Ernie goes to Muscat (Nov 2017)

The Sultanate of Oman

In the summer of 1970, the South Pacific archipelago of Tonga gained its long-awaited independence from the United Kingdom; the Beatles released The Long and Winding Road, their 20th and final number 1 single on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart; Brazil, led by the legendary Pelé, defeated Italy in Mexico City’s iconic Estadio Azteca for their third World Cup title; and Qaboos bin Said al Said, son of Sultan Said bin Taimur, deposed his father in a British-backed coup, ushering in the first glimpses of modernity in the fading gulf sultanate of Oman.

Three things drew my attention to Oman, some 300,000 square kilometres of sand and rock hugging the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Firstly, landscapes the likes of which I’d never seen in person before: the wild desert and mountain scenes, the endless dunes and the lush canyons, and the date palm oases and terraces clinging to dusty cliff sides. Secondly, the accessibility and safety of the country in an otherwise volatile region: around 70% of Omanis adhere to the Ibadi school of Islam, a moderate denomination that reportedly underpins both its rare neutrality in the Muslim world and its resistance to extremist influences. Lastly, and this is the very clearly romanticized perspective on history that I freely admit to, there’s something really fascinating about the idea of Muscat and the sultanate: an ancient port city known since the 1st Century days of Pliny the Elder; fought over by the Sassanid Persians, the ruling Abbasids of the Islamic Golden Age, the ocean-faring Portuguese in the heyday of the Age of Discovery, and the Ottoman Turks under the celebrated reign of Suleiman the Magnificent; the bustling metropolis of a 19th Century empire stretching from Mozambique to Somalia, across the Arabian Sea to Yemen and the Persian Gulf, and even footholds in modern day Iran and Pakistan; and its subsequent 20th Century decline into insolation and feudalism, until the son of a sultan overthrew his father on the 23rd of July, 1970.

Much has changed in Oman since Sultan Qaboos’ coup. In 2010, the UN ranked Oman number 1 in the world in various development indices over the previous 40 years. Modest oil wealth and an emphasis on economic diversification has allowed the sultan to pour resources into health, education, and income, raising the standard of living by leaps and bounds. Often overshadowed by the gulf cities to the north – the glittering skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the World Cup-hosting Doha in Qatar – not to mention the vast wealth and influence of Saudi ArabiaOman more than holds its own in the geopolitics of the Middle East. As a travel destination, it probably has more to offer than any other state in the peninsula – ancient cities, mountain trekking, desert camping, and beautiful, wide highways that make road tripping around the country a mostly stress-free experience.

So, on the evening of November 24, after a short layover in Bangkok, Ashley and I landed at Muscat International Airport to embark on a week-long, self-guided road trip around the eastern and central regions of the country. We picked up our rental vehicle, an AWD Honda CRV, at the airport from the Sixt service desk in the arrivals hall, as well as a mobile sim card from regional service provider Ooredoo – 1 gb of data for 2 rials for up to 30 days. From there, we made the short 15-minute drive into the city and our hotel, the Centara Hotel Muscat. Location-wise, it’s not bad – close to the airport, and just five minutes from the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. However, it’s a bit further out from Muttrah and the old city – at least 20 to 30 minutes depending on traffic – and some of the newer roads around the hotel did not show up on our older GPS unit. Otherwise, the rooms were clean and the staff were friendly and helpful, which ticked all our basic requirements.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

We had one full day in Muscat before heading out on our road trip. One day to acclimatize ourselves to the local weather, the local customs, to get a feel for driving in the country – and one day to get used to the fact that we were actually in Oman. Even waiting at the gate in Bangkok, surrounded by men in crisp white dishdasha and muzzar turbans, it was clear Ashley and I were headed to a place very unlike any of our other previous holiday destinations. The closest either of us had been to the region had been our trip to Turkey a few years back, aside from layovers in the cavernous Dubai airport, and Istanbul really is more European than Middle Eastern.

Our first stop was Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, built by the reigning sultan to serve as the main mosque of Oman. A relatively recent addition to the city’s skyline, the worship complex was inaugurated in 2001 after nearly seven years of construction. The mosque, including all of its courtyards, passageways, and prayer halls, has a capacity of 20,000, covering a total area of 40,000 square metres. The central dome of the main prayer hall dominates the surrounding cityscape, along with its four towering minarets – a staple of mosque architecture the world over. The mosque once boasted the largest single carpet and chandelier in the world, though Oman’s wealthier gulf neighbours have since laid claim to both titles. Non-Muslim visitors are allowed to enter the mosque grounds from 8:00 am to 11:00 am every day, except for Fridays, and must follow a dress code that aligns with local customs and norms.

