Al Jalali and Al Mirani: Muscat’s twin defenders | Sunday Observer

Al Jalali and Al Mirani: Muscat’s twin defenders

My colleague Mahil Wijesinghe, had a rather interesting story on the Galle Fort, published in the Sunday Observer a couple of weeks ago. It was the Portuguese who pioneered the art of the Fort in modern times, but the concept itself is much older. Although there are no pre-Portuguese forts in Sri Lanka, several countries in our region have forts that go back a lot further in time. The Portuguese had added more fortifications and features to some of these forts in the years of their occupation. Visiting one of these forts is much like time travel.

I recently had the opportunity of going to Oman, a country that has a rather significant place in Middle Eastern and regional history. Oman, which has a considerable coastline, is a ‘fort country’ with nearly 500 forts, of which nearly 20 have been meticulously restored in a 20-year project.

Two of the best preserved forts are in Muscat (meaning ‘anchorage’), the Omani capital itself. Old Muscat is a natural port in a strategic location between the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. It is one of the world’s best known natural harbours. The modern city of Muscat is around 4 km away.

Although tourism is still developing in the country, the twin forts of Al Jalali and Mirani in Muscat located near the Sultan’s Al Alam Palace are on every traveller’s agenda. There is also a lesser known fort called Al Muttrah, nearby. If you have a couple of days in Oman, the other must-see fort is Nakhal, which is around 120 km from Muscat.

Al Jalali, also known as, Ash Sharqiya is the best known fort in Muscat, though it is not open to the public and a permit is necessary to go in. Al Jalali Fort lies on a rocky outcrop on the east side of the Muscat harbour. It is an imposing edifice as seen from the outside and it shows why Muscat remained impregnable for centuries. The Fort was basically rebuilt by the Portuguese on its original foundation. If you are lucky enough to be in Muscat during a palace military occasion, you can hear the bagpipers perform from the fort battlements and see the royal dhow and yacht sail in full regalia into the Muscat harbour.

Al Jalali (said to be derived from Al Jalal – Arabic for Great Beauty) has a rather chequered history. The Fort was primarily built to defend the city from the Ottoman forces and it was wrested from Portuguese control by the Omani Forces in 1650. It was captured twice by the Persians during the civil war years of 1718 to 1747. The Fort was then extensively renovated. Even today, it dominates the Muscat harbour, with its twin Al Mirani.

During much of the 20th century it was used as the city’s main prison (escape would be unthinkable, just like from Alcatraz) but the city rulers ended this role by the late’ 70s. The fort underwent a complete restoration in 1983 and was established as a museum that showcases Omani culture and history. Apart from a few inscriptions in Portuguese, it is hard to tell that this was once a bastion of Portugal. The authorities open Al Jalali to foreign leaders visiting Oman to give them an idea of Oman’s rich heritage. There is a heliport for VIPs to access the site easily, and there is also a funicular railway.

Al Mirani (also known as Al Gharbiya) faces Al Jalali and is equally well known. This is also closed to the public, but you cannot miss the imposing edifice even from a distance. There is a belief that the fort’s name was originally ‘mirante’, a Portuguese word meaning ‘Admiral’. Another explanation is that the fort was named after a Persian leader by the name of Miran Shah’.

Regardless of the names’ origin, Al Mirani Fort is famous for the legend of the Portuguese commander who fell for the daughter of an Indian supplier. He refused the marriage on religious grounds. However, the commander was adamant that the wedding should take place. The trader then spent a year apparently preparing for the wedding during which time he managed to convince that the fort’s supplies needed a complete overhaul. In the meantime, he removed the fort’s gunpowder, making the fort completely defenseless. He then gave the nod to the Omani Imam, Sultan bin Saif, who had little trouble retaking the fort in 1649. The Portuguese were evicted from Muscat soon afterwards. The wedding? It never took place. (Mirani now has only one remaining Portuguese inscription).

Mirani too has a museum where one can see enlarged black-and-white photographs of the Muscat harbour in the olden days. Another interesting exhibit is the silver gunpowder horn called Talahiq, used by young boys as an ornament behind the neck. Mirani’s cannons were fired at sunrise and sunset to announce the opening and closing of the gates into the walled city of Muscat.

There are some features common to both forts. A formidable wall almost a metre thick, runs around the forts, supplementing the natural defences offered by the rocky outcrop. Both forts have multiple rooms and a maze of stairways, all aimed at confounding the enemy in the unlikely event of initial defences being breached. Many arched doorways inside the forts are still barred by heavy wooden doors, studded with iron spikes. In fact, for the first-time visitor, the forts can appear to be a maze.

If you have the time, visit the nearby Muttrah Fort which lies on a steep hill along the Muscat Corniche, overlooking the Souk of Muttrah. It has three circular towers: a huge one sitting on the summit and two smaller ones at the base. While you are here, you will be able pick up some bargains at the Muttrah Souk, the most famous and oldest Souk in Muscat.

You can also visit the Oman National Museum and Bait al Zubair, a private museum housing traditional Omani items reflecting the country’s rich cultural heritage, as evidenced by the twin sentinels of the Muscat harbour.