The major city in northern Oman, SOHAR boasts a long and eventful history, and a leading place among the nation’s seafaring exploits – according to local tradition, no less a personage than Sindbad hailed from Sohar, while for a number of centuries the town served as the capital of Oman, and was the centre of an extensive trading network stretching up and down the Gulf.
Sadly, despite its lustrous Arabian Nights heritage, modern Sohar is a somewhat anodyne place. Nothing remains of the old town, while its major attraction, the imposing Sohar Fort, was closed for extended renovations at the time of writing. The best reason to come here is to crash out for a few days on the beach at the attractive Sohar Beach Hotel. Otherwise there’s little cause to visit unless passing through en route to the UAE border crossings at Buraimi and Khatmat Malahah, or as a jumping-off point for the scenic road up to Yanqul and Ibri in the Dhahirah.
Sohar is one of the oldest towns in Oman, and was for many centuries the most important port and commercial centre in the country, until the rise of Muscat from around the sixteenth century onwards. The Sohar region has enjoyed continued prosperity for at least six millennia, probably forming part of the legendary country of Magan, which once supplied Sumer with many of its raw materials. Copper was mined in the nearby Wadi Jizzi as far back as the fifth century BC, and Sohar developed as a properous centre for smelting and mining, as well as a major agricultural centre.
By the time Islam arrived in Oman, Sohar had established itself as the capital of the region, and remained so until the beginning of the second imamate in 793 AD, when the seat of the imams was moved for security reasons to Nizwa, which was judged, correctly, to be less vulnerable to attack.
Sohar retained its pre-eminent commercial position, nonetheless – “The hallway to China, the storehouse of the East”, as the eminent tenth-century historian Al Muqaddasi described it. Unfortunately, the city’s wealth also attracted less welcome visitors, usually hailing from neighbouring Persia. In 971 and again in 1041 a Persian fleet overran and sacked the city, while around 1276 the city suffered at the hands of almost five thousand Mongol raiders from Shiraz, although it had at least partly revived by the time Marco Polo visited around 1293.
Worse still was to follow the arrival of the Portuguese, who occupied Sohar in 1507 and controlled the city until 1643, when they were finally evicted by the Omani forces of Nasir bin Murshid. The Persians returned to Sohar yet again in 1738 under the command of Nadir Shah, but were beaten off by Ahmad bin Said, the city’s brilliant governor and future ruler of Oman, who endured another nine-month-long Persian siege in 1742 before finally capitulating to the far larger forces of his attackers.
Sohar remained an important city following the establishment of the Al Bu Saidi dynasty, but was gradually eclipsed by Muscat as the country’s major seaport and slipped increasingly into the sidelines of Omani history – apart from a brief moment of notoriety in 1866 when Sultan Thuwaini was murdered by his son Salim in the city’s fort.
Sohar has enjoyed something of an economic resurgence over the last few decades – during the 1980s, the old copper mines of Wadi Jizzi were reopened by the Oman Mining Company for the first time in over a thousand years, with further large new deposits being discovered inland around Yanqul and Ibri. More recently, the vast new Sohar Port, opened in 2004, may yet restore the city to its maritime pre-eminence.
The city also leapt briefly into the international headlines in early 2011 when it became the focal point of nationwide protests against the government.