Castles in Oman: Nizwa and Jabrin
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Muscat is worth a visitUnfortunately, we'd heard the previous night that our planned 4WD safari had been cancelled, due to lack of numbers and we didn't want a city tour, as we had three booked at later ports of call already. That was a mistake, for Muscat is different to the other cities we visited. It's been an important port of call on the old trading routes since ancient times, and the old city hasn't been entirely buried by newer and grander buildings. In fact, unlike the places we were to visit later in the cruise, there are no skyscrapers in Oman. We were told that Sultan Qaboos, the autocratic ruler, has forbidden them, indeed, he's been known to order at least one offending building to be demolished. To properly appreciate the castles of Oman, it's good to know a little Omani history, and it's a subject rarely taught in school. But, I was able to piece together a sort of broad-brush overview. When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama came to the area in the early 16th Century, there was already a centuries-old trade route from Mesopotamia (now Iraq) to India, and Muscat was an important port and staging post on it. There were already fortifications around the coast and the harbour throughout the Gulf, and the Portuguese, who had rapidly taken over the area, strengthened and improved these as a defence against pirates. But, I did wonder why the 17th Century Omanis chose also to build castles so far inland.
NizwaAs we drove through the mountains, there seemed to be a defensive work of some sort on top of almost every other hill. I found out a little more when we reached the Nizwa fort, built over a spring in what was, in ancient times, the capital of Oman. The fort itself was built in the 1650s by one Sultan bin Saif, someone of that name, who may have been the same person, drove the occupying Portuguese from Oman, and went on to displace them from most of the East African coast. Nizwa was one of a string of forts across the country, as a defence against a possible invasion from the north by the Ottoman Empire. There's a small museum within the fort, which seems, on inspecting the artefacts, to have really been a fortified palace. Most castles were, in fact, the home of the local Emir, or chieftain, most of whom were in fear of incursions from neighbouring tribes, as well as the Ottomans. There's a covered suq, or market nearby, where meat, vegetables and fish are sold, and there are shops immediately outside the castle walls, catering more for tourists. I hesitate to apply the description 'souvenir shops' to these, for they seemed to be offering quality pottery and metalwork, rather than the tat you sometimes see in such places. Craft shops, maybe?
Jabrin CastleAfter lunch, we went to see Jabrin Castle, which was built in 1675, and was the first restoration project in Oman. It was never used as a defensive position, and was intended as a summer residence for Sultan Bila'rab bin Sultan al-Yaarubi. Nevertheless, the guide pointed out the 'murder holes', through which the defenders could, if the need arose, pour boiling date syrup on the heads of invaders. There's a similar arrangement in many an English castle, but those were designed, and mainly used so that those within could relieve themselves into the moat. Of course, the main factor to be considered when building any sort of defence position is that you need to build as high as possible, to give the best view all around. So, most of us climbed the tall watch tower . not, of course, to monitor the approach of unfriendly forces, but just to enjoy the extensive view.
If You Go
Getting to the CastlesMuscat, the capital and main port of Oman is a popular port of call for cruise ships, whose operators usually organise tours of either the city or further afield. Muscat Airport deals with aircraft to and from many places in the Middle East and India. It is also served by some European carriers, e.g. British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and Swiss International. Travellers from further afield are advised to route via Dubai, from where there are frequent flights to Muscat by many airlines. Public transport within Oman is difficult; there are no railways, but there is long-distance bus service. To reach the castles, it would be more advantageous to hire a car, or sign up with an organised tour operator.
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Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, Keith Kellett saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author