Bahla Fort comprises the ruins of a typical Omani military fortress and oasis settlement from the medieval Islamic period.
The fort was built by the local Banu Nebhan tribe that ruled between the mid-12th and 15th centuries, its enormous size demonstrating their power. Its walls and towers were built in adobe, on a sandstone base. The walls enclose a mud brick settlement with vernacular houses, the Friday mosque, a falaj system and cultivated lands.
Community Perspective: the forts are among the highlights of Oman, but Bahla isn’t its best. There is little explanation and not much to see except for the fortification design. Clyde has provided the most comprehensive review so far.
Map of Bahla FortLoad map
I visited this WHS in December 2020. Even though parts of this fort have been reconstructed rather than restored since it was inscribed as Oman's first WHS in 1987, shamefully using concrete instead of mud and straw-based plaster called juss, its importance and sheer size when compared to other desert fortifications in Arab states in my opinion still justify its place on the WH list.
The original ornate features, inscriptions and also graffiti etchings on the plastered walls which can still be seen in the fort as well as in the old mosque outside the fort (near the free parking lot), together with the crumbling yet impressive fortification wall opposite the fort on the Hajar Al Gharbiyah mountains possess enough OUV when comparing this fort with the ones in the United Arab Emirates for example. Possibly the best way to appreciate the Bahla oasis town of old would be to combine it with a visit by 4x4 to Wadi Bahla, where a natural route through the surrounding rugged mountains of ophiolite leads to the town's date palms. This will give you a much better understanding of how well protected this oasis town was, even without the fort, so much so that during the Abbasid dynasty, Bahla was the seat of the governor in Oman. The fort was used as the governor's residence, the guards' headquarters and a court complex during different periods in its history undergoing multiple constructions, additions and modifications.
Personally, I was really impressed by the remaining 13km of the ancient wall and the only one of the seven principal gateways which gave access into the oasis town and together with fort itself protected its prized asset - farms and orchards of the town's people. In a way, it reminded me of what's left of the huge walls around Istanbul too. Nowadays, approaching from the Nizwa highway, literally littered with speed cams, doesn't give you the same experience without some imagination, even though the Bahla Fort still dominates the town. A number of artefacts dating to a phase of Oman's Bronze Age when the country was then known as Magan and was famous for its copper production and which had well-established trade links with Mesopotamia, Dilmun and the Indus civilisations. It was also a time when oasis agriculture was already flourishing.
Even though the overall information boards are still very confusing, recently information boards have been placed in some of the main (mostly empty) rooms/buildings. An even more confusing photocopied map is given to every paying visitor (we were the first after two months according to the staff's ticket book!). It is worth mentioning that the entrance fee for tourists is only 1.20 EUR compared to the 12 EUR for the busier Nizwa fort (which I'd still recommend visiting)! Since we had the fort to ourselves (apart from the sleeping bats on the ceilings!), we enjoyed a sort of personalised treasure hunt to find all the separate places mentioned in Els' review. The "former place of prayer which has a small opening pointing at Mecca" is not the one linked in Els' review. Apart from checking it against the photocopied map we were given, we're pretty sure we found it as one of the staff on duty had placed a small rug with Coranic verses in front of the opening and fell asleep there!
The oldest and perhaps also the most interesting part of the fort is the Al Qasaba, usually ascribed as being constructed during the time of the Nabhani dynasties though archaeological finds with Sassanid influence suggest that an even earlier origin might be possible. Next to it is Bait Al Hadith (the modern house) and Bab A'Sabah, the main entrance to the fort, which features 3 of the main defensive features of the fort: "murder holes" above the entrance which allowed boiling dibs (date syrup) to be poured down onto attackers; "double trap doors and stairs with deep well receptacles"; and "loop holes", i.e. small openings in the walls which allowed musketeers to fire from interior through central holes. The most prominent part of the fort when viewed from the main road (best lighting for photography in the afternoon), is Burj A'Rih (the wind tower), which gives panoramic views over the oasis. Above two cannons, outside the entrance gate, you'll find a UNESCO WHS certificate plaque on the wall.
Beautiful site, but the fort wasn't accessible when I went there (2012). From what I recall, it had been under some sort of renovation since the early '90s, so I wasn't expecting to see much anyway. Therefore: not many stars for the site itself.
However, the surrounding old town of mud-brick houses, date palms, and aflaj irrigation canals (not a part of that listing) was really interesting. Just wandering through the maze of old, nearly silent streets more than made up for the disappointment of not being able to go inside the fort itself.