There is a geometry to the mosque that one learns to appreciate – the angles and arches, the symmetries and repetitions, the reflections and the shadows. It can take on an almost abstract dimension, the structures and surfaces combining with columns and architectural lines to draw your eye to specific corners, down particular hallways, and up at the exquisite designs on the ceilings. The monumental size of the complex, where everything is just a little too tall for comfort, the floors a little too uniformly clean and undefiled, also contributes to the feeling of being in a space designed with a higher perspective in mind. I leave a proper study and analysis of mosque architecture vis-a-vis the worshiper to the experts, but the design and the layout spoke to the me and my modest photography skills as Ashley and I walked through the complex that morning.

Muttrah Souq & Corniche

Oman’s location on the old trading routes through the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea brought a steady flow of goods into the markets of Muscat from IndiaChinaSoutheast Asia, the Swahili Coast, and across the Middle East. The epicentre of commerce and trade in the city was long the port neighbourhood of Muttrah, home of what is now the Port Sultan Qaboos and one of the oldest markets in the Middle East, the Al Dhalam Souq.

The souq, also known as the Muttrah Souq, is still in operation today, with locals and tourists mingling throughout the market alleyways, browsing stalls full of dyed textiles, lamps, frankincense burners, herbs and spices, and tourist trinkets. There are different sections to the souq, spanning both indoor and outdoor spaces, and navigation can be a little tricky. There are little signs bolted onto walls and building corners that give general directions, but I don’t think enjoying the souq is dependent on knowing where you’re going, necessarily. It was also the first chance for Ashley and I to walk among local Omanis – families shopping together with strollers and toddlers in tow, women in their black abayas browsing through racks of clothing and scarves, men in their ankle-length white dishdashas lounging in front of shops sipping karak tea and eating dates. If the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was designed with sacred lives in mind, the souq offered a decidedly more grounded and public point of view into Omani ways of life.

Just outside the souq, running along the harbour from the fish market on the western edge to the distant watchtower in the east, is the famous Muttrah Corniche. From here, one can admire the view of the Gulf of Oman, the stark white buildings lining the shore, the warm tones of the mountains in the background that seem to bleed into the city itself, and the ruins of dusty forts that have seen better days. We grabbed lunch from a small restaurant called Fishers Grilled, across the street from the fish market. For 7 rials, the equivalent of around 140 HKD, we bought a grilled fish, a bunch of shrimp, salad, and enough pita and hummus to last us for another two days. The restaurant space itself was undergoing a bit of renovation, so we took our bags of food and sat down by the water for a little picnic of our own. After finishing the last of the fish and wrapping up our bread and hummus to go, we took one final look at the spectacular views around us and slowly made our way back to our parked car.

Old Muscat

The city of Muscat can feel more like a collection of communities and neighbourhoods, scattered between gaps in the coastal mountains along the water, than a single urban unit. Highways and cityscapes seem to bend and flow around ridges and coves, creating natural boundaries between one section of the city and another. Old Muscat is one such isolated neighbourhood. Located to the east of Muttrah, this part of town is the original city centre, with walls dating back to the early 17th Century, and many of the city’s museums and historic sites can be found here. Al Alam Palace, a modest-looking structure dominated by enormous blue and yellow columns, is one of six royal residences for the sultan, though it is more often used for ceremonial purposes these days than as an actual residence. The palace is flanked by Al Jalali Fort and Al Mirani Fort, both of which were built by the Portuguese in the late 16th Century when they battled against the Ottomans, the Persians, the English, and the Dutch for control over trade in the Persian Gulf. The reconquest of Muscat by local Omani forces in the middle of the 17th Century marked the beginning of their own imperial ambitions. Meanwhile, the blazing Middle Eastern sun and our collective afternoon lethargy effectively marked the end of our day in Muscat.

Epilogue

After a quick stop to check out the views from a lighthouse built on a rocky promontory between Old Muscat and Muttrah, we headed back in the direction of our hotel to get ready for our road trip. We weren’t sure what the food situation would be like outside of Muscat, especially in the more remote areas of Oman, so we stopped at a Carrefour and loaded up on groceries – 12 large bottles of water, a bag of apples, a bunch of bananas, sandwich bread, tins of corned beef, a box of trail mix bars, a bag of pistachios, and some packs of candy. We also brought along enough rials to pay for gas along the way, just in case there were any gas stations that were cash only, which was fortuitous as that happened to be the case every time – not a single station took credit card. Lastly, we contacted the car rental company to replace our original vehicle, as the GPS unit wasn’t charging at all with that one. They dropped off a replacement Honda CRV the next morning, free of charge, and after a hasty breakfast of hummus and bread left over from our Fishers Grilled lunch the day before, we packed up our things and hit the road.

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