As our flight began its descent into Muscat, I could not believe the views unfolding before me. Punctuated in all directions were craggy mountains and wind-worn watchtowers, with Muscat situated in a basin engulfed in mountains on three sides with a sliver of water on the fourth. Coming from Doha, Qatar and its flat desert terrain, Oman’s contrast was a pleasant surprise. I could hardly wait to begin my four-day exploration.
The Sultanate of Oman is the third largest country in the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the west, UAE in the northeast, Yemen in the southwest, the Strait of Hormuz in the north, and the Arabian Sea in the east.
Superior naval tactics and technology helped the Portuguese secure control of the coast from the local Omani tribe in 1507, thus bringing Oman under Portuguese control. They transformed Oman into a crucial commercial trading hub as part of their highly profitable West Indies spice trade. The wealth and success of this trade attracted the interest of other European powers, most notably the British and Dutch, yet it also spurred a local tribe to rise up and take control of its own destiny and resources.
Oman’s initial contacts with the British were part of a plan to undermine the commercial and political power of the Portuguese in the area, according to historians. In 1646, the Al-Ya’ribi clan made overtures to the British East India Company, which resulted in a treaty guaranteeing trading, religious and legal rights for British merchants operating in Oman. The object was clearly to weaken Portugal’s control of the area. And sure enough, in 1650, Imam Sultan Bin Saif rose up against the Portuguese and successfully expelled them from Muscat and Oman.
Shipping companies and businesses, nevertheless, were content to work in the relatively peaceful framework of the Omani empire of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ships from the British Indian Navy would regularly call on the ports of Oman on their way to and from Europe or as part of anti-piracy or slavery drives. As European ships improved in technology, and as the British developed alternative naval facilities in Aden (Yemen) and at Suez, Oman’s importance declined. Curtailment of the African slave trade further compounded the situation.
This all changed with the discovery of oil in 1950. Two decades later, Oman had joined the ranks of the other modernizing and emerging Gulf country states.
His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said is Oman’s current ruler, ascending to the throne in 1970 at the age of 30, following a palace coup where he overthrew his father. The new sultan intended on ending his country’s isolation and using its oil revenue to modernize and develop Oman, which he has been credited with accomplishing.
There is no heir apparent or any clear legislation on who will succeed the Sultan, according to Wikipedia, since he is unmarried and has no children.
In 2010, Oman’s population was 2.69 million with 743,000 of those expatriates. Islam is the official religion and Arabic the official language. Everyone I came in contact with spoke excellent English.
When I visited the modern and large City Centre Mall, the first thing I noticed on the entrance door was a sign of the mall rules. Very prominent was rule number one, specifying that shoulders and knees should be covered. The second rule read: no kissing or overt displays of affection. Interestingly, I saw women in tank tops and both genders wearing shorts – not short shorts – and it was not uncommon to see couples holding hands as they strolled through the mall. Having lived in the Middle East for a number of years now, I knew that the mall rules sign was more of a suggestion than a hard-enforced law.
The capital Muscat is actually three small towns that over time grew into one. They are: Muscat – known as the “walled city” and site of the royal palaces; Matrah – originally a sleepy fishing village along the corniche and home to the Matrah Souq, allegedly the oldest souq in the Gulf; and Ruwi – the commercial and diplomatic center of Muscat, which is where our hotel was located.
His Majesty the Sultan decreed that no buildings in Muscat – or the entire country for that matter – could be higher than 10 stories to ensure that the magnificent mountain backdrop would never be overshadowed by man-made structures. So, rather than a modern city brimming with skyscrapers, Muscat’s skyline are its twin forts of Al Mirani and Al Jilali perched on either side of the Muscat Harbor. And it’s beautiful.
On our first full day in Muscat, we connected with Michael, a German journalist friend and former Muscat resident, who just happened to be visiting the week we arrived. He introduced us to the mini bus transport system for getting around town cheaply ($1) after explaining that the taxis were unregulated. We stood anywhere on the sidewalk we wished and hailed down the mini buses, Muscat’s most widely used public transport, which if not full to capacity, would stop for us. I was always the only woman on them. They sat 10 people uncomfortably with an additional two jump seats plus the driver. The vans seemed old and the interiors definitely had seen better days. Many of the seats were torn and the backs broken, although the air conditioning was adequate. By best estimates, the vast majority of passengers were lower middle-class workers who did not own cars and/or drive. Very few spoke to anyone – perhaps because they were buried in their cell phones – and the smell of body odor was ripe to say the least. One passenger, however, was a TV producer while another time we met a man who spoke 11 languages, so perhaps my generalization of economic strata is skewed. Passengers banged on the top of the bus ceiling as their indication to the driver to stop so that they might disembark. Quite the experience; but then I’m usually up for a good adventure.