As for getting there: renting a car and driving around Oman is pretty easy, even for an American not used to international road signs. I didn't have wifi/cell service, but was able to find my way with a tourist map and road signs, so bonus points for making it easy for tourists.
Bahla Fort dates back to the late Middle Ages and was the stronghold of a tribe that controlled this region and the trade of incense. The fort and its oasis (with date palms, old houses and a mosque, which also are in the core zone) are surrounded by a 12 km long wall. In Oman, which is densely covered by fortresses, this is said to be one of the largest and oldest.
The fort can easily be reached in half an hour from Nizwa, Oman’s second tourist capital behind Muscat. It lies along the main road and is so huge that it cannot be overlooked. Parking is at the far end (at the Souq side). When you read the previous reviews on this website, which steadily have been added since at least 2005, its slow development into a popular tourist attraction becomes clear. It has fully reopened in 2012 and is now open every day from 8-16, except Friday afternoon.
The story goes that the Omanis rebuilt parts of the fortress according to their own insights because there were no drawings or photographs left of the whole structure. Six years after reopening, still, no exhibits, labels, or information panels have been added to the fort. I can do without exhibits like plastic mannequins dressed up in traditional clothing, but a bit more background information about what you are looking at would be nice. It seems they just don’t know for sure as well: "... there are different opinions in locating these parts even in the best-published studies on the Castle" (according to the official website)
What I saw inside the fortress:
- a mihrab
- wind towers (photo 1 above in this review)
- reception rooms of the "Bayt al-Hadith" (this one has a label above its door!)
- rooms with many niches: private rooms for family members as in other forts?
- something like an altar or a bath?
What should be there as well, according to various sources:
- horse stables (UNESCO website)
- seven water wells (official website)
- prisons (official website)
- library (our connections)
- bathhouse (our connections)
- large date room, like a wine cellar
- ‘Philistine altar’
- former place of prayer which has a small opening pointing at Mecca (possibly this?)
The only ones that are happy about all those empty rooms and niches are the bats that have found their home in Al-Qasabah, the oldest part of the fort. In several of the rooms, I saw them hanging against the walls in groups.
Read more from Els Slots here.
After two decades of restoration, the biggest fortress in Oman, Bahla Fort is finally opened its door to welcome all visitors to see its impressive heritage and discover its outstanding value as a World Heritage Site. Actually I never expected to have a chance to visit the fort because all information especially many recent reviews in Tripadvisor mentioned that opening time was only Friday and Saturday, as I visited Bahla on Tuesday so I initially planned just to see the exterior and the nearby souq and visit Jabrin Fort instead. After had a really good time at Jabrin Fort, a former residence of powerful imam, admiring its very beautiful interior, I continued my trip to Bahla Fort and surprisingly saw a group of tourists entered the fort’s gate, so I went inside the fort to ask gatekeeper and found out that the fort was opened, so I immediately decided to change my plan and happily explored the fort.
Since the fort was built on the hill with formidable size, the fort really stunned me, but when I saw the entrance gate, I was surprised to find that the gate was quite small. After enter the first gate was the outer courtyard with thick and hall wall protecting by two round towers, a very classic defense design. I entered the second gate and found a tunnel liked grand hall covered with white plaster with many alcoves that maybe used as guard shelters or small bazaar in the old time but today a ticket kiosk. After the hall, I was at the central courtyard that has a small mosque and the meeting hall called As-Sabla surrounded by large three adobe buildings namely Bait al-Jabel, Baith al Qued and Bait al Hadith. The layout of these three houses was very confusing like a labyrinth and seemed to be connected with each other forming a very big residence complex for the fort owner. Most of the rooms in the complex were empty, few rooms had fine painted ceiling, but everything seem to be newly rebuilt and a little bit fake. When I entered Baith al-Hadith I found some remaining original part of the fort, really old and dark mud brick walls and impressive columns. The atmosphere in the room was something that could not be explained as it was really cold and contrast to other part of the fort together with rumor that the fort was haunted, I felt that “I’d better get going” Then I entered into the citadel or Qasaba which was the biggest building inside the fort. The citadel was the oldest part of the fort and with three towers and very high wall separating itself from the rest of the fort. Inside the citadel was a complex of small rooms, stairs, and fortification systems. The citadel also looked more original than other part of the fort with its partial ruin state. One of the strangest of the citadel was one side of its walls had been left unfinished in the restoration, some Omani believed that demon inside the fort did some magic that even UNESCO could not restore it! Then I walked to the empty and plain stable and other part of fort’s high wall to see nice view of Bahla Oasis. Apart from the fort, there also was a big mosque and groups of ruining adobe houses beside the fort, the mosque was closed and I was not sure with the state of preservation of those crumbling houses so I decided to skip them. Then I visit the souq, there was nothing special with this small souq except the magic tree which locals believed that if touching it will eventually have a suffering death! Then I drove around the city to see oasis, beautiful wadi and the famous city wall.
