Visiting Oman’s forts – historic Oman with kids
Sack upon sack of dates would have lain in the fort’s storeroom, piled high until the sheer weight of the fruit squeezed the juice from the lowest bags into the cleverly cut channel or specially positioned jars.
In times of peace, that would have been whisked to the kitchens for cooking, or saved to be used in medicines. In times of conflict, the dates would have sustained the inhabitants during a siege – and the juice boiled and thrown onto the enemy.
My five-year-old, listening intently, put on her sternest face. “That is NOT a very nice thing to do Mummy,” she said severely. Visiting the historic forts in Oman’s interior was proving an education for us both.
Away from the coast, where the Sultans reigned, this area was traditionally ruled by the Imams and the forts they built to secure their land still stand today in the Dakhiliya region. Visiting three of the main ones – Nizwa, Bahla and Jabrin (or Jibreen/Jabreen Castle) – we got to see a taste of what life would have been like, dates and all.
Built mostly in the 17th century, although often on the foundations of older buildings, there’s something to see in them all – and we let our imaginations race as we climbed staircases for rooftop views, or peeked into rooms hidden within the imposing mud brick walls.
Visiting Oman’s forts: Nizwa fort
One of the region’s oldest forts, the town was the ancient capital of Oman. It’s still renowned as the home of silver jewellery and sticky sweet halwa, sold in one of the sprawling souks nearby, divided up into very specific areas depending on what’s sold – from fish, fruit, goats and camels to traditional khanjar daggers and camel fridge magnets.
Golden in the sunlight, the smell of hot mud scenting the air much to my daughter’s vocal disgust, it’s a perfect introduction. Here we discovered the potentially lethal side of dates, packed into 70kg sacks – each one around four times as heavy as Minnie. In another, the ‘ablutions’ room, water was channeled for washing with a separate area for fire to heat it.
Hooks hung for buckets by an old well, while another room was set aside for a shepherd, velvety cushions adorning guest chambers.
And as we climbed the steps to the roof, we uncovered another of the building’s secrets – holes in the zigzag staircases to trap the unwary, with planks which could be whipped out of the floor. Glassed over today, attackers unfamiliar with the building would have stood little chance in the darkness, plunging into the pits below. Minnie seemed unfazed by this particular method of defence but couldn’t be persuaded to stand on them.
Cannon remain ranged around the top, with the crenellated towers looking out to the mountains and the mosque, a flag flying in the occasional breeze.
Below, there’s a small museum with exhibits and artefacts showing everything from historic irrigation methods to traditional dress and jewellery as well as a timeline of Oman set against the rest of the world – something I’d have love to spend longer poring over.
Visiting Oman’s forts: Bahla fort
Bahla, a World Heritage site, has its own long history. The area, once home to the Banu Nebhan tribe until the 15th century, is dominated by the glinting white curves of its towers – how mud can gleam so palely in the sun still puzzles me.
There’s less to see inside the sprawling fort but wandering the rabbit warren of restored rooms and passages is fascinating – from the huge open central courtyard, staircases rose to the parapet in all direction, a labyrinth taking us to tiny roof terraces and viewpoints.
Almost empty of people while we were there, it’s incredible to think how many could have fitted inside this vast fort, its towering walls shading us as we peered around corners.
And it still has the power to surprise: peering into one unlit chamber, a startled bat squeaked from its roost high in the darkness above, a sudden rush of wings above our heads.
Perhaps the legend that Bahla is home to djinn, those magical, mercurial and magnificent spirits, might not be too far from the truth?
Visiting Oman’s forts: Jabrin Castle
If Bahla is almost entirely empty, of decoration, information and people, Jabrin’s fort 10 minutes away is perfect for getting more idea of life inside.
With an audio guide, more detail on signs around the fortress and decorated rooms, this site was designed to be lived in rather than purely as a defensive structure so there’s much more to discover as you explore – although group of schoolgirls visiting were far more fascinated by my daughter.
In the central courtyard, huge water jars big enough to hold a five-year-old and pots for food line the walls, ready for cooking to be done under this open sky. Above, wooden balconies on the floors above look down, creamy arches illuminated behind.
Something of a maze as well, we wandered through receiving rooms to private quarters, even a stall for the imam’s favourite horse, before stumbling across several jails along the way: while the women’s prison was an ordinary bare room, the men’s was accessed through a tiny opening which even Minnie had to crouch to scurry through.
In another part of the fort lie the library and reception rooms with painted ceilings as well as the imam’s own personal quarters.
Below, the tomb of Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan, the third of the Yaruba imams, who had ordered the structure built in the 17th century. Lying peacefully apart, under beautiful calligraphy on the walls, the tale tells that he met his end during a siege. Believing they had lost, he prayed to god to die – and, as the story tells, his prayer was answered.
Succeeded by his brother – a rather more successful ruler, who fought the Portuguese in East Africa after years of conflict to expel them from Oman – the history related here doesn’t mention exactly how his prayer was answered, but the guide books suggest there was some rather more human intervention than divine…
Visiting Oman’s forts: Need to know
The forts are open from around 9am to 4pm on Saturday to Thursday. Bahla Fort and Jabrin Castle are also open on Friday morning.
Entrance costs around 500 baisa for adults (around £1), children free.
We visited Nizwa on the way from Muscat to Jebel Shams and Al Hamra, then stopped at Bahla and Jabrin the following morning on our journey to Wahiba Sands – you can see our complete one-week Oman itinerary here.
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