The ‘phantom forts’ of Oman

Friday 12/06/2015
Wall of Hosn al-Furs fort

MUSCAT - Forts, watchtowers and citadels are landmark features of the Sultan­ate of Oman. The coun­try boasts more than 500 such historical structures along its coast and inner regions with many forts still unknown and waiting to be discovered.
The existence of such a large number of bastions, which are perched on strategic mountain passageways and along the coast, testifies to the country’s tumultu­ous history.

Invaders and occupants, includ­ing Persians and Parthians in the past, and Portuguese and Otto­mans in later eras, left their marks in stone monuments and the coun­try’s mud-brick defensive architec­ture.
The history of Omani forts is very well known and documented. The Bahla citadel in Dakhiliyah prov­ince is a UNESCO World Heritage site dating to the pre-Islamic era. However, the country’s much older citadels are yet to be explored and brought to light.
At least five citadels, whose his­tory is a mystery, are almost totally unknown for Omanis. Scattered along Al-Hajar (stone) mountain chain, which stretches some 300 kilometres westward from the Gulf of Oman coast, these vestiges are crumbling into oblivion amid offi­cial neglect.
“This is Ras al-Hosn,” Marhoun al-Halhali said as he pointed to­wards an imposing structure perched on a mound in the craggy countryside in the middle of a can­yon. “Nobody knows exactly when it was built and who built it or what is the history of it,” said the young Omani man hailing from Halhal, the closest village to the site.
It takes two hours to reach Ras al-Hosn, accessible only on foot, following an exposed mule trail that passes through an abandoned settlement and ends at the base of the imposing site. A staircase built from stones reached up one side of the citadel, built on a plateau right on the edge of a cliff that plunges several metres in a sheer drop to the wadi below.
The panoramic view that uncov­ers the surrounding area and the single access to the fort made it clearly unassailable. “It is from the time of the old wars,” Halhali ex­plained to The Arab Weekly. But he had no answer when asked which wars he meant and by whom they were fought.
The “phantom citadels” of Oman, are in remote areas, away from inhabited centres. Their his­tory is still a riddle for most Oma­nis.
Hosn al-Furs, Arabic for “Fort of the Persians”, is another such ves­tige in the Al-Hajar mountains. It is built on a flat terrain on top of a hill at the junction of two canyons. It has a high fence around it because it is not protected naturally with cliffs and can be reached only by hiking on an old path, a 1-hour trek from Al Hijir, the nearest village reachable by car.
Here again, nobody could tell the age or the origin of the fort. “It was probably built by the Persians, as the name indicates,” commented, Mubarak, a policeman and resident of Al Hijir.
Another anonymous vestige is al- Hadash fort, which is on a mound overlooking Wadi Mistal, around 120 kilometres from Muscat. Sitting on the north side of Jabal Akhdar near the village of Hadash, the fort was reportedly explored by British soldiers stationed in Oman to sup­port the sultan against a rebellion by the local population in the mid­dle of the last century.
“Many years back, during the Ja­bal war in the mid ’50s, some Brit­ish soldiers found potteries with inscriptions dating before Islam,” said Mubarak, who’s last name was not given.
“These people never came back to our village since this discovery and the authorities never came here to excavate or do any research to find out more about the history of this site,” Mubarak added
Khaled al-Siyabi, an explorer and mountain climber, is among the few Omanis who have visited one of the country’s “lost forts.” “It was by pure coincidence during an ex­pedition in the region that we came across one of the forts and had the chance to explore it,” Siyabi said.
Siyabi said he believed the gov­ernment is aware of the sites but had failed to conduct any compre­hensive study about them. “The government should give more at­tention to those vestiges as part of its bid to develop archaeologi­cal tourism. Oman is the charm­ing land of ancient civilisations and this will help anchor it as one of the best archaeological tourism sites globally,” he told The Arab Weekly.
Hosn Hbeish, is yet another anonymous vestige at the foot of Jabal Shams, the highest mountain in Oman. Unlike the other myste­rious forts, it has a popular story about it.
“According to the legend, Hbeish was a Persian man living in this place with his wife. He threw his brother from the top of the citadel because he had forced his preg­nant wife to carry the stones he needed to build the fence of the fort,” Suleiman al-Abri, a resident of the nearby village of Al-Wijmah, recounted.
Obviously, the sheer abundance of Oman’s heritage of defensive monuments, built over centuries by different civilisations, makes conservation a daunting and costly prospect.