A forty-minute drive west of the airport lies the low-key BARKA. As with many other places along the Batinah coast, the rather sleepy town you see today gives little sense of its former importance, when it was a major centre of local Gulf trade. The original town sits on the coast, just north of the coastal highway – to get here, take the turning off the roundabout by the big Lulu hypermarket and drive for 4km to reach the T-junction in the middle of the town.
Rather more interesting than Barka’s fort is the beautiful old fortified house of Bait Na’aman. The unusually tall and narrow house, with alternating square and round towers, is thought to have been constructed around 1691–92 by imam Bil’arab bin Sultan (or possibly his brother, and successor as imam, Saif bin Sultan), and was used by both imams during their visits to the area. According to one tradition, this is also where Sultan Said bin Sultan murdered his unpopular predecessor Badr bin Saif in 1806 with a single blow from his khanjar. The entire building was beautifully restored in 1991.
Unlike most of Oman’s forts, the house has been fitted out with a lavish selection of traditional furnishings and fittings, giving the place an engagingly domestic atmosphere and making it much easier to imagine what life was like for its former inhabitants than in most other Omani heritage buildings. Downstairs you’ll find the original bathroom and stone toilet, both connected to an underground falaj which formerly brought water all the way from Nakhal. There’s also a storage room, in which dates were pressed (the holes in the floor were used to siphon off the juice), as well as a pitch-black ladies’ jail.
The main living areas are situated upstairs, with a sequence of rooms attractively furnished with traditional rugs, cushions, crockery and jewellery. These include the men’s and ladies’ majlis, plus a quaint bedroom with four-poster bed and a wooden hatch in the floor through which water could be drawn up from below. Nearby is the private majlis of the imam, equipped with a secret escape passage, and a watchtower with pit-like jails for miscreants. Further stairs lead up to the roof. The main tower is supported by beautiful teak beams, with old pictures of ships scratched onto the walls. The tower originally housed six cannon, backed up by three more cannon in the house’s second tower – an impressive array of firepower for what was essentially a private residence rather than a proper fort.
To reach the house, drive around 5km north of the roundabout by the Lulu hypermarket along the main coastal highway then turn right off the highway, following the signs to A’Naaman and (just afterwards) the Barka Health Center, following the road as it twists back towards the coast. The house is about 3km down the road on your left – it’s not signposted, but is instantly recognizable.
Barka fort’s main claim to fame is as the site, in 1747, of one of the most important events in Omani history: the final expulsion of the Persians from the country and the foundation of the Al Bu Said dynasty, whose descendants continue to rule Oman to this day.
The architect of the affair was Ahmad bin Said, the popular governor of Sohar and Barka, who had a few years previously signed a treaty with the Persians. Ahmad decided to affirm his friendship by inviting the entire Persian garrison at Muscat to a banquet at Barka fort. The banquet was well under way when, it is said, there was a sudden beating of drums and the public crier announced: “Anyone who has a grudge against the Persians may now take his revenge!” According to one version of the story, all the Omanis present immediately fell upon their unarmed guests and did away with the lot of them, apart from two hundred soldiers who cried for mercy. These were put on a ship for Persia, although according to legend a mysterious fire swept through the ship, and all aboard, with the exception of Ahmad’s sailors, were burned alive or drowned. An alternative version of the event states that Ahmad bin Said simply executed a few of the Persians, but allowed the rest to go free, or sent them back to Persia.