Fortified monuments perched atop hillocks in Oman’s towns and villages once served as secondary structures for defence. Aftab H. Kola looks at some of these reminders of the past.
Every country has its principal historical relic and for Oman, it is the fort.
Perhaps no legacy exudes a sense of history as much as a fort does. Some of the most potent symbols of Oman’s strikingly beautiful landscape are its thousand-or-more impressive forts, castles and watchtowers.
Forts were meant to protect seaports and served as guardians of trade routes and populated areas. Castles were grand in design but the purpose was to house powerful men reflecting their status in society and wealth. Much has been written about the forts and castles of Oman but there’s hardly anything about the watchtowers that are scattered all over Oman.
Watchtowers were outposts to keep a watch or protect inland trade routes and to guard water supplies. They also served as reconnaissance towers from where, upon sighting the invading enemy, warning shots would alert the garrison at a nearby fort.
They were look-out towers from which, at the sight of incoming enemies, warning shots could alert the garrison at a nearby fort.
In other words, watchtowers were considered as secondary defence, and were rallying points, permitting the besieged to make sorties under cover of artillery fire.
Like forts and castles, watchtowers have been scattered throughout Oman. While many have become victims to the vagaries of nature, others have withstood the onslaught, and continue to serve as reminders of the turbulent past.
The highest concentration of watchtowers in this country is along the main mountain passageway from the coast of Oman to the interior.
These are Wadi Samail, from Muscat to Izki; Wadi Jizzi, from Sohar to Buraimi; and Wadi Hawasinah, from Al Khabura to Ibri.
There is a very picturesque grouping of nine towers in Biaq in Wadi Samail while five towers, on surrounding knolls, form a supplementary defence to the single tower of the fort in Al Hobe, 80kms from Nizwa.
From the pages of history, we learn that the watchtowers found in and around the villages and wadis of the Dhahirah, were a scene of action during the late 19th century when the region went through scores of transference of power from one faction to another.
The towers at Araqi, Subaiki and Yankal in Dhahirah region stand testimony to a bygone era. At Gheizen in Wadi Hawasinah, four towers remain at corners of what was once a wall around the village.
The old towers have survived the rigours of nature and time better than their mud-brick counterparts. Wadi Jizzi, which runs through the northern range of the Hajar al Gharbi, connecting the oasis of Buraimi and the Batinah coast, has few tower ruins at Al Hail, Al Rabi and at Al Wais. Al Hail has two restored towers high above a wadi canyon. Al Rani’s tower sits on a pinnacle rock 60 metres high, but within a short distance of a small restored fort.
The Persians built these towers preceding the advent of Islam, when Persia controlled the Batinah Plains. The Arabs controlled the interior and highlands.
Some towers, like the one in Sur Al Qarat, have solid-walled first storeys, gun ports at upper level and are topped with crenellated parapets.
Muscat also has watchtowers. Besides the towers scattered in Muscat, the most prominent is the one at Quriyat, southeast of Muscat amidst the waters. At low tide, the tower is accessible on foot. A plan of Quriyat dating to 1635 AD shows the tower as a secondary defence to the town.
Mudairib is yet another town that is punctuated by towers. These are towers among fortified mansions, near old walled town ruins, next to new homes and topping the hills around the city.
Some of the many villages on the flat plains of Sharqiyah were formerly enclosed walls within walls and all had towers.
Towers abound in Al Wasil, and several can be seen rising above the palm grooves which hide the village of Al Riddah. One large tower stands next to an open space surrounded by large shade trees in the centre of this village. The tower which is perched atop a large yellow sand mass also happens to be the most photographed tower in Oman.
In Bat, a watch tower is clearly visible.
The architecture of towers is different from forts and castles. While some are tall and slender, others are short and squat.
Tall towers increase the range of the guns and also offered better views. The material used also varies in texture. Some have a stone-and-mortar base with a mud-brick top section and others are made solely from mud-brick.
Oman’s rich array of forts, castles and watchtowers reminds us that life was lived long before we existed. Let’s hope that we can leave just as fascinating a legacy. I doubt it, though.