat al-Mawz was one of the fortresses of the Bani Riyam tribe which controlled the mountain heartland. Collapsing into ruin until recently, the mud-brick fortress and its painted ceilings are now well on the way to restoration.

The fifth ruler of the Ya'ariba, Sultan bin Sayf II, established his capital at al-Hazm, on the coastward side of the mountain. His fort, built in 1725, once again echoes the plan of Jabrin. The central columns of the fort's round towers feature refined plaster pargeting above the bronze Portuguese cannon brought from Fort Mirani in the 19th century. Even today, the dark, brooding bulk of al-Hazm seems to evoke the melancholy of its ruler who, contemplating political and military reverses at the close of his life, reportedly said, "This is my castle and my grave. I am become an eyesore to everyone, and the quiet of death will be preferable to any happiness which dominion has afforded me." Al-Hazm's labyrinthine depths still guard the imam's grave and his silent prayer cell, as well as claustrophobic dungeons and - if tradition is to be believed - the ruler's hidden escape routes.

The many architectural features repeated in Oman's forts help today's restorers infer how various rooms and spaces were used in the past. Impressed with Morocco's expertise in restoration, Oman invited a technical team of about 60 Moroccans to work with the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture. "The Moroccans have done extensive restoration work in their own country," explains bin Habib. "Many of Oman's forts need specialized techniques, and Morocco has specialists in each field - calligraphy, carpentry, mechanical engineering - and they have the restoration know-how."

The Moroccan team's director, Sidi Mohammed el-Alaoui, brings an architect's vision and a historian's imagination to his work. He explains that, before a monument can be restored, its milieu must be understood. "We must imagine the governor living inside the fort, and what his life was like," el-Alaoui says. "This means learning Omani history, reading religious and scientific books and poetry -everything about the period during which the monument was built." The restorers also survey and sketch the remains of the old forts, seeking clues to how rooms were used. Blackened walls, for instance, probably indicate the fort's kitchen, while the women's rooms, generally situated in the most private area of the fort, tended to be decorated more richly than others, perhaps with wooden or plaster lattice screens across the windows. Important rooms such as a majlis often had an elaborately painted ceiling.

Many of the forts, then, served not only for defense but also provided for a comfortable daily life. El-Alaoui points out that although Oman's castles borrowed some features from Persian, Indian and Portuguese design, they are entirely adapted in utility and design to the demands of local political and social routine.

Omani forts are guarded by massive, ornately-carved wooden portals, with a small cut-out door that allows entrance to only one stooping visitor at a time. The houses of Oman also feature carved and decorated doors that contrast handsomely with the spare lines of the buildings. The ceilings of forts are typically beamed with trunks of palm or candlewood supporting simple but elegant patterns of crisscrossed palm ribs and palm-frond mats.

If invaders forced entrance to the forts, defenders could douse them, through a slot over the gateway, with asal - a sticky, boiling brew made from dates. Larger forts have a special room for processing dates, which were primarily, of course, an important food. A fort also invariably has a simple mosque, a majlis, men's and women's living quarters, soldiers' rooms, prisons, and storage chambers, among other facilities. At Jabrin, astonishing as it sounds, restorers have identified a room at the head of a long flight of stairs as a stall for the ruler's horse, which he apparently disdained to dismount outside the castle.

Important forts such as al-Hazm or Jabrin also had their own falaj, or water-supply channel, running through the lower level. If this was blocked by attackers, several wells provided an alternative in time of siege. To mitigate the scorching climate, windows of forts such as Nizwa and Rustaq invariably face north to let in cooling breezes. Sitting rooms are thick-walled and served by natural air conditioning: Cool air blows in through large lower windows, and rising hot air escapes through small upper windows.

Many of the forts have histories reaching back to ancient times. The large restored fortress 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, as well as its benign climate and hot springs, which are believed to have medicinal benefits. It was the site in 1624 of the election of the first imam of the Ya'ariba, Nasir bin Murshid bin Sultan, and served as the imamate's capital a number of times.

