Evocative of a time gone by, the noble Jabreen Castle will enchant you with its history and stunning architecture
Words & images: Jerzy Wierzbicki
Towering above me, the dramatic brown walls stretched up to a delicate balcony with carved wooden railings and a slender, scalloped arch overlooking the courtyard below.
For a building that is more than 300 years old, Jabreen Castle retains much of its original beauty. This is partly down to an impressive restoration, which is virtually flawless, and the spirit of the place that remains firmly intact. Still, there are signs of its turbulent history to be found, such as the wall full of cannon holes, battered through the years from attacking forces, which has been left in its authentic state.
Located just a few kilometres behind Bahla in the Al Dakhliyah region, Jabreen’s setting is breathtaking on its own. Planted among a small oasis of dusty palm trees, it takes in a panorama sweeping across the plain and towards the end of the Akhdar mountain range.
Built as a palatial residence around 1680 by Imam Bil’arub bin Sultan, the third ruler of Oman’s Ya’ruba dynasty, the castle is a fitting monument to his reign – albeit one that lasted little more than two decades and ended in bloody defeat at the hands of his brother’s besieging army.
The brother, however, had no intention of living in the castle and upped sticks elsewhere.
Apart from a brief occupation, the abandoned castle was left unloved for three centuries until the Ministry of Heritage and Culture reclaimed it.
Thanks to the Ministry’s tireless efforts, it has been restored to its former glory and has become a popular tourist destination.
I have been waiting for a good time to visit Jabreen Castle. Now it is here. Early October, when the scorching summer sun gives way to more forgiving autumnal rays, is perfect to explore Al Dakhliyah. I arrived at the castle around 3pm on a recent Saturday. Cool and dry, groups of clouds clung together in the sky providing ideal light for photography.
Using knowledge from lessons I took at an art academy in Poland on how to take photographs of architecture and other geometrical objects, I quickly set up my equipment.
A dark blue sky with pillows of white clouds formed a perfect backdrop for the sandy brown walls of the castle. At the entrance, I chatted to three kind Omani men before moving into the main edifice.
What immediately struck me was the forbidding feel inside, highlighted by the highly defensive character of the buildings. Very narrow walls led to small rooms with windows tiny enough for just one bowman or gunner to see through. I found a few small terraces with old-fashioned cannons still aiming out into the distance. This was a fortress built to keep people out.
It appears that Imam Bil’arub had a softer side, though. A room for his horse was built on the upper storey near his personal quarters, an unusual feature for a castle. According to historians, the horse would have been led up a ramp in the curving passageway, now a stairway for visitors. The animal would have been kept near to facilitate a quick escape as well as for sentimental reasons.
There are places in the castle for quiet contemplation, study and prayer, including a schoolroom and two mosques. There is an air of serenity, reflecting its one-time use as a centre of learning for the study of Islamic law, history, Arabic, medicine and astrology.
If you are a fan of rich museums and big collections of historical artifacts, Jabreen is not for you. Inside you can admire the architectural details, mostly made from wood, but there’s little in the way of small objects – although in one large room, I came across examples of old pots and mysterious metal casing.
In my view, the most attractive feature inside the main building is the gallery, with typical Omani flourishes such as wooden windows.
From the main building, I moved outside to see the defensive walls. I wanted a good overview of the castle but not the usual, much-photographed vista. I wanted to show this royal residence from a slightly different perspective.
The sun was very low and the air was warm. Behind the castle, the navy sky was filling with grey rain clouds. In the fading light, the old walls were illuminated in all their noble splendour. It was my shot of the day.
Jabreen Castle is just a two-hour drive from Muscat. Take the main road to Nizwa and follow it (literally) to the end of the road. Go past Nizwa and the junction to Salalah and Adam. Look out for the road signposted to Bahla. A 4×4 is not needed.
GPS locations for Jabreen: N22’54’55” E57’14’58”