The Nizwa Fort nested among mountains and oasis with the souk spreading at the foot of its recognisable tower is a must-see.
When Oman converted to Islam peacefully and by faith in the 8th century, the idea to create a true Muslim state was paramount, and prior to today’s sultanate, the Imamate was ruling the country. Religious and political powers were consolidated in the hands of the elected Imam in the capital Nizwa (until the coastal Muscat became the capital in 1793). As such, Nizwa has been the centre of religion and also of politics for many centuries, calling for new standards for fortified buildings in a land divided among many tribes.
The 9th century castle of Nizwa, home to the Imam was built taking into account these constraints. The high crenelated walls with loopholes and downward-angled arrow slits, the fortified windows with heavy iron grills and thick wooden shutters operated from the inside, and watchtowers are the most obvious defensive signs. Other clever tricks made effective attacks difficult if not impossible. For instance, every gate was made of heavy hardwood and iron. A tiny door was inserted to force every visitor to come in individually and to bend forward while raising one’s knee high over a high still when entering, a position less than ideal to lead an attack. Stepping into the Imam’s bedroom with its refined carpets and pillows, hidden doors lead to a 17-kilometre long tunnel allowing for his safe escape and also for resupply from neighbouring villages if needed.
After the Imam Sultan bin Saif Al Ya’rubi defeated the Portuguese in the battle of Diu in the 17th century, he decided to invest the spoils of war on an impressive fort as he was afraid they would come back. Built by the side of the castle, the massive Nizwa Fort has been an efficient deterrent as it has never really been used in battles but for some local conflicts. Beyond its massive cylindrical earth-filled tower built to withstand any cannon attack, it features 480 positions for gunners, 24 for cannons, 120 for guards on the parapet and some ingenious traps to resist potential invaders. If an enemy had been brave and lucky enough to reach the entrance of the fort alive, he would have been welcomed by boiling hot date juice poured from the rooftop through smartly engineered shafts right before thick wooden doors. After eventually forcing the door, it is a deep pitfall a lethal step away from the burning date juice that would have made the intruder meet his destiny 30 metres lower. Some of the stairs simply had some wooden planks that could be removed to expose pits. Six of these traps were hidden in the narrow zigzag staircase before enemies could reach the top of the fort. Because of these sharp angles their speed would have been slowed down greatly so that guards could welcome them properly all the way up…
Besieging was not really an option either as there was plenty of food stored in the fort from the surrounding fertile lands as well as ammunition, arms and gunpowder. Four wells on its rooftop that could not be poisoned from the outside answered any need for water.
These very cleverly engineered defensive mechanisms were never really put to test: the Portuguese were more interested in the coast for trading purposes and never came back to Nizwa.
Today, visitors can admire this restorated jewel that offers some great insights in how the powerful Imans used to live, some interesting coin and book exhibitions and the chance to see local people carrying out old traditions such as making cosmetics and baking Kuboos. On top of that, the 34-metre high fort tower is a perfect location to admire the sun setting behind the mountains of Jebel Akhdar while taking in the whispers of the neighbouring souk and call of the imam for prayer in the conservative yet still welcoming heart of Nizwa.
Marcella & Claire
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