Al Jalali Fort < OMAN EXPLORER

Al Jalali Fort

Museums aside, few historical edifices showcase Omani martial skills and the grandeur of Omani fortifications in times bygone like Al Jalali Fort. Fewer still offer such a wealth of insights into Oman's rich heritage and culture like this splendid edifice standing sentry-like over Muscat bay.Al Jalali Fort is now a grand museum set in an authentic, but grandiose ambience, befitting such visitors like royalty, heads of state and other foreign dignitaries. 

 

A heavy, gold-lined visitors' book maintained at the fort records the visits of eminent personalities and their impressions of this great structure.Indeed, Al Jalali Fort, is perhaps the finest of Oman's historical fortifications in the capital area and its environs. From its vantage position atop a rocky outcrop, the fort commands unparalleled views of the harbour and the old city, including Muscat's most prestigious landmark — His Majesty the Sultan's Al Alam Palace.

 

Samples of Oman's rich heritage preserved in a museum in the fort

Originally built by Portuguese occupying forces in the early part of the 16th century, Al Jalali Fort went through a series of transformations in design and fortification. According to published accounts, the original structure was just a functional fortification built into the side of the outcrop on which it currently stands. It was hastily built partly because of persistent threats from Persian naval forces seeking to dislodge the Portuguese from their stronghold in Muscat. 

Together with its 'twin' — the Mirani fort, perilously straddling another rocky outcrop just a stone's throw away — the Al Jalali Fort once served as a bastion against foreign seaborne aggression in its heyday. The so-called twin forts, in conjunction with the veritable defences of the Muttrah fort and a host of fortified structures and watchtowers along the rocky ridges of the bay, made Muscat virtually impregnable. They collectively supplemented the old city's natural defences offered by the massed rows of rocky hills fringing the bay. 

Al Jalali Fort once served as a bastion against foreign seaborne aggression in its heyday

Towards the latter half of the 16th century, new fortifications and towers were added.But, upon the edifice's capture by victorious Omani forces in 1650, Al Jalali Fort was gradually rebuilt and strengthened to take its present form. Some Portuguese inscriptions, among a few other features, are the only vestigial traces of Portuguese involvement in the fort. Painstaking restoration work initiated after His Majesty Sultan Qaboos assumed power has since endowed the fort with its present grandeur.

 

Al Jalali's invincible character is partly accentuated by the formidable wall that skirts the perimeter of the edifice. Access is possible only from the harbour side, by a flight of steep, rocky steps leading into the heart of the fort. A giant inscription in Arabic, at the foot of the stairs, bears the legend 'Al Jalali Fort, Built 1587'. (An improvised cable car now facilitates the transfer of men and material into the fort.)Once inside, the fort's grandiose ambience is revealed in full measure. From the terraces and the towers, there are stunning vistas of Muscat bay and the old city including Mirani fort and His Majesty's Palace.
 

Ceremonial weapons, khanjars, traditional household utensils, incense burners and coffeepots are among the items on display at Fort Al Jalali's museum

The waters around are a glorious turquoise while a small stretch of private beach adjoining the fort attracts sea birds. On a rocky outcrop facing the fort are scrawled the names of ships that called at Muscat down the ages — testimony of the port's importance in maritime history. Only the intrepid could have scaled the sheer faces of the outcrop to record for posterity his ship's visit to Muscat. Among Al Jalali Fort’s most interesting facets is a cavernous enclosure that once served as the edifice's bulwark against seaborne attack. It overlooks the expanse of the harbour, bringing within its purview every manner of enemy craft.  

Much of the formidable firepower of that era has been preserved as part of the fort's martial heritage — a battery of cannons on sturdy mounts peering through gun ports, complete with cannon shot, tow ropes and implements used to fire the guns.Ancient muskets and matchlocks adorn the walls, as well as maps and illustrations that offer a rare insight into maritime life before the advent of modern shipping and navigation. Also on display is a rare illustration depicting Portuguese possessions in Muscat. 

There is also a valuable artist's rendition of the port of Mombasa and other erstwhile Omani possessions in East Africa. Another wall plaque charts wind and water currents in Muscat bay, which was once vital for navigation within the harbour. The array of illustrations, in fact, opens a fascinating window on life in Muscat in pre-modern times.Right in the heart of the fort is a multi-tiered courtyard, mellowing the otherwise menacing ambience of the structure. Many bedam and sidr trees grow here, while an improvised falaj runs through the courtyard, gurgling with the goodness of water.

 

The courtyard leads to several rooms and enclosures built at different levels. One such windowless room, we are told, once served as a prison in the fort's heyday.An interesting feature of the fort's design is the maze of stairways that lead to the structure's myriad rooms and towers. The network of stairways appears more designed to confound enemy forces that may succeed in breaking through the first line of defences.

There is a valuable artist's rendition of the port of Mombasa and other erstwhile Omani possessions in East Africa. Another wall plaque charts wind and water currents in Muscat bay, which was once vital for navigation within the harbour

Heavy wooden doors with iron spikes bar access to strategic parts of the fort, aimed at impeding the progress of the enemy through the gauntlet of other defences. Also in the fort is a well-preserved room bristling with beautiful specimens of ancient Omani culture and heritage. The room features a palm-log ceiling and inscriptions on the walls. Notable among the items on display here are a pair of royal wooden slippers with silver studs, and an authentic animal skin water-carrier.One memorable highlight of the fort is its splendid dining hall overlooking the courtyard. Up to six dignitaries can dine in royal style around a huge, intricately carved Arabic foodtray.
 

Mounted on the ceiling is a remarkably preserved breeze-maker which, by his side-to-side fanning action, ensures a measure of coolness in the room. (The rather rare device has since been motorised, yet still imparts an authentic ambience around the dining hall.)But Al Jalali's royal splendour can best be relished during a visit to a museum located high up in the central square-shaped tower of the fort. Richly furnished majlis-style, with Oriental carpets and fluffy pillows, this museum houses some of the finest examples of Omani heritage. It is here that visiting dignitaries are offered a memorable glimpse of Oman's heritage and culture.  

A light-and-sound show — son-et-lumiere style — captures the substance and spirit of the Sultanate's varied crafts. As a recorded voice outlines the variety and richness of Omani heritage, the artefacts and exhibits in this museum are progressively backlighted. The room is bathed in different shades and hues, almost animating the variety of objects on display here. There are pots from Bahla, shaped by potters who inherited the secrets of their craft from their forebears.

A remarkably preserved breeze-maker ensures a measure of coolness in a room at Fort Al Jalali

Likewise, there are fine examples of rug weaving from Ibri, and metalwork from Muttrah, Nizwa and Rustaq.Omani necklaces, pendants and earrings are another attraction. Also on display are cannons, muskets, ceremonial weapons and a variety of khanjars, besides a range of traditional household utensils, incense burners and coffeepots. The rose-water sprinklers are richly ornamented with designs and motifs.

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