Spotlights on Interior architecture – Forts of Oman
Set amid a verdant spread of date palms Nizwa Fort is a powerful reminder of the town’s invincibility through turbulent periods in Oman’s long history. In times bygone, it was a formidable bastion against marauding forces that coveted Nizwa’s abundant natural wealth, and its strategic location at the crossroads of vital caravan routes.
A long line of imams of the Yaaruba dynasty held sway from its majestic ramparts, presiding over an era of great cultural, religious and educational enrichment. This splendid 17th century edifice — the largest on the Arabian Peninsula — stands today as a monument to this heady era in Nizwa’s and, indeed, Oman’s glorious history.
Built by Imam Sultan bin Saif al Yaarubi in 1668 AD, the fort’s design reflects the considerable advancement made in the field of military fortifications and mortar-based warfare during the Yaarubi era. The walls are rounded and robust, designed to withstand fierce barrages of mortar fire — a common feature of warfare in those times. The main bulk of the citadel took about 12 years to build, apparently with materials pillaged from other forts as the spoils of war. Some historians however aver that the fort came up on the remnants of an earlier castle built by Imam Assalt bin Malik al Kharusi in 845 AD. Others say it was built 12 years earlier.
Two cannons guard the entrance to the fort which opens into a veritable maze of rooms, high-ceiling halls, doorways, terraces, narrow staircases and corridors. The most striking feature of the fort is the central tower — a colossal circular tower soaring 115 feet above the rest of the fortification. Solidly built, the 150-feet-diameter structure radiates an aura of might, complete with battlements, turrets, secret shafts, false doors and wells. The design of the tower, resting on a 50-ft platform, incorporates a great deal of architectural deception. Access to the top is only by means of a narrow, meandering staircase barred by a heavy wooden door studded with metal spikes. A warren of staircases barred by similar heavy doors makes up an elaborate strategy to ensnare the enemy, or impede their progress to the top of the tower.
Those who did manage to run the gauntlet of hurdles risked being scalded by boiling oil or water that was poured through shafts (called machicolations), which opened directly above each set of doors. Date syrup, a liquid that oozed from bags of dates stored in special date cellars, also came in handy as an alternative to oil and water. According to historians, a great deal of ingenuity went into the design of the citadel. It was built above a subterranean stream that ensured a perennial supply of water when subjected to a prolonged siege. Several water wells located within the fortified compound also ensured plentiful supplies. Underground cellars stockpiled food and munitions.
Several cannon now remain on the tower’s summit, down from a total of 24, which once served as the fort’s main firepower. They provided complete 360-degree coverage of the countryside around, making it virtually impossible for a sneak attack on the fort without provoking an awesome riposte from its array of cannon. Cannon-balls recovered from the fort are displayed in a small enclosure on the summit. Some of these are believed to have been produced in Nizwa itself. In fact, one of them even has the name of Imam Sultan bin Saif engraved on it. Another, from Boston City, was said to have been presented to the first Omani ambassador to the United States in 1840.
The tower’s immense bulk and solid foundations were a formidable defence against even a savage enemy mortar attack — a factor that lent an aura of invincibility to the fort. Its design is therefore cited as a classic example of fort-building during the 1649-1679 period, an era that witnessed great advances in military technology, which began with the introduction of mortar-based warfare. Running all round the summit of the tower is a parapet wall for use by sentries who kept watch over the surrounding countryside. A total of 120 sentries, armed with muskets and flintlocks, could be summoned to man positions along this parapet wall in times of siege. Furthermore, 480 gun-ports allowed for a concentrated barrage of fire if the fort came under attack.
The fort was the administrative seat of authority in times of both peace and conflict. The presiding Imams and walis governed Nizwa from this citadel. In keeping with tradition, the Wali of Nizwa met until recently with residents of the wilayat on these imposing premises once every month. Meetings were held in the august Prayer Room on the first Monday of each month. Given its pivotal place in Nizwa’s history, this majestic edifice was among the first to be renovated by the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture as part of its far-reaching drive to preserve the Sultanate’s rich heritage.
Another splendid landmark nearby is the Nizwa souq, a bustling marketplace that was given a complete makeover by the local municipality, to complement the historic splendour of the fort. You can browse here for some of Nizwa’s famous silver jewellery or watch expert craftsmen in action as they fashion exquisite silverware or a range of other artefacts. Besides, there are weekly goat auctions here conducted beneath a canopy of date palm trees, much in parallel with traditional auctions that take place elsewhere in Oman, especially on the eve of Eid festivities.
