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Guardians of History: Fortresses in the Gulf

BY Eni Llalla



Guardians of History: Fortresses in the Gulf

While the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are widely seen as pioneers in modern, innovative architecture, exploring the Gulf Arabs’ cultural roots through a snapshot of their artefacts and assets is vital for understanding the civilisations’ progress. The expansive history of the Gulf states is, perhaps, best demonstrated through the unearthing of some of the most impressive archeological sites across the Peninsula. The six GCC countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) retain an extensive range of impressive fortifications built to safeguard cities and settlements. Across the region, fortresses convey a message through time about the evolution of communities and their identity, ancient engineering skills and construction techniques, shaped by traditional tribal structures and, often, the mixing of various civilisations due to the countries’ strategic position proximate to a key nautical transit line—attracting refugees, traders and invaders from abroad. From refurbished and antediluvian forts to UNESCO World Heritage treasures, this short piece introduces some of the most intriguing fortifications that played important roles in and throughout Gulf history.

Qal’at Al-Bahrain — Bahrain

Qal’at Al-Bahrain (aka Bahrain Fort or the Portuguese Fort [Qal’at al Burtugal]) is located on the northern coast of the main Bahrain island, close to the capital city, Manama. The foundations of the initial coastal fortress were set in the 3rd century BC. However, the structure, as it stands today, was designed by Portuguese architect, Inofre de Carvalho, in the 16th century AD — during the Portuguese conquest (1521-1602). At that time, it served as an important supply cog in Portugal’s eastern empire with its capital at Goa. The Portuguese later abandoned their position under heavy local (Arab) and regional (Safavid Persian and Ottoman Turk) pressure—though they did not put up a fight at that location and the site slowly drifted from prominence. When the fortress was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1950’s, excavations unearthed a host of historically important artefacts and pointed to the fact that the fort was also a pillar of the ancient Dilmun civilization, dating back to the 3rd millenium BC. The fortification sits on a 17 hectare artificial hill and the 12 meter wide northern gate leads to a large entry to the palace grounds, composed of houses constructed in the same design. After five decades of excavations by Danish, French and later also Bahraini archeologists, the Qal’at Al-Bahrain became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 and opened to the public in 2008 as an archeological park.

Qasr Al-Ahmar — Kuwait

The Qasr Al-Ahmar, also known as the Red Fort after the russet clay, located in the city of Al-Jahra in the Kuwait Bay west of the capital, is a remarkable traditional example of Kuwait’s early architecture. The fort’s construction began in 1897, a year after the accession of Mubarak Al-Sabah, the 7th ruler of Kuwait. The fortification was designed to protect local agriculture and the scarce waters of the oasis at Al-Jahra. The Red Fort was the site of the 1920 Jahra battle against the Ikhwan, which was defeated by the Kuwaitis with the help of the British forces. The fort has been etched in history as a symbol of Kuwaitis’ bravery ever since. The design of the rectangular-shaped structure is minimalist; however, grandeur in size appropriate for security, it spans over 5,500 m2. The four colossal boxy towers and the surrounding walls include firing holes for soldiers. The 4.5 meters high walls surround 33 rooms and 6 courtyards, forming the fort’s interior. The courtyards and the outer sections are open to tourists, showcasing traditional Kuwaiti artefacts.

Bahla Fort — Oman

Along the foothills of the Jebel Akhdar mountains, in Oman’s heartland city of Bahla, is the exceptional namesake fort with an ancient settlement, guarding an adjacent oasis, surrounded by a 13 km wall. The main components used for the fort’s construction are baked mud and straw brick acquired from the surrounding mountains. Bahla Fort is an immense labyrinth of buildings and chambers interconnected by outdoor staircases and passages—flanked by four wind-towers. Although the exact date of its construction is unknown — some accounts date it to the pre-Islamic era — it flourished between the 12th and 15th centuries, when Bahla served as the capital of central Oman during the Banu Nebhan’s reign, which controlled the Middle Eastern frankincense trade and followed Ibadism (the predominant branch of Islam in Oman). There are three main period-sections to the fort: 1. the oldest part, the Al-Qasba, is located in the southeast corner, and is also known as the old house, likely built during the Middle Ages; 2. Bait Al-Hadith, known as the new house, built under the Ya’rubid dynasty (1624-1743), which expelled the Portuguese and expanded Oman’s Kharajite power; and 3. the Bayt Al-Jabal, known also as the mountain house. The ambiguity that surrounds the date of construction feeds myths about the fort. The ancient falaj water system used for irrigation further emphasises the engineering skills of the medieval Islamic period. There is also an advanced defence system, represented by the many machicolations, designed to attack unwelcome invaders from above with stones and boiling liquids. Bahla Fort was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and, following two decades of a complex restoration process, it finally opened to the public in 2012.

