The more than 500 castles, forts and towers of Oman truly bring our long, rich history to life. Many of these historic sites date back centuries, when they were built to protect the country’s lengthy coastline and inland oasis. Whether they were used by the Portuguese in their Empire-building, fending off Persian attacks or protecting Oman’s past sultans, these structures have served purposes both functional and visually impressive. Today, many of them offer a fascinating look into the past and glorious views over the Arabian Sea and Omani landscapes.
It should also be noted – many of these forts are architectural marvels. Often built out of mud brick, stucco and stone, the complex structures use cleverly designed fortifications to help them endure the test of time. (An intensive programme of restoring these historic structures has also helped!) One word of warning, though: prepare yourself for a lot of stairways!
Here are five of Oman’s top forts that you will not want to miss.
Built by the Portuguese in the Seventeenth Century, Khasab Fort actually surrounds an even older circular tower built right in the city of Khasab (it’s actually located conveniently near the Old Souk, or Old Market). Why would the Portuguese build in the middle of the city? Well, in the Seventeenth Century, the Fort was actually right on the coastline! But in the ensuing years, the water has receded, leaving the Fort stranded farther from the ocean’s edge.
Historically, the Fort housed the Wali, or governor. Today, the Fort is home to a gem of an ethnographic museum that details both the history of the Fort itself as well as the area’s historic geology, flora, fauna and cultures. You’ll find displays on everything from a recreated apothecary’s shop, traditional Omani jewelry and other artworks.
The courtyard features elements of traditional Omani life, including wooden dhows and examples of smaller boats (the battil, mashuwwah and zaruqah). One of the hallmarks of Omani dhows are a “stitched” method of boat-building wherein the planks are sewn together with coconut thread – you can see examples here.
You’ll also find bait al qufl, or houses with complex locking mechanisms and a floor below ground level. The construction of these homes reflect security precautions from a time when homeowners would leave for extended periods during fishing or harvesting season. (For examples of these types of homes in the wild, visit the Rawdah Bowl, about two hours outside of Khasab – we can arrange a tour for you). You’ll also see examples of the opposite kind of house, ‘arish, which is built on stilts to allow improved ventilation in the summer heat.
About 25km south of Khasab, you’ll find the small town of Bukha. Two forts await your exploration here. The first, Al Qala’s Fort, actually lies in ruin; but you can still climb its imposing central tower to get a great view of the fort’s crumbling walls and the bay below.
Nearby, along the coastal highway, you’ll find the better preserved Bukha Fort. Restored in 1990, Bukha Fort is possibly even older than Khasab Fort. The first thing you’ll notice is Bukha Fort’s distinctive central watchtower: it has a visually striking pear shape where the walls are built to bulge outwards from the base before narrowing again at the top. In theory, this shape reduced the impact of cannon balls. The opposite corners house imposing square towers. As with Khasab Fort, when Bukha Fort was built it faced the sea directly; today, the waters have receded, and Bukha Fort is surrounded on three sides by a dry moat.
If you arrive in our capital city of Muscat, you might wish to view two of the most well-known Omani Forts. Twin forts, built at roughly the same time, these twin guardians of Medieval Oman helped protect the city and bay from invasion. They are, in fact, two of the most important forts in Oman, and they are also two which have seen many battles and conflicts over the centuries.
Here’s an interesting fact: His Majesty Sultan Qaboos decreed that Muscat’s buildings could never rise more than ten stories so that they would not overshadow these forts, which serve as the magnificent skyscrapers of this city. Neither of the two forts can be visited (they’re closed to the public); but both can be viewed, admired and photographed.
Fort al-Jalali, also known as Ash Sharqiya Fort, is unfortunately closed to the public – but you can still admire its imposing presence out in the harbor of Muscat. Remember, most of the forts of Oman were built to protect the coastline and enforce the Portuguese presence in the area. Fort al-Jalali was built in the Sixteenth Century for this purpose after Ottoman forces had twice sacked Muscat. A century later, the fort fell to Omani forces. A century after that, the fort was captured by Persians. As you can tell, Fort al-Jalali has a long and storied past. A fascinating but private museum has been built in its interior, but unfortunately, only dignitaries are permitted to visit. For much of its life, until the 1970s, the fort was used as a prison.
Al Mirani Fort faces its twin Fort al-Jalali from Muscat, overlooking the Sea of Oman. Built at approximately the same period in history, they doubled-down on the defense of the Muscat against invaders. Like Fort al-Jalali, Al Mirani Fort is closed to the public, but its dramatic visage can still be admired from outside its walls.
We would be remiss if we didn’t at least mention Bahla Fort, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The large fort includes 7 miles of walls built over the 13th and 14th Centuries when Bahla thrived as a regional oasis. (Bahla itself is a couple of hours southwest of Muscat).
Bahla Fort offers the kind of sand-colored, layered, picturesque architecture expected out of Arabian castles – it’s beautiful, dramatic and vivid. You can just imagine the medieval peoples who populated this ancient wonder.
By the 1980s, the Fort had fallen into disrepair – entire walls would collapse each year during the rainy season! Fortunately, the Omani government spent nearly $9 million USD restoring the property in the 1990s, after its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It was removed from the list of endangered sites in 2004, and today stands as one of our most beautiful examples of Omani castles.
These five forts literally represent only 1% of the forts and castles in Oman! But they are a few of our favorites and are easily accessible during a trip here: visitors can view the Muscat forts upon arrival in Muscat, take a day trip out to Bahla, and then easily visit Khasab and Bukha Forts when you stay with Atana in Khasab, Musandam.
But there are many other noteworthy forts in our nation. We’ll detail some of the farther flung forts – like Nakhal, Sohar, Muttrah and Nizwa Forts – in a future article.
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