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Impressions of Muscat

OMAN | Saturday, 23 March 2024 | Views [59] | Comments [1]

Impressions of Muscat. (FYI - I can't get the photos to load,sorry!)

For years, I have wanted to visit Oman, but the timing was never quite right.  This year I decided that waiting any longer to make my way to Australia and New Zealand was nonsense as I’m not getting any younger, and who knows what the world situation will be like in a few years. So, 2024 is a time for living for today, and that means traveling to countries that I haven’t yet been to and have long wanted to see as well as to return to old friends, like Nepal, India and Bali. My first stop on this Asian/Oceanic adventure was Muscat, Oman. 

First off, I need to confess that I made a mistake.  I understood from the Omani government website that I needed a visa to enter the country.  This is incorrect.  If one is staying for less than 14 days, a visa is not needed, so you can spare yourself that money when you arrange your visit here.

Oman is fairly expensive compared to most of the other countries I travel to, but it offers a very different view of the Arab world than the neighboring Emirates. The country came out of self-inflicted isolation only in the 1970s, when the previous Sultan, a graduate of British universities and former Sandhurst student, overthrew his very tradition-based leaning father, who ended up living his last years in England. Over the next fifty years, the country transformed itself into a thriving modern civilization while keeping the Omani spirit and customs alive. In Old Muscat and the area around the port where the cruise ships dock, the houses are not allowed to have more than eight floors, and most have only four to five. They need to be either white or cream, though they can have some reddish or greyish highlights. The white structures provide a striking contrast to the brownish mountains and hills surrounding the city. When I came in from the airport at dawn, the early morning light hit the hillsides so that as the taxi drove by the hills took on rainbow colors as the natural minerals, including copper and limestone, appeared then disappeared as the car went by. The hills, i.e. the Hajar Mountains, and the overall landscape reminded me of central Iran with the same foreboding yet mysterious crags, cliffs, and scree. Modern Muscat extends for miles and miles along the coast, and this is where all the high-rises are. I didn’t spend any time there, so can’t comment on that area other than to say that the highway from the airport into Old Muscat and the port area makes for an easy and interesting drive, passing by the Grand Mosque and the Royal Opera House, both of which are architecturally stunning.

My guesthouse was in Old Muscat next to a small mosque a five-minute walk to the National Museum. It was clean and inexpensive, but there were no restaurants in the area, which meant that I needed to take a taxi at night to the Souq area for dinner. The taxis charge indiscriminately, so haggling is really a must. The National Museum is new, clean, and well-designed. There are exhibits from pre-history, for the Islamic World, Oman’s place in the World, Omani’s renaissance period (after they kicked the Portuguese out), and ethnographic collections. The informative placards are in English as well as Arabic.

The building is at the end of a long pedestrian passage to the Royal Palace complex. The Royal Palace sticks out as it has turquoise blue and gold pillars, unlike any else in the area. The hills around the complex still have some of the Portuguese forts from the 1580s, which is both a reminder of the need to be watchful of invaders as well as a testament to the spirit of Omani independence.

The back of the Royal Palace, from the viewer’s perspective, faces one of the many natural harbors along the coast. The Portuguese fort, Al Jalali, is on the right next to the Royal Palace complex and Al Mirami is on left side across from the harbor. Mutrah Fort is opposite the Cornish near the Muscat Port region. There are also a number of other forts dotting the hillsides, but these three are the most prominent. The forts have been restored in the same tan clay color they were originally in, so they look new while keeping the older style. Muscat also has a number of parks with fountains, lush green grasses and lots of blooming flowers – at least in March. What they would look like in August in 45+ heat, I won’t begin to guess.

The Corniche is much nicer than the one in Beirut. It follows the harbor from near Old Muscat to the fish market by the cruise ship docking area. There are small parks along the way for picnicking and the locals make good use of them on Fridays, Saturdays and in the evening. The main Muscat Souq is at the top of the harbor and is a haven for tourists from the cruise ships. The Souq is actually a couple of separate bazaars; there is the main one with every imaginable trinket, perfume, spices and general souvenirs, and then there is one just called the Gold Souq next to the main one.  The two local products that are most in demand are palm dates and frankincense, both of which have been major Omani trading commodities for centuries. To highlight the importance of the incense, there is a large white incense-burner sculpture on the hill above one of the parks along the Corniche.

