The charm of the Orient has been preserved in the capital of Oman.
Muscat is different. In the capital of Oman it is not skyscrapers with their sleek architecture that set the tone, but buildings of no more than eight stories, many in historical styles. The picture is completed by ultra-modern structures – hospitals, malls, administrative and office buildings, the only opera house in the Gulf States, and the capital city’s new airport, which opened in March 2018. Visitors frequently praise the successful juxtaposition of old and new. The charm of the Orient, frequently sought by visitors to the Arabian peninsula, and often not found, has been preserved here.
After Sultan Qabus ibn Said forced his father Said ibn Taimur into exile in London in 1970 a new era began for Oman and its capital Muscat – often written Mascat. The development was not a series of quantum leaps, but took place at a slow, almost gentle pace. The city expanded beyond the confines of the old town with its estimated population of only 30,000, to become the Capital Area, 50 kilometres long and up to ten kilometres wide. It is now home to more than one million inhabitants. Like much of the data about Muscat, some of it contradictory, this figure is an estimate.
Oman’s head of state acts as an intermediary in various conflicts
Visitors can easily cover the Old Town on foot. It is situated in a bay surrounded by rocky cliffs. This is the location of the Sultan’s palace, the strikingly colourful Qasr Al Alam palace, which was completed in 1974. It remains closed to visitors. The sultan, who only uses it for representative purposes, actually resides in the nearby Bait Al-Barakah palace.
The country’s eventful history is recalled not only by the outstanding display of exhibits in the National Museum, which was opened in 2016 and is situated opposite the palace, but also by the two well preserved forts on either side of the palace, Dshalali and Mirani. These were constructed between 1507 and 1650 when Muscat was under Portuguese control. Receptions for prominent rulers and diplomats have already been held in the palace, and the Sultan of Oman has acted as an intermediary in many international disputes affecting the Middle East. It could be said that, behind the scenes in world history, Muscat serves as a discreet but significant venue for negotiations.
A “must”: the gigantic Sultan Quabus mosque
Muscat has attracted some outstanding hotels and the Greater Muscat region has many kilometres of splendid beaches which are therefore never too crowded. Every district and every suburb in the Capital Area has its own appeal and can offer attractions which one should definitely experience. Included among them is the gigantic, snow-white Sultan Quabus mosque in the Al Gubrah district, half an hour by car from Muscat Old Town, which was built in the 1990s using 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone. It is claimed to be one of the largest mosques anywhere in the world. Surrounding its 50-metre high dome are five minarets, symbolising the five pillars of Islam. It has a chandelier decorated with Swarovski crystals, which is reputed to be the largest in the world, with a height of 14 metres. The 70 by 60 metre prayer mat, hand-knotted by 600 women over a period of three years, is said to be the second largest Persian carpet in the world. Weighing 22 tonnes, its individual pieces were transported from Nishapur in Iran to Muscat, where they were sewn together. Non-Muslims are allowed to view the mosque on certain days and at certain times, provided they are suitably dressed.
Bargaining is part of everyday life
No one who visits Muscat can fail to be impressed by the friendliness and hospitality of the city’s inhabitants, as well as the affection shown to children. Unlike in other Gulf states, locals and tourists use the same restaurants. And they come into even closer contact with one another in the Muthrah souk. It has been in existence for more than 200 years, but today the narrow alleyways of the market are no longer covered with palm leaves but with a modern roof, another example of the effective juxtaposition of old and new. Amidst all this bustle not one single trader fails to show civility in their efforts to sell wares to potential customers, and neither do they harass them. They remain friendly and polite, but they also expect their customers to haggle in the oriental way. Haggling as much as one likes is the way things are done here.
The well preserved 19th century houses, the port that was constructed as recently as the 1970s, the lively fish market – these are all features of Mutrah, as is the Corniche, the long seaside promenade like those of Abu Dhabi and Alexandria, Marseille and Monaco, to mention only a few examples. On a hill high above the Corniche of Mutrah stands the Ryam Park Monument, a colossal incense holder. This also serves as a signal: incense is burned in Oman when welcoming friends and guests – in the home and in hotels too.
Schwartz Editorial Office, Sabine Neumann & Horst Schwartz