March 30 found us in Muscat, the capital of Oman. It was occupied by the Portuguese from about 1508 to 1650, when their ouster was completed by the capture of Muscat. Oman was something of a naval power in the the 18th & 19th centuries, its control extending as far as Zanzibar on the southeast African coast, and Muscat became its capital in 1793. But Oman became a backwater by the mid-20th century, when it was under the control of Sultan Said, who never left Salalah & wouldn’t spend his substantial oil wealth to improve the country. In 1970 his son, now Sultan Qaboos (pronounced like the last car of a train), staged a coup supported by a disgruntled populace. Having received a modern education in Europe, he has spent lavishly to modernize the country & improve the well being of its people, & he seems to be more than popular among Omanis. But this is still an absolute monarchy & is socially conservative. Sultan Qaboos was in Germany when we visited, where he has gone several times in the last few years for treatment of apparently serious health issues. He apparently has no children and has named no heir, so no one knows what will happen after he dies.
Although we had intended to explore this port on foot Mary’s illness from Dubai dictated signing up for a bus tour, which turned out to be a pretty good one. We left early in the morning for a fairly long drive along some busy thoroughfares through the more recently built areas of town to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, opened in 2001 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Sultan’s rule. With a central dome & 5 minarets it is the third largest mosque in the world. It can accommodate 20,000 worshippers in its two gender-segregated prayer rooms & adjacent courtyards.
The buildings & courtyards here are all made of brightly shining marble. We walked through some of them to visit the women’s prayer room, which can hold 750 worshippers. In addition to the marble buildings and arches, a lot of very fine woodwork can be found at this mosque, especially in the doors & ceilings. As in most mosques, shoes must be removed before entering & there were racks provided to hold them. There is a strict dress code as well, particularly for women whose heads must be covered with a scarf and who must wear clothing reaching to neck, wrists & ankles. You are scrutinized before entering & we saw a group of women who had folded their bare arms under large headscarves being turned away.
We walked through courtyards to the men’s prayer room under the dome, carrying our shoes to a new rack there. Stepping inside this vast room is literally breathtaking. At first the massive chandelier hanging from the domed roof in the center seems unreal (the pictures don’t capture this). It is crystal and was made in Germany, the second largest in the world; just cleaning it (after it is lowered to floor level) is a massive undertaking.
Measuring some 70 yards by 60 yards, the carpet in this room is the 2d largest hand-loomed Persian carpet in the world (after the mosque in Abu Dhabi). It took 600 women four years to complete it.
Our guide showed us around the room & explained its contents at length. When asked why the men’s room is so much bigger than the women’s he said that many fewer women come to the mosque, and less often, because it is not a religious obligation for them as it is for the men. He showed us where the Imam stands & gave us a short lesson on the Koran. The mosque was full of interesting artistic details.
Outside in the courtyard we retrieved our shoes & walked to another courtyard where dates & coffee had been prepared for us. We were also given booklets promoting Islam. One area had a series of colorful tile work niches that were inspired by the 15th century architecture of Samarkand in the time of Tamerlane.
As we drove back to the old part of the city we passed government buildings & modern neighborhoods. These were basically commercial & residential neighborhoods of little intrinsic interest, but apparently there is a policy in Oman requiring all new buildings to have some traditional Arabic features, such as pointed windows or crenelated or domed roofs, and there is a rather low height limit. This keeps the city from becoming characterless, as have parts of some of the cities we have visited. In this spirit, even our bus had traditional looking drapery along the tops of its windows.
We passed through the city gate to Muttrah, the old port area of town near where Amsterdam was docked. Here we visited the Muttrah Souk, a labyrinth of shops under a wooden roof. Unfortunately we only had about half an hour here, but it was a fun half hour.
After the souk we visited the Bait al Zubair museum. This was the home of a prominent family, built about 100 years ago. They still own & operate the museum. There were interesting displays of traditional clothing, jewelry & weaponry, representing something of a social history of the region. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside, but outside in the courtyard was a colorful collection of variously painted statues of goats or sheep. It looked like the public art sometimes seen in American cities, in which each of a series of identical statues of animals is decorated by a different local artist – in Washington, DC, we had donkeys & elephants & in Nags Head, North Carolina they had flying horses. On the front of the building was an enormous poster of Sultan Qaboos, whose face can be seen a lot in Oman.
Next we visited Al Alam Palace, the Sultan’s offices & formal reception place. He does not live here. It was built in 1972 & looks like it. It is right on the waterfront between two forts built by the Portuguese in the 1580’s, Al Jalali & Al Mirani. You can see the large flagpole atop the central building is empty; we were told that this flag only flies when the Sultan is in Oman & this day he was in Germany.
Notable was the palace’s amazing flower garden, full of all manner of very bright flowers.
On a large hill near the palace is a section of the original city wall & three Portuguese watch towers. A lot of these small, often round structures can be seen in the old part of Muscat around the port area.
The sail away party had an Arabian theme, with colorful divan pillows, water pipes & a belly dancer (who stayed on the ship until Aqaba, giving lessons in Arabic & belly dancing). We were told that some of the passengers made off with divan pillows, big water pipes and perhaps even rugs. These were not party favors, but the real thing that the ship stores for occasions like this. It never ceases to amaze what some people feel entitled to do. This is especially dumb, if it really happened, because there are security cameras all over the ship, so they undoubtedly know who the culprits are.
We went out on the aft deck for the sailaway. From the ship you could see a watchtower shaped like a giant incense burner, the Muscat Fort (really a couple of watchtowers on the waterfront), and the sun setting over the mountains behind the port. I forgot to show you the Sultan’s yacht, looking like a cruise ship, so I will include that here even thought it wasn’t taken from the ship.
As we sailed away we had a very nice view of the Corniche, a curved waterfront row of houses & shops (including the Souk) across from the harbor. Anchored near our ship were three Iranian military ships. Further out in the bay we passed the palace, with its forts on either side, looking quite different from the water. We saw some dhows (wooden boats of the type that used to do all the shipping in this part of the world) & mountains. And then we were once more at sea.