On Friday, I took a tour to Nizwa Fort and Al Hamra, two of the oldest cities in Oman. Nizwa was the old capital in the 6th and 7th centuries and Al Hamra, while newer – it is only about 400 years old, is a living museum. On Friday mornings, there is an animal market near the Nizwa Souq. Goats and cattle of various species were dragged around a circle from where potential buyers could see them. The prices are supposed to be fixed, but if the animal isn’t purchased immediately, it goes into a holding coral and the bargaining can begin. None of the animals I saw were in the least bit happy to be there, and most were avidly balking at their leaders.

The Nizwa Souq was very different from the one in Muscat. It still had lots of items for tourists, but there were also stalls geared toward the local population with mostly clay vases and incense burners along with other items for daily cooking use. Inside the main hall there were a number of vendors selling Omani sweets, which are almost pure sugar.

Entering Nizwa Friday Market SouqFriday market, NizwaView of the Souq hall, Nizwa

From the Souq, the nine of us on the tour (including people from Russia, NYC, Paris, Cologne, So. Korea, and England), walked over to the Fort, following Abdullah our excellent guide/driver for the day. Nizwa Fort is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It was built in 1648 and took about 20 years to complete. It is surrounded by an older wall from about the 9th C. There is also a small archeological site, Harat Al-Aqer, next door that is reputed to be around 1400 years old. From the ramparts the views extend as far as the eye can see.  The Fort and town are surrounded by palm date trees, providing a sea of green amid the cream and brown colored hills.

There is a small museum in the Fort which has a timeline of events and a poster of the “Letter the Prophet Mohammed wrote to the Omani People.” Omanis have a form of Islam that is unique to them; it is neither Sunni nor Shia, but Ibadi. It seems that the original Omani Imam/Sultan didn’t want to get caught in the hereditary controversy after the Prophet’s passing and formed his own version based on the teachings in the Koran. To this day, Oman tries to stay out of the conflicts of neighboring countries. At the museum, I asked Abdullah about the lack of pre-Islamic figurines. They weren’t visible in the National Museum, nor here. He said that he knows there were idols in pre-Islamic times, but that in order to covert the people all the idols were destroyed. It would be near impossible to conduct research on ancient worship practices here.

After leaving the museum we headed back to the main square, where there was a traditional sword dance being performed and two women making Omani bread.  The sword dance rhythm sounded like O Hani Hani Oh and was about a young man looking at a young woman commenting on her appearance. Omani bread is made from flour, water, and salt and is fried like a very thin crepe, then filled with either cheese and honey or cheese and egg.  I tried the cheese and egg, and it was delicious. Omni food is quite good. The traditional meal is rice and chicken or rice and fish. For breakfast I was served roti with fried eggs, tomatoes, and sliced cucumbers. Traditionally, when guests arrive, they are served coffee and dates. In Al Hamra’s house museum, Bait-Al Safah, I learned that if a guest only eats two dates, not three, then he wants to discuss something. It is an unspoken sign that something is worrying the guest, and the host needs to get him to talk. (I’m assuming this is true for women as well, but that wasn’t specifically stated.)

Women making omani bread at Nizwa FortEntrance to fort from the old townArcheological site at Nizwa FortAl Hamra is approximately 40 minutes’ drive from Nizwa further into the interior. It is a small old village where most of the houses are falling apart. The costs to renovate are extensive, electricity is difficult to access, and there are no places to park a car, so people build outside of the old town. It was interesting, however, to see the old construction and go through the house museum. All in all, I can recommend this day trip from Muscat as it gives insights into Omani history.


On Saturday, I was planning on going on a dolphin watching excursion, but rain was forecast, and they cancelled the trip.  There are a number of day excursions from Muscat, but because of the pending rains the ones to the Wadis were also cancelled.  It turned out to be a good day to just walk around. Muscat is fascinating, safe, and the people I met here very friendly. Just remember to bargain with the taxicab drivers!


Tags: city, history



Welcome back! We're glad to see someone else is traveling and posting.
PS We loved all of Oman

  John Mar 24, 2024 10:49 PM

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