Not far from Rustaq lies Nakhle oasis, whose own hot springs bubble out at the foot of barren mountains that slice into the earth like a guillotine. Here, one of Oman's most dramatically-sited castles poises upon a precipice, contoured so closely to its natural foundation as to seem sculpted from the rock. From the ramparts of Nakhle, Barka fort on the coast can be spotted on a clear day, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

Colonel S. B. Miles, a British political agent in Muscat, visited Nakhle in 1876. Approaching the town, he wrote, "it seemed as if we were about to penetrate the very bowels of the mountain. No sign of human habitation, no cultivation, no gardens were visible, nothing but dark and desolate rocks met the eye ... when from above, in front of us, several matchlocks were suddenly discharged in our direction, and I perceived a watch tower perched on a steep pinnacle... from which the sentries had fired to give notice of our approach. Rounding an angle, we were now confronted with the massive ramparts of the fortress, which, warned by the watch tower, immediately began to fire a salute from a battery of 12-pounder iron guns, the sound of which reverberated sharply from the rocky walls of the glen."

Today, visitors expecting the grim, black fortress described in guidebooks will find that Nakhle has been restored to its original golden splendor. It is presently the headquarters of the Moroccan restoration team, whose general rule is to employ virtually no materials that come from more than a few kilometers around a monument's site. The restorers' dedication to authenticity is exemplified in the painstaking process by which they learned to make sarouj, a local ingredient of both mortar and plaster. Cement plaster was tried in earlier restorations with unsatisfactory results: The mud-brick beneath was unable to give off moisture and the new facades soon fractured.

Now, the restorers analyze the composition of the original building materials, and consult local elders about the proper way to produce sarouj. The raw material is soil from a date-palm grove, taken only with the owner's permission, which is mixed with water and dried in the sun. It is then baked in a traditional oven, baked again in the sun, and finally mixed with other materials into the appropriate blends for an individual fort.

Only local earth from near a fort is used in its restoration to ensure that the genuine texture and color will be achieved. El-Alaoui admits that six months might be required to hit upon the correct sarouj for a particular fort. Similar care is taken to produce mud brick, woodwork, metalwork, and paint. In keeping with local esteem for the date palm, only the trunks of dead palms are employed as ceiling supports.

Oman's cooperative restoration effort has sparked a revival of disappearing local crafts. Young apprentices from local towns learn the arts of carpentry, sarouj-making, and every other step. "We work together and we think together," says el-Alaoui. "This training is also important because the Omanis can carry on with the maintenance later."

Constructed of fairly perishable materials, Oman's forts have necessarily been altered and renovated over the centuries. Even today, in keeping with this somewhat controversial tradition, the restorers are not above correcting the visual balance of a fort by adding an arch or a wall, or constructing a new facility such as a platform for governor's audiences - as long as these features fit stylistically and logically with the architectural tradition.

One of the most majestic monuments in all Oman, however, is still in ruins: the castle of Bahla, towering even in its dilapidated state more than 50 meters (165 feet) above the surrounding palms. 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. As noted by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, "The fort has never been restored, representing a remarkable example of authenticity, and is not protected by any conservation measures; meanwhile, great chunks of wall collapse each year after the rainy season."

The situation began to improve in 1988, when the fort, the nearby mosque with its sculpted mihrab, or prayer niche, and the 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) wall enclosing the town of Bahla and much of the palm oasis were inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. This act places Bahla among spectacular natural and cultural sites of "exceptional universal value ... which should remain intact for future generations."

Today, the restored forts, left behind by the masons and woodworkers, and watched over by traditional turbaned guards with cartridge belts round their waists, are immaculate refuges of silent and austere beauty. Their curving stairways, arches, courtyards, and crenellations are monumental sculptures of deep shadow and dazzling light - but they are touristic curiosities devoid of life. Traditionally the seats of authority, some restored forts, it is true, continue to host the traditional majlis of the regional governor. Still, Oman may look for other local uses - compatible with preservation - that will enliven these monuments of which the local people are so fiercely, and so justifiably, proud.

Lynn Teo Simarski is a Washington writer and editor who specializes in the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 8-17 of the January/February 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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