WHILE the magnificent Nizwa Fort serves as a window on the splendour of Oman’s ancient architectural and martial heritage, the atmospheric souq next door offers vistas of Omani rural life centring inevitably around the traditional bazaar.
In these distinctive settings, tourists linger to take in the charm and vibrancy of the traditional marketplace dominated by customs that are quaint, unique and fascinating in equal measure.
Built on the remnants of an ancient market, Nizwa’s sprawling souq is divided into many sections, each devoted to a specific kind of merchandise.
Thus, you have separate sections for fruits and vegetables, fresh meat and fish, dates, handicrafts, and even an area for livestock auctions. But it’s the goat market within the souq, venue of Nizwa’s famous traditional livestock auctions, that’s a major magnet for tourists. Here, herders bring their livestock to offer them to the highest bidder in a traditional public auction that has changed little over the centuries.
The auction is held every weekend in a far corner of the souq. Arriving at dawn, buyers and sellers alike gather around an auction ring set beneath a canopy of date palms. Inside the ring, dalals (professional auctioneers), invite bids from customers as they hustle Omani goats within a circular enclosure. Prospective buyers huddle around the ring, probing and prodding the merchandise before offering any bids.
Around 50 goats of all ages and sizes are up for grabs at any time. After some raucous haggling, deals are quickly struck as buyers haul away their new four-footed acquisitions to waiting pick-ups. Several tourists and visitors from the GCC watch in awe of this rustic spectacle that has hardly changed despite the huge inroads made by modernisation in these parts.
Elsewhere in the souq, a dalal makes the rounds of the market offering a bunch of embryonic honeycombs to professional beekeepers who thrive in the Interior region. Honey production involving purebred Omani bees is a lucrative pursuit in these parts given the premium prices commanded by pure Omani honey. A small bunch of fist-sized honeycombs can fetch as much as RO 22.
Sixty-five-year-old Masoud Rashid al Shraiqi, one of several Omanis who sell traditional Omani merchandise at the souq to help supplement family incomes, offers pure Omani honey in recycled bottles. Honey produced by bees that thrive on the nectar of acacia flowers, sells for as much as RO 30 for a 750ml bottle. Other cheaper grades of honey are priced at RO 7-8 per bottle.
Al Shraiqi’s merchandise also includes locally cultivated coriander, dried lemons from Al Jabal al Akhdar, thyme, mixed spices, and some herbal preparations as well. His customers are mainly older Omanis belonging to tradition-minded households where indigenous products are still preferred over cheaper imported versions.
Tourists also gravitate to the many shops within the souq that sell Nizwa’s much-prized traditional silver jewellery and exquisite handcrafted ware. You can choose from a vast array of necklaces, bracelets, rings, earpieces, amulets, khanjars (ceremonial daggers) and ancient firearms for souvenirs to take home. Seventy-year-old Khalfan al Sabahi is something of a legend among Nizwa’s community of traditional craftsmen. However, as the last of Nizwa’s great experts in coffeepot making, an ancient tradition is likely to end with him.
Over the last couple of years, the wilayat’s specialist coffeepot makers have seen their ranks gradually whittled down as several have opted for modern, lucrative trades or simply seen their inherited calling cease with their generation. Until recently, the veteran craftsman ran a small store in Nizwa souq, but has since shifted his trade to a workshop within easy proximity of his native village.
Surrounded by the accoutrements of his craft, Al Sabahi works on a traditional coffeepot using a mix of traditional implements and modern tools. Creating a 24-inch silver coffeepot can take as long as three weeks, says the master craftsman. Each pot is made up of 22 separate pieces, which are individually moulded from silver sheets and then welded together.
A variety of implements — from lathe machines to old-fashioned tools — is used in the fabrication of a single coffeepot. Finishing is done by hand, a process that involves the use of dilute acid and soap. The result is an exquisite product of fine workmanship and great beauty.
Despite the hefty price tag on his products, Al Sabahi’s coffeepots are coveted by both tourists and local connoisseurs of Omani artefacts and antiques. A 24-inch silver coffeepot can cost as much as RO 1,000, while the smaller versions vary in price from RO 300-500. Copper and brass coffeepots range from RO 80 to RO 150 apiece.
Orders for his works pour in from citizens and dealers of silverware based in Muscat and Muttrah. Requests also come in from the Ministry of Heritage and Culture and other government departments, which either display his masterpieces at exhibitions locally and abroad, or give them away as souvenirs. Cheaper machine-made coffeepots, says Al Sabahi, are no match for the handcrafted versions, which are in great demand usually during the tourist season.
In fact, the veteran silversmith’s skills are not limited to just coffeepot making. In his spare time, in-between orders for coffeepots, he creates a variety of fine quality traditional silver necklaces, khanjars and medallions, among other items.
