The small town of JABRIN (also spelled Jabreen, Jibreen, Gabrin, Gibrin and so on) is best known for its superb fort – if you only visit one fort while you’re in Oman, this is probably the one to choose. The fort dates mainly from around 1670, one of several built during the Ya’aruba building boom of the later seventeenth century, constructed at the behest of the future imam Bil’arab bin Sultan (reigned 1680–92), who lies buried here in a crypt beneath the fort. Further alterations were made to the castle during the eighteenth century by imam Muhammad bin Nasr al Ghafiri (reigned 1725–27), and the whole thing was restored between 1979 and 1983.
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The fort is located around 5km south of Jabrin town, a picture-perfect structure nestled amid palm trees. The fort’s main building is surrounded by high walls and a gravel courtyard, home to a small mosque; you can also see the deep falaj, which formerly provided the castle with water (and which flows right through the building), to the rear. The interior is absorbingly labyrinthine, with dozens of little rooms packed in around a pair of courtyards. Essentially, the building divides into two halves, which, for the sake of clarity, are described below as the northern and southern wings, although you won’t find this terminology used in the fort itself.
Walk through the entrance and you’ll find yourself in the fort’s extraordinarily deep and shady central courtyard. A right turn here brings you immediately into a second courtyard at the centre of the northern wing, centred around a similarly narrow and deep courtyard, with beautifully carved windows and wooden balconies above. Rooms on the ground floor are devoted to practical matters. These include a huge date store (with distinctive corrugated stone floor; sacks of dates were stacked up here, and the resultant juice collected in the channels running across the floor), a kitchen area (with the adjacent falaj providing constant running water), and a guard room with a microscopic jail sunk into the floor, like a cupboard in the ground.
The northern wing
From next to the date store, steep steps lead directly up to the rooftop, passing an entrance into the low-ceilinged guard tower en route. Emerging onto the rooftop, note a second flight of steps immediately to your right which descend back into the fort, and to which you’ll return in a moment. The rooftop itself is covered in a further jumble of buildings and towers. The largest structure is a fine pillared mosque, with traces of old painting on its arches and a finely painted ceiling. Steps lead up onto the roof of the mosque, the highest point of the whole fort, with superlative 360-degree views. A Qur’anic school (madrasah) stands next door.
Take the steps mentioned above back down to reach the fine set of rooms on the first floor, signed as “Conference Room, Dining Rooms & Courtroom”; all unusually spacious and high-ceilinged compared to most apartments within Omani forts (as are similar rooms in the southern wing). These include the large courtroom, with scales of justice hanging from the wall and a small opening at the far end of the room through which those convicted were forced to crawl out before being taken away for punishment. Next door is a dining room and the so-called “conference room”, a curious translation for what is simply a traditional majlis, or meeting room, with carpeted floor, cushions around walls, shelves lined with old swords, pots, kettles and a fine pair of wooden doors and painted ceiling hung with three big brass lamps. The high ceiling and line of floor-level windows keep things pleasantly cool, even without air conditioning. Close by on the same floor you’ll find a horse stall in which the imam was wont to stable his favourite steed. Continuing down the stairs from here you’ll pass a women’s jail (a standard feature of Omani forts) – not especially inviting, although it’s at least a bit less claustrophobic than the men’s jail a few steps below.
The southern wing
Continue to the bottom of the steps and you’ll find yourself back next to the central courtyard. Turn right at the bottom of the stairs to enter the fort’s southern wing, home to the finest sequence of interiors of any fort in Oman.
Once again, rooms on the ground floor have a practical emphasis, including soldiers’ quarters, an armoury and yet another jail (entered via a tiny hole in the wall). Climb the stairs around the back of the soldiers’ quarters to reach the first floor, home to a further superb pair of majlis (signed “public reception rooms”) embellished with richly painted ceilings – the red, black and gold ceiling in the second room is particularly fine. A library stands on the opposite side of the stairs with two-tiered windows with rustic little wooden shutters.
A further flight of stairs, framed with delicately moulded arches, leads up to the second floor, formerly the inner sanctum of the ruling imam and home to a suite of even more lavish rooms. These include the so-called “Sun and Moon” room, with yet another richly painted ceiling, the imam’s beautiful private majlis and, finest of all, the imam’s personal “suite” (as it’s described), a pair of rooms with intricately carved, rather Indian-looking filigree stone arches and wooden shuttered windows, although only one small section of the original painted ceiling survives. Steps continue from here up to the top of the fort, emerging opposite the rooftop mosque.
Return to the entrance into the central keep and head through the door on your right to reach the crypt-like grotto beneath the northern wing. Here you’ll find the wonderfully atmospheric tomb of imam Bil’arab bin Sultan bin Saif, who is said to have died by his own hand at Jabrin in 1692 at the end of his unhappy thirteen-year reign. The tomb is surrounded by arches carved with Qur’anic script and with the falaj flowing beneath. Yet another flight of stairs heads up next to the tomb, leading to the public reception rooms on the first floor.