Nakhal, Oman; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
The eastern Arabia Peninsula is a land of great contrasts. On the one hand, it is a land of immense oil resources, vast wealth and modern cities. On the other hand, it is the place where true Arabic and Bedouin culture has been longest preserved. Since the time of Mohammed, this region, protected by the Arabian Sea to the east and the Arabian Desert to the west, has never been conquered by outsiders, and until the 20th century maintained one of the purest indigenous cultures on the planet. Even today, if one moves inland from the coastal cities and drilling platforms, they will find a still largely pristine land of endless sand dunes, tent-dwelling nomads, and daunting castles that loom like a vision out of the tales of the Arabian Nights.
Between 1300 and 1683, the Ottoman Turks of Anatolia conquered huge territories in the Middle East, Southeastern Europe and North Africa, establishing the greatest Islamic state in the west since the Ummayad-Abbasid-Shi’ite schisms of the 8th century. In the early 1500s they seized, among other things, the coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula as well as the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. However, for all of the might at the Ottoman’s disposal, the sheikhs and sultans of central and eastern Arabia remained independent, fiercely resisting any further encroachments by the Turks.
Since the days before even Mohammed, the Bedouins and other Arab tribes had lived a nomadic, highly territorial existence in Arabia. However, while this helped them to keep the Ottomans at bay, it also resulted in an endless series of wars and raids between the tribes. Out of this chaotic period arose some of the region’s great families: the Al Saids in Oman, the Al Nahyans in Abu Dabi, the Al Sabahs in Kuwait, the Al Thanis in Qatar, the Al Sauds in Saudi Arabia and many others. The latter family would ultimately become the predominant monarchs on the Peninsula and the most important rulers in the Islamic world.
By the 17th century, inter-tribal warfare, which had long been conducted on the open desert, combined with constant threat of the Ottomans as well as the rise of the great European colonial empires, necessitated the construction of permanent, heavily fortified dwellings for the tribal leaders. Since most of the nomadic territories lay on the eastern side of Arabia, where they were most secure from the Ottomans, the various sheikhs and sultans built their strongholds here. Interestingly, these castles form a roughly straight line that runs from Musqat to Riyadh across what are now Oman, the United Arab Amirates and Saudi Arabia. As a result these holdings formed one of the major pilgrimage routes from the east to Mecca.
Due to the protection afforded them by their new strongholds, the desert and their own fierce desire for freedom, the various sheikhdoms of Eastern Arabia successfully maintained independence from the Ottomans. However, the discovery of oil in the region, combined with a sudden increase in world demand towards the end of the 19th century, forced or enticed a number of these sheikhdoms into alliances with the European powers. During World War I, a number of these tribes, with aid from England, drove the Turks from the Arabian Peninsula and liberating the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Soon afterwards, vast oil riches began pouring into the area, and the sheikhs largely abandoned their castles in favor of grand new palaces. Many of the castles still remain as honored family possessions in remembrence of the centuries-long struggle of the Arabs against the Turks.
Nakhal Fort in Oman is one of largest and strongest of the Eastern Arabian castles. Built on a promontory of solid rock that overlooks the town of Nakhal, it looks more like a crusader fortress than a traditional Arabic structure. It is comprised of a thick cluster of walls and towers which climb up the hillside, topped by an imposing round tower that dominates the pinnacle of the rock. The fort’s interior is comprised of a maze of buildings with a décor reminiscent of a wealthy bedouin’s tent. The area around the fort is lush with palm trees and other vegetation that are a visual relief from the vast surrounding desert.
The Eastern Fort in Abu Dabai was one of the last of the great eastern forts to be built. It was constructed in 1910 as a home to the Al Nahyan rulers, and is still maintained by them as a family residence. In form the fort is a single imposing rectangular tower topped with crenelated battlements. The entrance is adorned with a pair of cannon which were once part of the fort’s defenses. The fort is now part of a larger compound that is collectively administrated by the Al Ain Museum.
Masmak Castle in Saudi Arabia was a major point of contention between the Saud and Al Rashid familes seeking to control the vital city of Riyadh. After changing hands several times, it was finally seized by the Sauds in 1902, and became the base from which they ultimately ruled all of what is now Saudi Arabia. Masmak Castle is a traditional four-walled castle with giant round towers at the corners. It is somewhat reminiscent of the great mud-brick forts of the Western Sahara, albeit much larger and stronger. The heart of the castle is dominated by a large square tower. Masmak Castle is part of the historic center of Riyadh and has recently been renovated.
Nakhal Fort is located approximately fifty miles west of Muscat. It is open daily from 7:00am-5:00pm. TheEastern Fort is located in Al Ain, about sixty miles east of Abu Dabai. It is open daily except Saturdays from 8:00am-6:30pm (shorter hours on Thursday & Friday). Masmak Castle is located in downtown Riyadh. It is open daily except Thursdays & Fridays from 8:00am-8:00pm. There was no admission price information available for any of these sites as of this writing. Web: www.omantourism.gov.om/nakhal (official website); www.abudhabi.ae (official website); www.ksau-hs.edu.sa (unofficial website).
The parade of forts in Eastern Arabia is as numerous and varied as the whims of the sheikhs could conceive. Many of these forts have been recently rebuilt or restored as tourist sites. Among the best are Jabrin Castle in Oman and the Tarut Fort in Saudi Arabia. The largest number can be found in the United Arab Emirates, including the outstanding Al Jahili Fort in Abu Dabai.