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Friday, November 25, 2016
11/3: Discovering Oman's Interior
Earlier today we had toured both the second largest mosque in the world and the Royal Opera House in Muscat. We didn't have any more time to explore the capital as we were headed southwest of the city toward part of Oman known as the Interior. On our way, we saw the Sahwa Clock Tower, one of the most recognizable icons of Muscat. The Arabic word 'Sahwa' means 'awakening' in English and this connects with a speech that Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos, made when he first came to power about Oman 'awakening' or arising to new heights.
The area of Oman historically known as the Interior refers to the region lying beyond the nountains surrounding Muscat where, from fortified strongholds, the Imans or Muslim holy men contested the authority of the sultan in Muscat. That was why the name 'Muscat and Oman' was used to describe the country prior to 1970 as Muscat was the capital enclave and Oman was what an Australian might call the Outback.
There are two provinces in the Interior; one of them was where we were headed as it is the most visited part of the country, home to three of the coutry's most famous forts and some of its finest scenery.
One of the country's estimated 500 forts was clearly visible atop a nearby mountain.
As you might expect in such a fabulously wealthy country full of oil and gas, the highway was in graet shape and certainly equalled the best of America's. We were able to drive up to 75 mph on the very well sign-posted road.
Driving through the mountains, which would be our constant companion over the next few days, reminded us of the mountainous terrain near our home back in Colorado. The historic town of Nizwa, located about 90 minutes from Muscat, was our destination for the night.
We drove through Birkat al Mawz, one of the area's traditional oasis villages, which had a dense patchwork of plantations clustered around the inevitable fort.
We soon came to realize that this sight of a home with a large exterior wall surrounding the entire property would be the norm thoughout Oman.
The village's imposing Bait al Ridaydha Castle was unfortuantely closed for 'development.'
In the same parking lot as the Castle was the UNESCO-listed Falaj al Khatmeen. A 'falaj' is an ancient irrigation system in Oman dating back to 500 AD. The water channels effectively divided the water among all the inhabitants as it flowed by gravity from the sources to homes and cropland.
In 2006, five Aflaj - the plural of falaj - irrigation systems in Oman were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
Just beside the falaj was the small Al Yaribah Mosque:
Almost each town we drove through seemed to have a very large Court Complex. This one in Nizwa appeared to me as being exceptionally large for a population of 700,000.
The entrance gate to the town of Nizwa:
We were so happy when we saw, on the opposite side of the divided road outside of Nizwa, a Pizza Hut sign as we had seen so few restaurants anywhere. We stopped in and had a great pizza, at least by our standards!
An interesting and, I think, a very positive feature of our Honda rental was that whenever Steven drove very close to the posted speed limit, we could hear a little pinging noise in the car. Initially, we had no idea what it was and were concerned that there might be something wrong with the car. After hearing it several times, I finally made the connection between Steven’s rate of speed and the noise! Sure wish all cars sold in the States had the same feature.
First point of call for most visitors is Nizwa’s splendid fort but it was only open until 11 so we would have to wait and see it in the morning. We drove 25 miles west to the town of Bahla to tour its fort rather than waiting to see it tomorrow as planned. It would mean more backtracking as we were staying in Nizwa for the night but time wise, it made sense.
As we drove toward Bahla, we asked each other how on earth the people survived here before the discovery of oil as it all looked so very desolate.
Bahla's Entrance Gate:
The small town of Bahla was totally dominated by its vast fort, the largest in Oman. The Nbahina rulers of Oman from the 12th to the 17th century raised the fort on pre-Islamic foundations and also built the 7.5 miles of mud-brick town walls, large sections of which we could still see today. Despite its dilapidated condition, the Bahla Fort became an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. Soon after that it was closed for a lengthy renovation.
Our rental by the fort:
We explored the labyrinth of corridors that made up the fort but there was little signage to help make sense of what we were seeing.
I thought it odd that the fort's ticket taker sat on an elevated platform until we noticed the same thing when visiting two more forts in Oman.
I told Steven to go first! He said there was just rubble inside and the room was empty and I didn’t need to look inside. Phew!
What a maze with room after room and so many stairways everywhere.
None of the rooms had any furniture nor any descriptions as to their purpose.
Even though we didn't know what we were seeing, it was enjoyable being out of the car for a stretch and just wandering around the fort.
Steven was standing in front of a real mud brick wall - we could see bits of straw sticking out. We had never seen anything like that before.
Pretty impressive studded door, don't you think?!
We could hear the call to prayer here but hadn’t seen a mosque.
This was the first time we had seen this sort of open area at the fort. I wish there had been someone we could have asked what it was used for.
The ticket taker down from his lofty perch!
This was the only cannon or armament we saw in the fort.
