Each Gulf State has its own distinct character, history and set of customs, but among them, Oman is the oldest. The Sultanate’s earliest known settlement dates back 5,000 years. Many archaeologists believe the place Sumerians knew as Magan, one of the few sources for copper, was along the Gulf of Oman. Regional importance grew when Frankincense, derived from the native Boswellia tree, emerged as a popular religious instrument. The resign, believe to have curative power was exported as far away as Rome. During Christ’s era it was more valuable than gold.
Oman remained independent until 16th century Portuguese traders established a fort at Hormuz. They ruled for 100 years but after moving to Muscat, they were driven out in 1650. Muscat is an Arabic word “masquat” meaning cliff and is a fitting name for a city with such sheer inland boundaries. Evidence of their wonderful forts built are very much evident in the city today. A friendly port, centuries old tradition lingers, even in the shadow of the capital’s high-rise towers. The city is neatly divided into three main districts: Muscat, Mutrah, and Ruwi. The Sultan’s Palace, Royal Courts and government offices form the central district (the old walled port). Two preserved 16th century Portuguese forts – Al Jalali and Mirani, flank the main gate. Traditional homes and narrow streets scramble below Mutrah Fort in the busy Mutrah commercial center. Oman is located on the Arabian Sea.
Since the ascension of its current Sultan, Qaboos bin Said in 1970, Muscat has developed rapidly leading to a stimulated economy and a diverse, multi ethnic population. Sultan Qaboos bin Said was sent to English (Oxford) by his father, to study, and then spent another 4 months touring the world to find out and learn about becoming a leader. The landscape of Muscat is dominated by the Western Al Hajar Mountains, which at first seemed weird given we were in the desert. The economy is driven mostly by petroleum, trade and its port facilities.
Muscat has always been a hybrid of people not native to the Arabian Peninsula. Hindu temples existed in Muscat as far back as 1760 and Christianity is thought to have been spread by the Portuguese as early as the beginning of the 16th century. Although Arabic is the predominant language of the city, English, Balochi, Swahili and South Asian languages such are Hindi and Urdu are spoken. Islam is the predominant religion in the city and while non-Muslims are allowed to practice their religion, they are discouraged for talking publicly or distributing religious literature. This religious tolerance is indicated by the presence of two Hindu temples, several Christian churches located in a multi denominational compound in Ruwi including the Catholic church of Saints Peter and Paul. On July 23, 1970, Sultan Qaboos bin Said staged a bloodless coup in the Salalah palace with the assistance of the British. He took over from his father as ruler and put an end to the Dhofar uprising which had threatened the area since 1962. He consolidated the differing tribal territories in an attempt to end the interior’s isolation from Muscat.
It’s very hard to believe that 50 years ago people lived in shacks or tents, there was no electricity and no road ways. Today they live in modern housing and have an amazing road system. Construction is very much alive and well here.
Today we are on a ships tour “Muscat and the Market”.
Our guide, Hayay is a young married man, has 4 boys and lives with his older brother and his wife, 4 girls and 1 boy. His mother also lives in the house. The mother is the matriarch and is in charge of the kitchen. They have an Indonesian girl working for them and I’m quite sure her life can’t be easy with 9 children, 2 grown men, 2 wives and the mother to care for. Being an Arab native the government provides them with a new house and money for each child born to the Arab family. All medical and educational expenses are made for by the government and if medical attention, can not be provided in the country then the family are flown to the country of choice and all expenses are paid by the government. However expatriates pay for all medical and educational expenses. Rent is fairly inexpensive but work permits are only granted for 2 years at a time and may or may not be renewed depending on the sponsor.
Our first stop is the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. It is one of the kingdom’s oldest mosques, we’ve never been inside a mosque before and this one is just “out of this world”. The stone was imported from both India and Italy. There are 5 marionettes on this mosque, it is usual only to have 2. From the moment you enter the grounds of the mosque it is solid marble. It’s a special marble that does not heat up when in the sun. Thankfully that’s a good thing as it’s 39C today and the heat could be awful on bare feet. It’s cool to the touch and just amazingly smooth. Everything is spotlessly clean. There’s a local with a broom brushing up leaves falling from trees.
As we approach the entry point – men are lined up on the left and woman on the right. Our heads have to be covered, we wear long skirts or pants and long sleeve blouses. After the men go through the ladies are allowed in. The guard had a Glock in his belt and he looks suspiciously at each of us. I can just hear his thoughts “American Infidels”. What greets us is the mosque about 200 yards away and it is just stunning. Before us is a water structure that runs the length of the walk way. This symbolises the freedom of religion and the purity of the people. The beautiful white marble and granite is everywhere. The mosque and the surrounding area measures approximately 4 acres and it is OPULENT. We woman are allowed to enter the men’s area of the mosque but we must all walk on the blue carpet. The gold is etched everywhere. The carpet on which the men pray weights 22 ton and was delivered in 8 pieces from India. The Sultan demanded that only young woman 17 and younger work on the carpet as their fingers were the most able to do the finest work, and it shows. The whole place is just opulent with crystal chandeliers with gold fixtures. We’re shown 2 doors in which the Inman and the Sultan can come and go fairly undetected.
Doors are ornately carved with the most intricate details and measure some 18-20 feet in height and 8-9fet in width. We have the opportunity to see men cleaning the doors or should I say removing dust from the doors; there’s scaffold erected and with white gloves and a very soft brush the men gently remove the dust from the doors. This is how the chandeliers are cleaned as well. We see copies of the “Quran” on display and we are forbidden to touch them. Our guide, a very nice and knowledgeable young man, holds open one copy of the book so that we can take photographs. We are invited to view the men’s and woman’s quarters where worshippers wash themselves before going into prayer. Trust me when I say the woman’s and men’s quarters are VERY different. It’s a man’s world in Oman. Saying that, as visitors and non Muslims we were treated very nicely.
Our next stop was to see the private collection at Bait Al Zubair Museum, unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs. Here is a fine array of traditional Omani Heritage items. Exhibits include rare antique Omani weapons, jewellery, clothing, household items, books, photographs, painting and maps. It’s a fairly small museum, considering it was once his residence. The guides were very helpful in providing information on the various parts of Oman and it’s history.
Next to the official palace of Oman’s ruling Al-Busaidi family, Al Alam Palace is viewed from outside the gates. Bougainvillea adds colourful red and purple lights to the whitewashed walls. The beautiful gates adorned with gold leaf and the use of granite and marble litter the walkways. Truly beautiful and no money problems here.
The Mirani and Jalali Forts are still used for military purposes and are not open to the public, however photos can be taken of the exterior. Considering these forts were built in the 16th century by the Portuguese they are in remarkably great condition. These forts guard the bay from the hilltop overlooking Muttrah.
Our final stop was the fragrant Arabian perfumes and spices that scent the air at Muttrah Souk. This place is just alive with wonderfully coloured fabrics, antiques, traditional silver jewellery, copper handicrafts, carved camel bone, wood, leather and hand made costumes. Of course we have to bargain as it’s an insult not too. I find some lovely fabric to make a couple of blouses so I’m happy.