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March 10, 2009

OMAN’S SPLENDID HERITAGE: CITADELS, FORTS AND ANCIENT GATES


Photo: Arti Kumria

The Sultanate of Oman’s rich heritage is reflected in more than 500 open-air museums – its old forts, ancient walls and gates, as well as its houses and mosques. No matter where you travel, you will see remnants of Oman’s turbulent history, with many of its fortresses and watch towers erected deep in its interior or atop mountains, or along its 1700 kilometre stretch of coastline; each constructed to prevent hostile invasions.

Visitors today to Oman can visit a number of these striking landmarks, some of which have undergone extensive restoration programs. One of the best places to delve into Oman’s history and its resplendent fortresses is in Muscat.

During the late 16th century, the Portuguese, who occupied the city for 150 years, constructed Oman’s most famous citadels. Built on two serrated hills overlooking Muscat’s harbour – Al Jalali to the east and Al Mirani to the west - the paired forts were used to oust Portuguese and Ottoman invaders a century later and protect Muscat from further invasions. Now guarding majestic Al Alam Palace -- the ceremonial palace of H.M. Sultan, Qaboos – the Al Jalali was enlarged to its present size during the reign of Imam Ahmed bin Said, the founder of the Al Busaidi state in the 18th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century, his grandson Sayyid Said bin Sultan, enlarged the citadel along with Al Mirani. Al Jalali has since been restored and converted into a museum, under the present reign of His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

“Visitors wanting to gain an insight into Oman’s history need only look at the country’s most beautiful forts in Muscat and Nizwa; just a three hour journey away. Splendidly built amid an ancient landscape of palm trees, desert and coastline, travellers are able to explore the watchtowers and darkened rooms, each harbouring tales of old-world Arabia,” says Mona Tannous, Australian Director, Oman Ministry of Tourism.

Also in Muscat is Old Town, located at the eastern end of the Greater Muscat Area between Muttrah and Sidab and a perfect place to step back in time and view an array of ancient doors and centuries-aged dwellings.

Much of the city’s rich history and heritage has been preserved, including remnants of Muscat’s original clay wall and threeaccess gates - Bab al Matha'eeb, Bab al Saghir and Bab al Waljat - which fortified the capital.

One of the most splendid buildings in Oman’s interior is Nizwa Fort, which played a pivotal role in the country’s struggle with the Portuguese in the 17th century. Constructed in 1668, Imam Sultan bin Saif al Ya'arubi, the fortress is the biggest citadel in the Arabian Peninsula, with its circular structure spanning 45.7 metres and standing 30 metres high. Once used as the Imam's headquarters, its skilful design allowed for boiling oil to be poured through a hole in its thick doors, a tactic that was commonly used to prevent marauding enemies gaining a stronghold. Standing alongside Nizwa Fort is Imam’s Mosque – renamed Sultan Qaboos Mosque in 1970 – which was built soon after the construction of its more famous neighbour.

A short drive from Nizwa is the ancient town of Bahla, which once nurtured many of Arabia’s finest scholars and scientists, and the current gatekeeper of Oman’s mythical jinns and sorcery. The main attraction, however, is its impressive fortress and 12-kilometre-long mud-brick wall with 132 watchtowers. Also featuring seven massive gates, visitors will see where Omani sentries pummelled the invading Persian army over the centuries.

Following recent excavations, it is believed that some of Bahla’s defensive structures date back to the third and first millennium BC Also fusing in with the surrounding oasis and wadis, Bahla’s wall and fort – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- are also said to be one of the oldest in Oman, with its foundations dating back to the 12th century.

Just beyond Bahla lies the Castle of Jabrin, which dates back to 1670. Built as a defensive citadel by Iman Sultan bin Saif Al Ya’arubi, Jabrin features a number of residential rooms with high ceilings adorned with elaborate rosette carvings. Featuring two massive towers with impenetrable walls, Jabrin also rewards visitors with a sweeping view of a heat-infused desert vista. The elaborate tomb of Iman Bil’ arub, who died in 1692 is also located in the castle.

Other notable forts that should be visited along the Batinah Coast include Nakhl Fort and Rustaq Fort -- the oldest and tallest fortress in Oman. Constructed on an ancient spring, its ground floor was used to store dates grown from the nearby plantations as well as ammunition. Rustaq Fort, however, was not without some pleasures. On its first floor lived the royal harem, complete with a falaj, which helped create an indoor spring pool.

At the heart of the Batinah Coast lies Sohar Fort, constructed in the 15th Century along Sohar’s present day corniche. Strategically positioned to fend off invaders from the Straits of Hormuz, it is believed that the Fort, which accommodated an army of 1000 men, was once surrounded by flourishing palms and multiple towers. Today, only one tower remains and the fort now serves as a museum.

Amongst the oldest castles in Oman are Al Hazm, built in 1711 and Mirbat Castle, located in Oman’s southern Dhofar region in a small fishing community near Salalah, off the Arabian Sea’s misty coastline.

“The Sultanate has diligently engaged in a massive restoration program of its forts, with the aim to preserve the country’s architectural heritage and making these magnificent dwellings accessible for future visitors,” adds Ms. Tannous.

Managed by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, the forts’ admission charges are variable, ranging from AU$1.50 to AU$3.00 in admission.

For further information on Oman, please contact the Sultanate of Oman Ministry of Tourism office in Sydney.

T: (02) 9113 5959
E: info@tourismoman.com.au
W: www.omantourism.gov.om
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