Raw materials for his products — mainly silver, copper and brass sheets — come from Muttrah. Modern tools like the lathe and the blowtorch have been extremely handy in fashioning high quality products in quick time, says Al Sabahi.
“There are machines today that help you spin fine silver thread for the khanjar which, in times past, used to be a painstaking manual process. Moreover, the ductile quality of silver can be thoroughly exploited in ensuring a great degree of design and intricacy in our handicrafts.”
Connoisseurs of vintage muskets and flintlocks would do well to visit the store of Hamoud bin Mohammed al Ismaili, another old-timer at the souq. Al Ismail’s shop is chock-a-block with firearms, some of great antiquity. Prized among his collection of over 100 vintage guns is an ancient flintlock believed to be some 250 years old.
Prices range from RO 25 to RO 500, depending not so much on the item’s antique value as much as the quality of the wood and metal used in its manufacture. Also on display is a fascinating variety of traditional jewellery, including a unique collection of necklaces of significant vintage. The most valuable of these offerings is a one-of-a-kind necklace priced at RO 4,000. Equally prized is a rare khanjar, complete with hilt of rhino horn, valued at RO 800.
Nakhal Fort lies at the foot of the north-western edge of the Hajar Mountains below the Jebel Akhdar. On hazy mornings the Jebel Akhdar appears misted and forms a spectacular dream-like backdrop, rising out of the bare desert plain like a mirage. As if painted in translucent layers, the mountains lose their substance and become flat shafts of quietly outlined silver, grey, and blue light.
The fort at Nakhal emerges boldly in this scene, solidly anchored on its foundation of rock. The Fort commands the entire valley, guarding its wealth in water and rich date plantations, controlling the passageway to the interior of the country. Throughout Oman, at every such strategic location, there is a fortified stronghold - a citadel, watch tower, fort or castle, dating back at least to Islamic times —
more than a thousand fortified structures in total; and, each one has a tale to tell of history, heritage and past dynasties. "Many civilisations flowered in Oman at various times, and all were coveted by other civilisations in the region who exerted stringent efforts with the goal of suppressing the culture and independence of Oman by dragging it into the arena of struggle…this spurred the Omanis to build strongholds to enable them to withstand the dangers threatening them; and, with this assistance, they were enabled to overcome their enemies" Oman in History, p 276 As a system, Oman's forts provided a network of protection over the entire country, as well as local defence for the people and their agriculturally based livelihood, and as a means to secure trade routes on the coast and in the interior.
The forts at Bahla, Sohar and Rustaq might be older; some forts are larger or more beautiful, but Nakhal Fort has a special appeal of its own. Named after the nearby date palm groves, Nakhal Fort, sitting one hundred feet high on its rocky promontory, has a commanding view of all that surrounds it. Embedded on top of large slabs of tawny yellow rock, the structure sits like a great architectural boulder carved into towers, windows and walls. The fort is fully suited to its purpose and in perfect harmony with its environment. The interior is characterised by plain, balanced spaces, open stairways, arched recesses, a multitude of accessible rooms with windows shuttered by beautiful wooden carvings and ceilings of latticed palm matting supported by polished mangrove and palm timbers.
The rooms are brightly furnished in traditional style with books and objects in their places as if recently used. Friendly guards, bearing rifles and belted ammunition bandoleers, stroll across rooftop courtyards. Ancient cannons stand guard over the approaches to the fort from all six towers. Nakhal Fort today is a welcoming place for visitors, but in the old days the ill intentioned would not find it so. If they managed to get through the formidable, iron-studded doors to the fort, boiling hot date honey would be poured on them; passageways might lead to dead-ends or traps; sharp turns and, or, alleyways would confuse and disorientate them. In the meantime, the Imam could escape through a secret underground tunnel, stocked with food to survive a six month siege & large enough to accommodate a horse and rider.
From its early history until as late as 1980, the Fort was the residence of the Wali who held his barza, wherein he heard pleas, petitions or complaints; and, with his council, sat in judgement. And, in fact, though the Wali no longer lives in the fort, he does, to this day, hold his barza there once a month every winter season.
The Wali's summer and winter majlis rooms are restored to their original condition, with rows of cushions bordering carpets, and weapons hanging on the walls. The wooden ceilings in these rooms are beautifully carved, the windows castellated, and wooden latticework outlined against the bright sunlight outside. The Wali's private room is simply furnished with an antique wooden bed, Omani dowrychest and display of Chinese porcelains. The architectural design, engineering and construction of Omani forts were developed and refined over many hundreds of years. Through hard won experience in combating foreign invasions, the Omanis developed sophisticated fortified defence systems centred on the citadel or castle tower. Although the fort architecture of Oman was influenced through the centuries by on-going developments in defensive architecture in the other parts of the world, at the same time Arab traditions also influenced developments in military architecture abroad, especially during the early Islamic period; and, the particular fort architecture of Oman remains distinctly Omani.
