Nizwa Fort < OMAN EXPLORER

 

Nizwa Fort: an architectural showpiece

Hailed as a monument to Omani architectural ingenuity, Nizwa fort reflects the military engineering prowess of fort-builders of a bygone time. It is also one of the Sultanate's finest historical edifices, attracting great numbers of tourists each year.

The fort's central tower —once a bastion of might against enemy mortar attack

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. An estimated 58,200 visitors, including 19,063 foreign tourists, explored this fine citadel during 1997, according to a register maintained at the fort. Visiting Arab and GCC nationals were among those called here as well.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.

Nizwa fort's great bulk towers over the verdant countryside — Pictures by al Shuhi

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-ceilinged 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 make 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. Four cannons 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 cannons. Clumps of cannonballs, misshapen with rust and age, also lie around. Some of these are believed to have been produced in Nizwa itself. In fact, one 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.

Caretaker Ali bin Ahmed al Qasaymi explains the features of the fort

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.

Nizwa's splendid mosque accentuates the town's rich Omani and Islamic architectural heritage

The presiding Imams and walis governed Nizwa from this citadel. In keeping with tradition, the Wali of Nizwa meets with residents of the wilayat on these imposing premises once every month. Meetings are 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.

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