Portuguese Forts

Muscat Bazaar

One of my favorite things at Muscat was the abundance of ancient Portuguese forts that seemed to occupy every hilltop.  As a History major I was quite interested to learn more about these forts, a little about the Portuguese colonization and to maybe even visit one.  The entire time I was in Oman around Muscat, there was not one time that I couldn’t look up to the hills and see at least one of these old forts.  They seemed to be built close enough to interlock their cannon fire for mutual defense and seemed to occupy every strategic location (like the mouth of the military harbor in the photo above).

Most of the forts were built 500 years ago when Portugal invaded Hormuz (present day Iran) and Oman; there are Portuguese settlements all down the coastline of Oman.  Some of the forts existed already (in some smaller form) and were built up by the Portuguese to their current style and size.  As I drove around the greater Muscat area I kept my eyes open for a fort that was accessible from the road – I really wanted to climb up to one and have a look at it up close.

In addition to the larger forts at the mouth of the Muscat Harbor(s), I saw forts atop smaller hills in mountain passes and valleys and – from a military point of view – I can see why these were placed in these locations.  In the photo below, the main road (now a freeway) from Muscat leads to other points in the country and has to funnel through this narrow pass.  On one hilltop with a commanding view of the valley this fort (photo below) is set up allowing it to dominate the surrounding passes and low lands with its black powder cannons.

To give you some idea of the rocky and hilly terrain outside of Muscat, I captured this photo (below).  Defending the cities from hillside marauders would be quite difficult where it not for the fort on the lower hill – with its cannon it could keep invaders from the deserts out of the populated areas.  The Portuguese had these towers near the ocean to defend from seaborne attack and inland from the town to prevent land invasion – in this way their ships (the mainstay of their military strength) were safe in harbor and could find refuge in port when far from Portugal.

I drove around for a few hours trying to find a fort that was not only within hiking distance but also one that had publicly accessible land.  I didn’t want to cut through someone’s private property to visit one of these sites.  I tried several different locations only to be frustrated again and again as they were fenced off by private property.  At one point I found an old cemetery below a fort that had public access (photo below); I tried climbing through the cemetery but found another valley before the fort that was a large estate with fences that prevented me from reaching my goal.

Frustrated that I could not get up to one of the forts I made my way to the port and then saw the huge fort that straddles the finger of land that separates the civilian and military harbors.  I decided to climb up to the top to investigate; I was hoping to find a museum or a public access area (photo below).  What I found was that the fort had been turned into a military/police barracks and prison.  The guard stopped me on my approach and turned me back.  Argh!  Maybe I would never get to see one from the inside.

I walked back down the hill and drove back to the bazaar.  When I was about to go in for lunch I saw a smaller fort to the north of the large military barracks-fort.  I walked around the bazaar and began to climb up the hill.  The area was a residential neighborhood with tight congested streets that were full of trash, half-starved cats and dogs and apartment buildings that were packed – shanty-town style – on either side of the narrow alley way that led up to the fort.  I climbed and climbed and sometimes felt as if I was inside someone’s yard or courtyard.  I was walking past chicken cages, hanging laundry, lawn furniture and parked bicycles but each patio appeared to be communal and the walkway continued from residence to residence.

Finally, I reached the end of the suburb and the tip of the hill poked up above the apartment buildings and a round fortress sat prominently atop of this hill looking.  The fort had a commanding view looking down on the Muscat residents and the harbor.  The fort was perhaps 30′ high (10 meters) and had a small doorway that was about six or eight feet (3 meters) off the ground.  There was no way for me to get inside of this fort and I was quite frustrated that I had made my way to one of the old forts but could not get in.  I walked all around the fort and could find no way in.  I even tried jumping and scaling the wall but it was smooth outside in that it had no hand holds or stairs – an ingenious design as it prevented intruders from entering once the ladder was pulled and the door closed.  The actual surface of the building felt like rough sandstone or concrete and I scraped the palms of my hands trying to scale the wall.

I headed back down the hill towards the crowded apartment buildings and looked into one of the trash filled alleys where I spied a long piece of wood that was perhaps 8 or 9 feet long (3 meters).  I hoisted it up over my shoulder and carried it back to the fort.  I propped it diagonally on the ground and at the base of the door and then tried to scale up to the doorway.  It took me 2 or 3 tries before I was able to reach up to the base of the door – I jumped, grabbed the base of the door frame and then pulled myself up and into the fort.

Looking inside it seemed as though the inside of the fort had been filled with dirt.  But then I realized that the windows were intentionally placed close to the floor so that the cannons could fire out of them.  Even though the windows were low to the floor inside the fort, they were still taller than a man outside of the fort.  I could not believe it when I saw a 500-year-old cannon just laying on the floor.  Clearly, the sand from years of winds had filled up the inside of the fort to some degree, but there it was sitting, for who knows how long.

I couldn’t really believe it: here sits a 500-year-old fort with an old cannon just 50 meters from the homes of modern people and it is undisturbed.  I suppose that these forts must be as common to these people as the Hollywood sign is for Los Angelenos.  People from LA couldn’t care less about the Hollywood sign (they see it every day) but to visitors, it is a big deal and they take photos of it and climb the hill to see it up close.  I suppose this is much of the same.

I could see that at one time the fort had a second story; it appeared as though the 2nd story floor had rotted away – only a few cross-beams remained in place.  While they were stick-looking I wonder if they were much thicker in the past?  Clearly some people had been to this fort in recent times and I suppose that it had no access to preserve it from looters or vandals.  The fort was in an amazing state of preservation and could be brought to museum quality with little work.

I had a chance to walk around inside the fort and I peered out the windows imagining what it would have been like for a Portuguese trooper to stand guard here 500 years ago.  I looked out towards the large fort now turned police barracks and I could see how the two forts could control the entire harbor area with interlocking cannon fire (photo below).  Any target out of range of one fort’s cannons would be in the range of the cannons of another fort.  Looking out of the cannon window on the other side I could see yet another fort on the next hilltop.  The forts could rain cannon fire on any part of the city, harbor, the hillside and valleys inland and out to see beyond the harbor.  Provided that the forts were stocked with ample ammunition and support infantry it would be very difficult to conquer this city during the Portuguese rule.

It was really something to see an old fort like this in the middle of a busy city and I was glad that I made the effort to climb inside and have a look around.  It was like stepping into a time machine and going back 500 years – and looking out the window I tried to imagine what the city must have looked like back then.


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Muscat Bazaar

3 thoughts on “Portuguese Forts

  1. Scott, it’s interesting to see how they’ve adapted Arab architecture to their forts here. The Portuguese forts in Indonesia seem very much on the European model (and tiny, tiny, tiny.

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