Though less well-known than other Middle Eastern countries, the Sultanate of Oman is in fact the 2nd largest country of the Arabian peninsula. Largely closed to the world until the early 1970s, it has a rich history as a seafaring nation and was a thriving centre of commercial activity as long as 5000 years ago, lying as it does on the monsoon route made famous in the tales of Sinbad the Sailor. Before oil, the main export was frankincense, which still provided up to 75% of Oman's export earnings up to 1939.
Early Omanis travelled as far as India and China, and Oman was certainly known to Marco Polo, in the late 13th century. As European explorers and traders sailed farther and farther afield, covetous eyes were cast on Oman. The first to consolidate their interest were the Portuguese, who stopped by on their way to India in 1507. They established themselves on the coast, and built a number of forts to protect them from attack from inland. Their occupation lasted only until 1650, but Oman moved onward to become the only non-European country with African colonies – principally, Zanzibar.
Muslim military expansion in the 7th & 8th centuries established set defensive systems, predominantly single forts and walled communities. Fortified walls and massive towers came later, and fortified castle forts, for more influential and wealthier tribal leaders later still. Omani forts are of Arabic design, with some Persian and Portuguese influence. They are generally concentric walled enclosures, with or without corner towers, a concept taken back and adopted in Europe by returning Crusaders. Smaller watchtowers were built to protect villages and terraced palm groves. Over the last 35 years, many historic forts, although no longer important strongholds, have been restored as museums and for use by regional government, though few are open to the public. Traditional materials are again being used: mud bricks, palm fronds, logs, local gypsum and limestone.
Above left: Fort Jalali, originally called Fort Joao, was built by Melchoir Calcoa in 1588, to protect Muscat Bay, and help the Portuguese to dominate trade routes from the Red Sea to India. The front of the fort is a long curtain wall with two tiers of embrasures and a round tower at each end. The only access is a flight of steps cut into the rock on the harbour side. Later used as a prison, until the early 1970s, it is now a museum.
Above right: Baushar Castle Fort is one of a number near the village of Baushar, and is believed to be late 17th century, built by an early member of the present ruling family in Oman. It was last occupied in 1970.
Near Baushar is Fateh Castle Fort, also ruined, but once clearly a substantial residence. This fort was originally built to guard a falaj – a system of irrigation channels – and a date palm grove.
Barka Fort is a substantial fortress on the shore of the Gulf of Oman, and in the 18th century was one of the most important towns of the region. In 1747, the Persian garrison then occupying the fort was invited to a banquet, and, following a pre-arranged signal, many of them slaughtered. Survivors were put in a boat, which was then put to sea and set afire, ending the Persian presence in Oman. Unusually, the fort is made of stone, and not mud brick, and was well fortified by cannon in its heyday. It was restored in 1986, and is currently used by the local Wali, or governor of the region.
Article by SCA member Alastair Bain