Standing on one of the fort's walls, we could see many homes in the shadow of the fort that had, for hundreds of years, been protected by the fort's leaders.
Even though it was already 4, we decided to head over to the nearby Jabrin Fort as it was only another six miles further west. It was one of the forts we had also anticipated seeing tomorrow but we were concerned we may have planned a little too much for the following day so were happy if we could investigate it too today.
As we were getting gas, we heard unusual animal sounds a couple of lanes over from ours. I explored and discovered there was a camel in the back of a truck! Sure don't see that at the King Soopers gas station back home.
Even though we arrived at Jabrin Fort after the closing hour of 4, the ticket taker very kindly said that he would keep it open for us since he knew we had come a long way. Of course, anyone entering the fort had to have come a long way since it’s so far from everything! It was interesting that the Jabrin Fort was also called a castle as I don't think of the two as being interchangeable.
Included in the price of admission was an audio guide that was of tremendous help as we walked around.
Islam arrived in Oman during the 7th century,1,000 years before the fort was built. This was one of the two mosques inside the fort.
There was a well in each courtyard in case one of the wells was poisoned.
Since the fort was built for defensive purposes, we needed to make sure to be careful we didn't fall over the edges.
The kitchen was located in the courtyard so that smoke from the fires could escape through the open roof. There were hundreds of guests that had to be cooked for on major occasions.
Honey, tea and buttermilk were put in small glazed jars and hung out of harm’s way. Equipment for the kitchen included grindstones for milling flower, mortars and pestles for crushing spices, goatskin bags for storing water and churning milk and long-handled pans with stirring rods for roasting coffee beans.
Calligraphy was the artistic expression related to the early history of the fort.
This was the tomb of the imam who founded the castle in 1680 during the golden age of prosperity. When he was besieged by an army led by his brother, he prayed to God for death and his wish was granted.
Date Storage: Many Omani forts had special rooms for the long term storage of dates just like their counterparts in both Bahrain and Qatar. Many tons of dates were stockpiled in these rooms against the possibility of a long siege.
When crushed under their own weight, the dates exuded thick honey-like juice. In peaceful times, date juice was used in the kitchen. In the event of an attack, it was heated to a boil and made ready to pour onto enemies through 'murder holes' located above castle doorways.
We were curious what was at the top of the stairs.
It was the women's prison!
Swirling Islamic inscriptions on the plaster walls were cut as delicately as hand-embroidered lace.
Jabrin served not only as a fort but also as a retreat for the imams. In addition, the imam founded a school in the fort that produced many famous Islamic scholars who studied law, medicine, astrology as well as theology during the period of enlightenment. These were the school rooms:
The next two rooms served as a library for the imam’s students.
Horses, used for military and travel purposes as well as for competitive celebrations, were led up the ramp and put in this horse stall. Legend has it that the founding imam’s brother had 90,000 horses in his regular army. Marco Polo referred to the export of great Arab horses from Oman in his writings during the 13th century.
The Conference Room: Beneath the floor were four interconnected passageways for the imam’s soldiers ready to appear if required.
There were also rooms nearby that allowed for discrete monitoring of discussions in the Conference Room.
The castle’s roof top served as the perfect place for the school.
When the number of students exceeded the capacity of the space, the mosque on top of the rooftop was used.
In the Court Room, the imam served as the final judge of appeal on all religious matters. If prisoners were found innocent, they left by the room's main door. Prisoners were required to bend down in penance on the way to prison if they were found guilty, i.e. leave by the room's door that was half the normal height.
From the Guest Room, there were clear views of the countryside that allowed for the imam to prepare for his guests’ arrival or shots could be fired at those who were not welcome!
The imam's most private discussions were held in the small Whisper Room. He was not only the religious leader but also the leader of the state.
In the Dining Room, succulent meat was served on copper platters that were so large they required two men to carry them. Smaller dishes were conveyed through the hole in the floor. The intricately carved details in the niches were beyond spectacular.
Even though we were there several weeks ago now, I remember as clear as day our taking a few minutes to lean against the pillows on the beautiful carpet in this room and gazing in amazement at the very pretty ceiling and the stunning niches. It was all so peaceful.
Steven and I were so glad and so fortunate that we were able to tour the fort this afternoon. From the date storage area, to the school, to inspiring Arabic calligraphy, this castle gave us a good understanding how the residents lived in this relatively harsh, arid environment.
As we settled in for the night back in our hotel in Nizwa, it was incredible to reflect on all that we had seen and done today beginning with the Sultan Qaboos Mosque and Royal Opera House in Muscat and from there an intersting drive through the Interior onto two of Oman's most famous forts. Tomorrow, we knew, promised even more exciting adventures as I am sure you will agree when you read the post!
Posted from Johannesburg, South Africa on November 25th!