The advent of Islam reinforced the inherent Omani belief in self-protection ("Who assaults you unjustly, assault him in return" — Oman in History, p. 290); and deepened their strong determination to defend their civilisation. The spread of Islam to foreign domains, especially in North Africa and Andalusia, resulted in a fertile interplay of traditions in military architecture and the creation of new architectural forms and construction techniques. The use of plain local materials - mud, stone, lime, wood; and, the siting of defensive structures on strategic topographical features, often under the natural protection of mountains and gorges, harbours and bays, contributed to the distinctive character of Omani defensive architecture.
Nakhal Fort is an excellent example of the strategic use of topographical features for defence and of both functional and harmonious adaptation to the local environment in its design and engineering. From a distance, the fort is at first almost indistinguishable from the rocks encasing its foundations, as it is clad in the same shade of dry, sun-washed sienna plaster or sarooj, impregnable as the mountains around it. To animate a vision of Nakhal Fort, the guidebook uses the following evocative description: “Unlike other Omani forts, this fort looks like a monument carried by a gigantic hand high above its surroundings”.
With six rounded towers armed with cannon and innumerable apertures for small arms at calculated intervals in its tremendously thick walls, the fort was able to use its weapon systems against a hostile approach from any direction. Though the exact origins of the pre Islamic Nakhal Fort are lost in time, records suggest that the fort was restored in the early 9th Century in the time of the Yahmads, or later that Century by Imam Al Salt bin Malek. The fort is known to have been renovated by the Nabhan rulers, as well as in the 16th Century under the Ya'aruba Imams. In 1834, Sultan Said Bin Sultan added towers, a wall, and the existing gate.
While the last of Oman's monumental forts built for defensive purposes were completed in the 19th Century, elements of Oman's heritage in fort architecture continue to be expressed in motifs or architectural forms and/or engineering principles of prominent national civil architecture. This we find, for instance, in some Ministry complexes; and, of late, notably in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque with its "deeply modulated parapet, which wraps around the solid structure (of the central building) with merlons typical of vernacular fort architecture". The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Apex, 2001
There are presently twenty-two restored forts and castles under development by the Directorate-General of Tourism in the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Each fort or castle is to have a heritage theme. For Nakhal Fort, currently, the theme is historic small arms and the museum at the Fort now houses a fine collection of guns and rifles in working order, dating from the 18th Century to the recent past. The best examples of the various types of rifle or jezail used in Oman over the past three hundred years are showcased in the Fort's special museum. This historic arms collection is in the care of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and shows the major developments from matchlock and flintlock to percussion lock muzzleloaders, large and small bore single shot and magazine breechloaders.
Dr Christopher Roads, who has restored over five hundred such weapons for the purpose of putting them in the forts, met the Historical Association of Oman group and treated them to a detailed explanation of the Nakhal Fort historical arms collection. Dr Roads, who heads the joint venture company, Historical Arms, Exhibitions and Forts, LLC, explained the process of restoring a gun to its original condition, including its firing ability. This is an extremely painstaking and complex process involving at least a dozen applications of careful oiling and rubbing down of the wood by professionals, and special treatment of the metalwork in cleaning and then browning or bluing at exactly the right temperature to achieve the desired colour. Replacement metal parts are often needed; and, usually, this challenge is met by copying originals and carefully filing the new parts by hand.
As in other countries, guns used in warfare in Oman during the past few centuries come from a variety of regional and international sources. The Oman heritage arms collection includes, but is not limited to, weapons originating in Oman, Britain, India, Austria, Belgium, the United States, Switzerland and Germany. Among the more remarkable guns in the Nakhal Fort collection is a fine example of an early short Omani Jezail; and there are some nice examples of the Martini Henry with fine Omani silver work.
A visit to Nakhal Fort is ideal for a Thursday morning, but would not be complete without experiencing the steamy air of the famous mineral-laden hot springs nearby; and, taking a picnic to one of the many beautiful wadis in the area — perhaps Wadi Abyadh (or "White Wadi" named for the colour of its stones) with its aqua green pools, lush groves of pink oleander and abundant bird life — or the majestic gorge of Wadi Bani Awf, lined with date palms, long grasses and flowing falaj courses…. Another perfect day from Oman's treasure house of history and nature.