When I visited Bahla Fort, I understood that only Bahla Fort was a World Heritage Site, but after read UNESCO document, I found that actually ICOMOS asked Omani Government to chose between the whole Bahla Oasis to be inscribed or only Bahla Fort but have to include other forts in Muscat and Rostaq as a serial nomination, and Oman preferred the first choice. The decision was quite interesting and why. At first I thought about tourism promotion but in that time, 1987, World Heritage Site was not considered a tourist magnet, so maybe Oman only wanted to inscribe Bahla Fort which was in urgent need of preservation while other forts were in better state and no need UNESCO assistance and in accordance with a true objection of the convention, but this was my personal opinion. As I already mentioned the fort was really empty, so there was nothing much to see except the fortification design which was very impressive. If in the future Bahla fort has more exhibitions like in Jabrin Fort, Bahla surely will become the most interesting fort to visit in Oman, and possibly the best World Heritage Site that Oman present to the world.
Whilst the restoration work still continues, I am glad to say much progress has been made, and the day will come when the last of the scaffolding is removed. It was interesing to see bricks of clay and straw being baked in the sun for use on the reconstruction.
From the bus stop outside the fort buses stop on their way to Nizwa, Salalah and Muscat.
We also visited the nearby forts at Jabreen and Nizwa, where restoration has been completed. Although smaller than Bahla, they are of equal interest.
As a new resident of the nearby town of Nizwa, I was really looking forward to seeing Bahla fort. The previous poster is absolutely correct in his assessment, although I must add that restoration of the fort is necessary. If they attempted to preserve the fort in its semi-ruined condition (which I would normally prefer) it would soon be nothing but a pile of dust (as the fort is made of mud and any rain has a devastating effect on its integrity). Therefore, it is better to have a restored fort rather than nothing at all.
The forts of Oman are undoubtedly one of that country’s “glories”.
At Muscat airport, or at one of the forts themselves, you should try to get hold of a little brochure (“Visit Oman’s Forts and Castles”) produced by the Directorate General of Tourism which lists 22 different forts. (Alternatively have a look at http://www.mnhc.gov.om/fortcastles.html)
There are few hill tops which are not surmounted by a watch tower and few towns which don’t possess a castle or fort in some state of disrepair or renovation! In fact it sometimes seems that Omanis are obsessed by battlements and crenulations as they are used at every opportunity for town entrances and newer buildings and even to decorate the top of the plastic water tanks which sit on the roofs of Omani houses!
Oman therefore had many castles and forts to choose from for its WHS recommendations, but only 1, Bahla, has made it to the full list. Another 2, Rostaq and al-Hazm, are on the tentative list. So why has Bahla been chosen? The above web site isn’t very informative merely stating “Due to the importance of the fort UNESCO listed it in 1988 AD”
The fort is certainly very large – the largest we saw. It is also “conveniently placed” for tourism standing a few miles outside Nizwa, one of Oman’s most attractive cities. - which itself has a fine fort and, one suspects, that its potential in Omani tourism played a large part in its selection.
A difficulty with Bahla is that it appears to be undergoing almost complete reconstruction, and has been doing so for many years. My Lonely Planet of 1993 mentions it and when we visited it in Feb 2005 it is still closed for reconstruction. As the photo shows, parts of it are hidden by enormous scaffolding.
So my recommendation is, by all means pass it and walk round it but plan to visit some other forts both to see them without the scaffolding and to get inside – if they are open that is! It became a bit of a joke that whatever time you arrive to look round an Omani fort it will be closed!
It is perhaps only necessary to visit inside 1 fort since they all seem to have similar sets of rooms (to the non-specialist that is). Nizwa and nearby Jabrin are convenient if you are in the mountains and Nakhal and Rustaq if you are staying in Muscat. There is a standard entrance price of 500 baisa (.5 Rial) For the rest just take in the outside wherever you see one!
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2004 Removed from Danger list
1988 In Danger
Degradation of the structures
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