Old Muscat is located along the Mutrah Corniche across from Port Sultan Qaboos, passing through the old city gate and continuing along the coast, home to numerous hotels and resorts, reportedly the most expensive in the country.
We stopped at the corniche, which was renovated within the past few years but continues to resemble what it looked like prior to the modern oil-era, and walked to the souq along the harbor sidewalk. Being familiar with many souqs from Bahrain, Turkey and Qatar, a souq is a souq. If you’ve never visited a souq, however, you absolutely must. They provide a glimpse into a way of life, which has remained largely unchanged through centuries, and an excellent means of capturing local culture. Silver jewelry, Bedouin handicrafts, food and spices, colorful fabrics, housewares and clothing are just some of the offerings from the souq stalls. If you were in the market for a pair or two of sandals, this was your sandal heaven! All souqs that I’ve gotten lost in are maze-like narrow alleyways, and the Mutrah Souq is no different. At the end of the corniche is Mutrah Fort towering above the back side of the souq.
However, this souq sold an Omani specialty: frankincense. The incense hung heavy in the air like perfumed smog. I knew that you burn frankincense, but was surprised to learn you can also eat it. A shopkeeper offered us each a chunk of a whitish yellow hard lump of rock. He told us to chew it. It had little to no flavor or taste; however, once I began chewing, the frankincense stuck to my teeth and was a horrible mess to get off. It reminded me of when a dentist makes an impression of a tooth for a crown.
The region of Dhofar in the southern part of Oman is home to the Frankincense Trail. Dhofar has known frankincense since biblical times, and it is in this region that the famed frankincense trees flourish. Frankincense is a symbol of life for the Dhofari people. It is not merely a tree, but an embodiment of culture, history, sociology and geography. As you know, the biblical story of the three wise men coming to see the newborn Jesus brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Over the centuries, cities and civilizations have been based on frankincense trade. Researchers have discovered writings in the southern Arabic alphabet in some of these ancient cities telling the story of establishing the cities for the purpose of exporting frankincense to different parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Omani researchers and historians have documented that Alexander the Great imported huge quantities of incense from Arab lands; King Solomon burned frankincense around his throne as incense; when Emperor Nero’s wife died, he burned the equivalent of the entire southern Arabian Peninsula’s yield of frankincense in her honor; and, of course, that in biblical times continuing to today, incense is used at the Vatican in Rome during Mass. Frankincense is also a main ingredient in many Arabic perfumes I discovered.
Out in the sea was the Sultan’s huge yacht, moored and guarded by the Omani coastguard and harbor police. Flanked on one side was a Portuguese watchtower and fort (Al Jalali) dating from the 1580s.
Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort are located on either side of the sultan’s palace. The forts were built as prisons in the jagged mountains during the Portuguese occupation and were converted into museums. Unfortunately, in 2012 the forts were closed to the public.
Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace, guarded by the twin forts, is the office of Sultan Qaboos. The uniquely colorful palace stands on the head of a natural deep water harbor. Visitors are not allowed to visit the palace, but are allowed to take photographs at the entrance. Within the palace complex are many government offices and buildings. The importance of security was not lost on me when I spotted a soldier walking along with his machine gun ready at his side.
After we left the palace, we continued along the Corniche beach road until we reached Al Bustan Palace Hotel. The Al Bustan has received many international awards as one of the world’s best hotels. Further up the road I was told were more international five- and six-star hotels dotting the coastline with their exquisite sand beaches.
The Al Bustan was a stunning complex, and I could easily see this as a sanctuary for relaxation and rejuvenation of mind, body and soul, that is, if I could ever afford to stay here. Although photographs were not allowed inside other than in the 125-foot high lobby, suffice to say it was grandiose, dripping with Austrian crystal chandeliers and coated in rich marble and gold.
Outside, the private hotel beach rivaled any Caribbean beach, while the numerous pools and outdoor green spaces were sumptuous and impressive. The front entrance sported vistas of the nearby Hagar Mountains.
