Tucked up beneath the northern escarpment of the Hajar mountains, RUSTAQ is one of the most venerable settlements of the interior. The town owes its place in Omani history to the redoubtable imam Nasir bin Murshid al Ya’aruba, founder of the Ya’aruba dynasty, who was elected imam at Rustaq in 1624 and made the town his principal centre of operations during his subsequent 25-year reign. The town was also a favoured base for Ahmed bin Said, founder of the later Al Bu Said dynasty.
Rustaq’s importance was the result of its strategic position between the coast and the mountains, guarding the exit points of several nearby wadis through which goods would have been transported from the jebel above. The town developed into a major centre for local commerce, craftsmanship and other trades, home to some of the country’s finest metalworkers and silversmiths, and also renowned as the source of some of Oman’s best halwa and finest honey – bee-keeping remains a popular local occupation to this day.
Sadly few remains of the town’s illustrious history survive, however. Modern Rustaq is a sprawling and rather characterless place, and far less interesting than its old rival, Nizwa, while the closure for extensive renovations of the town’s majestic fort has robbed it of its one stellar attraction, for the time being at least.
Rustaq is effectively divided into two distinct sections: the “old” town and fort, which lies just south off Highway 13, and a “new” town, about 3km further north along Highway 13 on the way to Al Hazm, clustered around the turn-off to Ibri and the modern Rustaq Mosque, a vast white structure with a pair of soaring minarets.
Tucked away at the back of the old town (and clearly signposted from Highway 13) is Rustaq’s mighty fort, one of the biggest in the country, with a huge, soaring central keep surrounded by extensive walls. The fort was closed at the time of writing as part of a major two-year restoration project, due (in theory, at least) to finish sometime around early 2012.
The fort is one of the most ancient in Oman. The original fort is thought to have been built by the Julanda dynasty fifty years before the arrival of Islam, and was subsequently expanded in 670 ADand again in 1698, while further towers were added by Sultan Faisal bin Turki in 1906. The extensive compound is provided with its own falaj and surrounded by low exterior walls topped by a quartet of towers, the tallest rising to almost 20m. Inside sits the tall central keep, built over three levels, with the usual living quarters (including the finely decorated chambers of the imam himself) plus an armoury and a fine mosque. The old souk in front of the fort – which formerly hosted a good range of stalls selling traditional handicrafts and souvenirs – is also being rebuilt.