Sometimes, the most beautiful, most exciting places are really the ones that carry the least hype. Oman, a tiny Sultanate at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is one such country. In this sliver of land bordering the Arabian Sea, rugged mountains and beautiful wadis rub shoulders with deserts, oases and pristine beaches. Heritage and history vie with modernity, making Oman a land of diverse experiences. Among the many attractions, Nizwa Fort and its souq are perhaps among the more popular destinations in Oman, because of their historical importance, socio-economic role and architecture. Originally built in the 9th Century and later renovated in the 17th Century by Sultan Al Yaribi, the fort’s designs are set in the context of cannon-based warfare.
The fact that the fort is just a two-hour drive from Muscat throughthe Al-Hajjar mountains is a bonus. Starting off early from Muscat, I was able to reach Nizwa before the desert sun reached its zenith. Finding one’s way inside the fort is quite easy, so I didn’t take a guide. The most imposing structure here is the circular tower, 36 metres in diameter and 30 metres tall, quite unique to Omani fort designs. This tower, whose foundations go 30 metres below ground, along with the thick stone walls, were built to withstand any barrage of mortar fire. Cannons were emerging as the main attack weapon during the 16th-17th Century in West Asia, and Nizwa herself was equipped with two dozen cannons, ever-ready to guard her trade routes and riches.
In a maze
The maze of rooms and false doors were architectural deceptions against the enemy, but they now house artefacts, tools and utensils that were in use during the significant years of the fort’s history. One of the rooms has even been converted to a library, which is a queer addition. As I wound my way through secret tunnels, narrow winding staircases, spike-studded doors that had holes above them from which hot date syrup or burning oil was poured on intruders, I couldn’t help notice the striking similarity to medieval citadels back home.
The roof offered a lovely 360-degree view of the Al-Hajjar mountains and the town below, and was a strategic advantage for the fort. The turrets, battlements and cannon positions, which once thwarted many an assault, were now a great photo-op.
The Nizwa fort was built on a subterranean stream, which ensured it survived long sieges. In fact, many such underground streams criss-cross the mountains and deserts, surfacing ever so often to fill the valleys and canyons, popularly known as wadis . In such an unforgiving topography, the wadis , therefore, become centres of settlements and cultivation — fruits, dates, apricots, walnuts, to name a few, are grown and traded in these areas. One such wadi close to Nizwa is the Wadi Bani Awf, which has now become a popular place for picnics and swimming.
Right at the doorstep of the fort is one of the oldest, most authentic souqs or markets places — the Nizwa Souq. While some portions of the souq have been restored or modernised, wherein trading, business and the sale of meat, dates, nuts and fruits happens in newly-constructed halls, it is the original souq that caught my attention. Winding alleyways, stone arches and tiny shops with wares spilling onto the passages have a charm that no modern facility can emulate. When you know that locals also shop here, it has an added allure to it. This is a great place to shop for handicrafts, pottery, frankincense, silverware, and of course, the infamous silver khanjars or daggers, for which Nizwa has earned a name. With the experience of shopping in India, haggling comes naturally to us and I was able to drive a hard bargain for a couple of ornamental kettles and incense.
Post a late lunch, I took advantage of the extended daylight to explore the area immediately around Nizwa — the town of Bahla, Jabreen Castle, famous for its Islamic architecture, and the Falaj Daris, an inland waterway that is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As I drove back to Muscat, the setting sun rendered the Al-Hajjar mountains in a completely different hue from what I witnessed in the morning; I felt the day was a snapshot of how diverse Oman’s built and natural landscapes were.