You step into a narrow, low-ceilinged room with no windows. The room is completely empty; the walls made of mud-brick. There are two exits: one via a set of stairs leading up, the other via a set of stairs leading down. You take the stairs to the upper level, and find yourself in another gloomy, low-ceilinged, windowless room. There are four exits to choose from this time: one via a set of stairs leading who knows where, the other three via doors leading into adjacent rooms. You slip into an adjacent room, and without stopping to think plunge through two more neighbouring rooms, not stopping until you are in a circular room with, at last, a window. The window is a tiny, rude opening in the mud-brick wall; set at knee height, with arrowslits all around – or murder holes as they’re called here. This room is a dead end. You backtrack, climb several large steps into what looks to have been a kitchen at some stage. There are three exits. No clues where any lead. This is how it goes in Bahla Fort, Oman.
This entire, enormous, sprawling castle has almost no corridors; it’s just room after room after room after room. You’re turned around before you know it, moving in the opposite direction to which you thought, you’re route is instantly muddled, your senses swirling.
Local kids would have loved running through the Bahla Fort’s labyrinthine network of cells and chambers. Invaders would have been lost within moments; a disadvantage the defenders would have been quick to make the most of.
Tourists just stumble through blindly, not having a clue where they are, not caring where they end up.
The rooms are all bare; stripped of all furniture, furnishings, and personal effects. Bahla Fort is not your typical museum either; there are no information placards, no exhibition space, no artefacts to examine. In it’s current state it’s more like wandering around an abandoned warehouse – although completely unlike any warehouse I’ve been to before.
I’ve been told the long term vision for Bahla Fort includes fitting out the castle with period appropriate furnishings, and converting it into something more closely resembling a museum – as they have done in nearby Jibreen Castle – but for the moment it is completely empty.
Bahla Fort was built between the 13th Century CE and 14th Century CE when the oasis town of Bahla (pronounced bahela) was under the reign of the Nabhani dynasty (who ruled Central Oman between the 12th Century CE and 15th Century CE).
The Nabhani dynasty controlled the frankincense trade in Oman. It made them filthy rich – as the stature of Bahla Fort will testify – and the city of Bahla flourished.
A thirteen-kilometre-long, fortified, mud-brick wall was erected around the city of Bahla. Much of it still stands today, although it is severely degraded and in need of urgent restoration work to prevent it crumbling into dust.
Bahla Fort was in a similarly degraded state until 1987, when it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and immediately entered into the List of World Heritage in Danger.
A long-running restoration program was promptly commenced by the Omani government, and Bahla Fort was saved.
The castle does look a little schmick today; a little too sharp, too clean, too perfect. But better that than the fort collapsing upon itself, slowly disintegrating, and returning to the dust whence it came.
Practical information and how to reach Bahla Fort:
Bahla Fort lies 40 kilometres from the hub city of Nizwa. Public transport options are extremely limited in Oman. Travellers are best off hiring a car to get around (I say this as someone who would much rather use public transport than drive). More transport info here.
Read more on the Bahla Fort in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.