Al-Wajbah Fort — Qatar

The Al-Wajbah Fort was constructed in 1882 and is located in the Al-Wajbah district of Al-Rayyan municipality, west of Doha and belongs among Qatar’s oldest forts. It bore witness to the 1893 Battle of Al-Wajbah that followed a period of tension between the Ottoman Turks and Jassim bin Mohammed Al-Thani, the founder of the State of Qatar, who eventually defeated the Ottomans in the battle with the help of several Qatari tribes, seen as a watershed moment in Qatar’s history. The fort was then used by Al-Thani family members as a residence, notably by Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani, the father of Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani, who ruled Qatar between 1972 and 1995. The sand colour, rectangular-shaped structure is guarded by four watchtowers and its 6 meter high walls are dotted with holes for sharp-shooters. The fort underwent a restoration in the late 20th century and has become a popular tourist attraction.

Al-Masmak Fort — Saudi Arabia

Bejewelling the Deira district of Riyadh, is Masmak Fort—a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s 1932 unification. Established as a fortification for Riyadh during the wars over Najd, Masmak Fort was initiated by the Prince of Riyadh, Abdulrahman bin Sulaiman bin Dabaan, in 1865 during the reign of Muhammed bin Abdullah bin Rasheed. Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud, the founder and the first King of Saudi Arabia, later recaptured the fort and the city of Riyadh from the rival Al Rasheed family — which closely cooperated with the Ottoman Empire — after his return from exile in Kuwait in 1902. The original structure was renovated in 1995 and again in 2012, maintaining Najd’s architectural style, which is distinguished by simple thick unbaked mud-brick houses and round chronicle towers, providing protection from sweltering summers and the shivery winters. The Masmak Fort has a quadrilateral design of the fort which consists of a rectangular courtyard protected from the sides by four circular 18 meter high towers. The majestic palm-wood gate opens to a spacious courtyard introducing the majlis, the mosque and residential areas, occupied by the ruler in the past. As a security precaution, the gate has a small opening to allow one person to enter without having to open the entire gate. Considered as one of Saudi Arabia’s most important landmarks, the Masmak Fort today serves as the office of the Riyadh governor, a mosque, and also the most visited museum in the region, illustrating the various parts of the Kingdom’s history.

Al-Jahili Fort — UAE

Al-Jahili Fort is, arguably, the UAE’s grandest traditional structure situated in the Eastern Region of the Abu Dhabi Emirate near Al Ain. It was constructed between 1891 and 1898 for Zayed bin Khalifa Al-Nahyan, the leader of the Bani Yas, Ruler of Abu Dhabi and grandfather of the UAE’s founder, to guard the Al Ain Oasis with its ancient falaj irrigation system, an important source of water for local agriculture. The square fort is 8 meters high and 35 meters wide and built from sun-dried mud bricks. The exterior is surrounded by a rectangular watchtower and three rounded ones, 14 meters high. These towers were built to protect the ruling Al-Nahyan family, which resided in the fort for some time. A reconstruction between 1986 and 1989 restored the compound after years of neglect following the departure of the Trucial Oman Levies (Scouts), a British-commanded force composed of local tribes, which was later absorbed by the UAE’s military with the establishment of the federation in 1971. The Levies expanded the fort and added the defensive wall to the original 19th century structure. Several more renovations were done in the 2010’s, which preserved the same original combination of mud brick walls with palm log roofs and added some new features. As a result, the fort encapsulates traditional architecture and innovative new technology, including a unique water pipe system to cool the interior during the summer months. The fort now functions as a tourist and exhibition centre, showcasing the classic architecture and cultural heritage of Abu Dhabi.


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