It has been twenty-five years since I last walked the Riyam-Muttrah mountain track. I was going through my ‘Portuguese Phase’ back then and wanted to photograph Muttrah Fort from an unusual angle. To make the image you see here, I had to veer off the path and scramble up a steep runnel to reach my vantage point. All this I did in rapidly falling darkness, alone, and having told nobody where I was going. Had I fallen and hit my head, my mortal remains might still be at the top of that runnel yet!
The Portuguese involvement in the northern Omani littoral began in 1507 and was an important part of their plan to gain control over the maritime trade of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Their main opposition on the seas came first from the Ottoman Turks, operating out of Basra, who had some initial success in the first decade of the 16th century attacking Portuguese settlements on the west coast of India.
Some seventy years later, the Ottomans revived their naval activities against the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. In 1581, a squadron from Mocha sailed north along the Omani coast and bombard Muscat with heavy ordnance, causing panic among its inhabitants. As a consequence of this attack, the town’s defences were strengthened, including the construction of the two great forts. Saã João, today known as Jalali, is on the eastern side of the bay and was completed in 1587 and Fort Capitan, today’s Mirani, on the western side dates from 1588. It is widely assumed that Muttrah Fort was built at around the same time.
Recently, though, I came upon some evidence that this may not in fact be the case. In the first decades of the 17th century, Portuguese settlements in the Arabian Sea were facing new threats — at sea from the Persians, English and Dutch, and on land from Omani tribesmen. The Portuguese suffered a major reversal in 1622 with the loss of the their stronghold of Hormuz, near the mouth of the Arabian Gulf, to combined Persian and English forces. Many of the Portuguese refugees from this defeat fled to Muscat, among them a nobleman by the name of Ruy Freyre de Andrada. Believing that Muscat might be the next target of the Persian and English forces, Ruy Freyre set about strengthening the town’s sea defences, building fortifications at the entrance to cove and watchtowers on the surrounding mountaintops.
Much of what we know about Ruy Freyre’s activities at Muscat comes from a monumental work known as Livro do Estado da Índia Oriental. Commissioned by the King of Portugal and completed in 1635, it is a survey of all the Portuguese possessions in the Western Indian Ocean and contains a very interesting chapter on the Portuguese enclaves in Oman. Here is part of what it says about Muttrah:
“Beyond Muscat, at a distance of 1 ½ miles, there is a harbour, not much sheltered from the north-west winds, a kind of bay, at which place the main captain, Rui Freire de Andrade, has built a fortress. They have built this fortress and put there thirty soldiers and a Portuguese captain, because many people with farm produce were able to pass from Matara by a mountain route and enter Mascate by way of a variety of unofficial tracks, thereby avoiding paying duty on their goods; so to put a stop to this, this fortress has been built; its purposes are also to prevent others from entering the harbour without the knowledge of those in Mascate, and also to prevent our enemies on land and at sea from occupying this harbour, as this could stop food and other necessities from reaching Mascate. And this fortress has made things difficult for the captains of the Imam (Nassir bin Murshid al Ya’rubi), who have tried to occupy it on several occasions …”
So, from this it is clear that Portuguese built a fort at the eastern end of Muttrah in the 1620s, not the 1580s. But that is not the end of the story. After the death of Ruy Friere in 1632, Omani forces under Nassir bin Murshid al Ya’rubi began to press the Portuguese very hard. By 1648, Muscat was in such dire straits that the Portuguese commander sued for peace terms. One of the terms agreed to was that the Portuguese raze their fort at Muttrah.
The fort built by Ruy Fryere at Muttrah in the 1620s was demolished. If you care to take a walk around the base of the rock on which today’s Muttrah Fort is perched, you will see the stumps of several towers and walls of that original fort.
The Portuguese were finally evicted from Muscat just two years after its demolition by Imam Nassir’s cousin and successor, Imam Sultan bin Said al Ya’rubi. All this suggests to me that the fort we see at Muttrah today is one, perhaps the earliest, of the great Ya’rubi fortresses of Oman and dates from the second half of the 17th century.