Arts & Culture The Challenging Stereotypes Issue

Oman’s forts: A magnificent defence network

You may wonder why Oman has such a large number of forts to begin with.

The first fort I visited was Al Rustaq Fort, a pre-Islamic stronghold located in the town of Al Rustaq, in the Batinah Region of Oman. Holding my little hands, my father guided me through its narrow corridors and told me stories about the early years of his life, which he spent there with my grandparents.

“Do you know that there is a secret escape passage underneath this fort?” he asked as we stood atop the watchtower and looked out to the countless palm trees that lined up behind the building. I secretly wished I too lived in a fort and thought of how cool it would be to use that secret passage to play different games.

Though my father lived in a fort, my knowledge about the complex’s architecture and defence structure was very limited. The more than 500 forts, watchtowers and fortified castles in Oman all looked very similar to me. In fact, all the forts across the Arabian Gulf region seemed to be the same in my young eyes.

I have a new business venture that I am planning to launch, and I thank it for igniting my interest to learn more about Oman’s fort architecture and how it served to defend Oman throughout the centuries. It also highlighted the fact that, even though Oman’s forts may look similar to other forts in the Gulf region, they are, in actuality, very different.

You may wonder why Oman has such a large number of forts to begin with. Its prime geographic location in the south-eastern quarter of the Arabian Peninsula and its 3,165 KM coastline, which borders the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf, meant that throughout the ages, many invaders wanted control of that vast sea route due to its access to the rest of Asia, beginning with India. The country, therefore, had to constantly defend itself.

After the Portuguese invasion of Oman in the 16th century, which lasted 140 years, Oman witnessed an increase in the construction of forts and watchtowers across the country. This occurred during the reign of Imam Nasir Bin Murshid Al Ya’arubi, of the Ya’arubahs State, which was established in 1624 AD.

Dr Naima Benkari, an assistant professor at the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, explains how the architecture of Omani forts mainly falls under two categories: “The forts that were built before the powder gun/canon era (pre- 16th century) and the forts that were built after, towards the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, which were designed to be more resilient against canon shots.”

The ‘re-engineered’ forts, Dr Naima explains, which sprung up in numbers during the reign of Imam Nasir, were made using sarooj, a traditional mortar mix of clay and limestone with added fibres, dates and water. The mixture is very similar in composition to Roman concrete and one that has historically been found in Persian architecture, especially that of bridges.

What mainly differentiates the forts from each other in Oman, Dr Naima states, is how they were designed to fit their topographic settings, which differs from one region to another in Oman. However “the interior components across the forts are pretty much the same. So you will have a mosque, and Majlis (called Barza) by the entrance of all the forts. Climate was also greatly considered, and thus the windows across forts were always strategically located to ensure optimum airflow.”.

“You ‘d have long, narrow, rectangular windows in the living quarters, with smaller square openings or windows on top,” explains Dr Naima. “The larger windows bring in the cool air, and are usually at eye level, and the smaller ones are higher in the wall, where the hot air escapes from.”

The real distinguishing factor of Oman’s forts is how each fort was not built as a sole unit but as part of a large defence network, something that was strategically planned under Imam Nasir.

Al Rustaq Fort. Courtesy Oman Photo Tours.

“The idea back then was to build a defensive network where the forts were part of a web-like structure, and one where watchtower guards could visually connect with each other,” says Dr Naima.

“Imam Nasir encouraged every settlement or neighbourhood to have a watchtower or a fort that would be connected to the larger defence network,” adds Dr Naima. “Doing so meant that there were many lines of defence, which would exhaust the enemy before he reached its target: the fort where the ruler or important state figures lived.”

If the enemy managed to reach the target fort, however, defence mechanisms integrated into the architecture of the forts also awaited him. The doors of the fort were purposely made narrow, fitting only one person at a time, and above the door, holes were made, where boiled oil could be poured on the enemy. Past the door is the Al Sabah area, a very dark chamber, followed by a bright, naturally lit area, where one’s eyes would need a few seconds to adjust to the sudden burst of light. That was also purposely done to confuse the enemy so the defence soldiers would have a chance to surprise him.

Without previous knowledge of the interior plan of the forts, it is difficult to navigate them for a first timer. The staircases and pathways are very narrow and barely lit, which was also an effort to confuse invaders. The last form of defence, found in forts like those of Al Rustaq, Bahla, Nakhal and Nizwa, are the underground escape passages that can stretch for kilometres, providing the fort’s inhabitants with an opportunity to lose their enemies.

One may wonder if the architecture of the forts constructed during the Al Ya’arubah era was influenced by the Portuguese invasion, and Dr Naima confirms this:

“When the Portuguese constructed the Al Jalali and Al Mirani forts in Muscat, they were designed with the help of Italian architects, but built mainly by Omani builders. The acquired knowledge by those Omani builders was adopted, refined and transferred into constructing other forts across Oman.”

Oman’s forts are open to visitors, with Bahla Fort and the settlement in Bahla listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site.

Bahla Fort. Courtesy Oman Photo Tours.

Modern technology now allows you to see how the defensive architecture of Oman’s forts operated as a large network.

“If you use Google Earth, you will have an aerial view of how the watchtowers and different forts are closely linked,” says Dr Naima. “It’s impressive!”

Manar Alhinai is the Storyteller-in-Chief at Sekka.