The ‘phantom forts’ of Oman
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.