Our final stop of the day was a visit to the small Bait al Zubair Museum (house of Zubair). No photography was allowed within the private museum. Bait al Zubair opened in 1998 to the public and displays the Zubair family’s collection of Oman artifacts that span a number of centuries. It was very interesting and educational.
Two hours later, tired and hungry, we walked a few blocks until we came upon an Indian restaurant that could best be described as an unobtrusive hole in the wall. We were its only customers. Although obviously not a destination restaurant in which to indulge one’s taste buds, it was a welcome surprise – the chicken Biryani (rice) was delicious, the servings ridiculously huge, and the price a very reasonable $3. The place was relatively clean, particularly the plates and silverware, and the mismatched tables and chairs sturdy. Actually, I felt rather relieved that it was such an “updated” restaurant, as the custom in most Indian restaurants is to eat with your hands sans cutlery. It did have the obligatory sink hanging openly on a wall nearby to wash up before eating.
The Grand Mosque
Although we did not have time to tour the Grand Mosque, we did pass by it twice. In fact, one morning, the police had stopped all of the traffic in both directions on the highway so that the Sultan’s motorcade could bypass the freeway, using the underpass en route to the mosque for prayers. In the distance I could see the black motorcade with its police escort’s blue and red lights flashing. We sat at a standstill for almost 10 minutes.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque opened in 2001. “As a contemporary place of worship, it serves as a spiritual landmark for modern Oman, projecting the values and aspirations of the Omani people. As an edifice, it maintains a perfect balance between aesthetics, culture and deeply-rooted Islamic tradition, and at the same time, pays homage to the civilizations that have occupied Oman throughout the ages,” proclaimed a tourist brochure.
This mosque is the third largest mosque in the world and open to non-Muslim visitors. Its unique features include the Swarovski crystal chandelier, the second largest handmade Persian carpet in the world, and marble paneling throughout.
Every city has one – the stone, stucco and mud-brick circular watchtowers and forts dotting the country’s landscape. These strategically placed fortifications were crumbling into oblivion until the 1980s, when the Omani government began restoring them using traditional techniques and materials. More than 500 forts and castles have and/or will be conserved.
“Defensive elements such as towers, battlements, walled enclosures and gateways comprise the most distinctive aspect of Omani architecture,” according to renowned archeologist Paolo Costa. “Today, architectural features reminiscent of the old forts appear as artistic rather than utilitarian attributes in modern villas and commercial buildings.”
Oman’s forts are frequently assumed to have been built by the Portuguese, but in fact, the vast majority were constructed by Oman’s Ya’ariba and Al Bu Said dynasties. The Portuguese built only the two famous twin forts of Jalali and Mirani that guard Muscat Bay.
During the century and a half of Portuguese domination, Muscat was an important naval base, and the Portuguese forts were strictly confined to coastal Oman.
Omani forts are guarded by massive, ornately carved wooden portals with a small cut-out door allowing entrance one person at a time and then only by stooping. The ceilings are typically beamed with trunks of palm or candlewood supporting simple but elegant patterns of crisscrossed palm ribs and palm-frond mats, consistent with other Middle Eastern fort construction.
Over the centuries, the once familiar camel caravans through the mountains and deserts declined, and Oman’s most prized product, frankincense, was no longer worth its weight in gold.
A daylong excursion to the towns of Bahla and Nizwa were equally rewarding, particularly since the 2 ½ hour drive from Muscat was through the same Hajar Mountains and past lesser-known sights the camel caravans traveled centuries earlier. That trip is deserving of its own story.
A stop-off to the Amouge factory in Muscat was also worthwhile despite the high-end perfume not being made in Muscat as I had thought. It is made in Grasse, France, bottled and shipped to the Muscat Amouge facility where Omani workers label and box the bottles for shipment. But to learn about the ingredients, process and history of Amouge was interesting.
The Omani people are extremely friendly. On one occasion, we were walking in the hot afternoon sun when a car stopped and the driver offered to take us to the mall about 10 minutes away so that we could catch a mini bus. The few times we hailed taxis, always negotiating price before getting in, those drivers too were talkative with interesting stories and facts to share.
With the beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the people, it is easy to understand why Oman is a popular destination. It might have only been a four-day trip, but its memories will last a lifetime.