Much like its Gulf counterparts, Muscat offers a glimpse into its luxurious ways and rich culture, as ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find out in the Omani capital
The heady smell of ripe dates, Omani halwa, perfumes, old leather, fish and frankincense burning from majmars (receptacles) emanated from the narrow alleys of Muttrak Souk, believed to be one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world. For centuries, these aromas have tantalized visitors and traders to dock at the crescent-shaped harbour of Muscat. ‘It’s Musk-ath’, intone the locals with strange guttural seriousness. We flounder and carry on, stumbling from the scent shops selling Amouage, Dunhill, Eternity, Escape and 212 (sans the branding and bottles) to boutiques spilling with khanjars (daggers) and handicrafts. Pakistani salesmen volunteered to teach us how to wear the chequered tasseled headscarf. Malayali shopkeepers daubed our wrists with perfumes and handsome Omanis wooed us with silver jewelry that overflowed from caskets and barrels.
Located on the strategic trade route to India and China, Oman was trading in dates and frankincense from the Dhofar region in the south since antiquity. Ships unloaded their goods on the wharf and that developed into an open-air market. When the Portuguese arrived on these shores to bolster their trading presence in the Strait of Hormuz and counter the Persians, Ottomans and Egyptians, they reclaimed land from the sea and transformed it into a makeshift souk made from mud and palm. Protected by the Hajar mountains hugging the coast, today the only Portuguese relics are the 16C seaside forts of Muttrah, Mirani and Jalali.
Dominating the Muttrah skyline is the mosaic onion dome and blue minaret of Masjid al-Rasool al-A’tham (Mosque of the Great Prophet) or Al-Lawatiya Mosque. The narrow stretch from the mosque to Khour Bimba is so tightly packed with cheek-by-jowl stalls that even sunlight does not filter through during the day! To the locals, it is Al Dhalam or the Market of Darkness. Not too long ago, shoppers needed lamps to find their destinations at a time when Oman was literally living in the dark ages!
There was no electricity, locals walked 10-15km for water, transportation was mainly on camels and donkeys while in some regions around Nizwa people still lived in caves. In 1970, the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said deposed his father to usher a wave of modernization. Born in Salalah, and schooled in England and India, the Sultan brought home his amassed knowledge while keeping the rich Omani culture intact. Natural reserves were tapped, roads were built and a vast hinterland dominated by bedouins and controlled by imams was integrated into the Sultanate of Oman. Today, the Sultan’s imprint is everywhere.
We walked by some Gujarati mansions down the waterfront promenade of Muttrah Corniche. The sultan’s luxury yacht Al Said, believed to be the most powerful in the world, sat still like a serf awaiting a royal decree. Perched on a hillock was a giant frankincense burner, the cultural icon of Oman. The road ascended past rugged mountains as we headed to the town of Old Muscat. Watchtowers on lofty crags once served as defense and communication; flags were used during the day while smoke/fire was used to send signals at night.
Muscat has quite a few museums – Bait al Baranda, Muscat Gate Museum and Omani French Museum, though we stopped by at Bait Al Zubair, the house of the Zubair family who served as ministers and advisers to the sultans. Renovated into a museum in 1998, it houses one of the finest private collections of Omani artefacts. Four galleries on the ground floor displayed portraits of various sultans of the Al Busaidi dynasty, khanjars, attire, traditional weapons, antique jewellery and household articles. In the garden stood specimens of a barasti (palm frond hut), falaj (ancient water distribution system), a souq, stone houses and boats denoting Oman’s maritime tradition. But it was the row of brightly coloured Arabian Oryx that stood outside in Warholian splendour that caught our eye.
Nearby, surrounded by wide boulevards and a complex of government buildings stood Qasr Al Alam or the Flag Palace, the Sultan’s ceremonial residence. Though the palace isn’t open to the public, the iron gates at the front afforded a good view of the cuboid building with flared blue and gold columns supporting the overhanging roof. Built in contemporary Islamic style, it was one of the six royal abodes spread across Oman.
Before long, we were driving towards our hotel past sandstone cliffs on one side and stunning seaside views of the harbour and the Omani Dive Centre on the other. We waited at a traffic signal outside a man-made tunnel through the mountain as if we were about to enter Ali Baba’s cave of treasures! The light turned green and we were transported to the amazing realm of Shangri La Barr al Jissah Resort, a complex of not one, but three plush hotels – Al Waha, Al Bandar and Al Husn. Our balcony overlooked the rugged cliffs, a large swimming pool and the tranquil Sea of Oman. More than the sea, floating from pool to pool in the currents of the man-made Lazy River was sheer joy.
Dinner was an elaborate Arabian meal at Kargeen Garden Café (literally Omani hut or wooden cottage). We chose the smoky open-air garden rather than the sit-down majlis with indoor seating. Mezze platter with salad, a mixed grill with Za’atar bread (flatbread seasoned with dried herbs), shuwa (slow cooked lamb shank) and fresh lemon mint disappeared in no time with apple-flavoured and julash (watermelon) sheeshas, ending the evening with some Moroccan tea and Turkish coffee.
The next day we were off to see the second opera house in the Middle East after Cairo! Thanks to his western education, the Sultan had set up the Royal Opera House, much to the consternation of his people about this profligate enterprise. Over time, the venue has silenced its critics, serving as a showcase of traditional Omani arts as well as ballets, orchestras and military brass bands. In its brief tenure, it had hosted Wynton Marsalis, Placido Domingo, London Philharmonic Orchestra and L Subramaniam. It was heartbreaking to learn that Yossou N’Dour had just performed a day earlier!
Muscat’s main attraction was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, its dome and 90 m high minaret towering above the skyline. This was the only mosque open to non-Muslims though women visitors had to cover their hair with scarves and dress conservatively. Four flanking minarets of 45.5 m marked the cardinal directions. The women’s prayer hall was simple as if the sculptor was warming up before the real thing – the main prayer hall. Ornate niches in blue and grey combos looked stunning while the jaw dropping German-made chandelier was a14 m suspension. The 70 × 60 m handwoven Persian carpet was the second largest single piece carpet in the world. Spread over 4,343 sq m, with 1.7 billion knots it weighed 21 tonnes and took four years to produce.
After our grand tour, we were ushered into the office where a friendly gentleman in a spotless dishdasha offered us books on Islam, hot kahwah (Omani coffee) and a platter of dates. We sipped the bittersweet decoction flavoured with cardamom but declined the dates. ‘No, no, I insist’, he urged. ‘There are nearly 700 types of dates known to man and we in Oman have about 150-200 varieties. But this is our finest. It’s called khalaas (over), because once you start, it’s soon over!’ We saw the friendly twinkle in his eye and at the near empty plate. We grabbed our handful knowing that our date with Muscat would also be Khalass. The End.
Getting there: Jet Airways flies direct to Muscat from Mumbai, Kochi and Trivandrum.
Where to stay: The city has several 5-star hotels like Intercontinental Muscat, Al Bustan, Chedi and Shangri La Barr al Jissah Resorts.
Where to Eat: Try local and Arabic fare at Kargeen Garden Café and Al Tarboosh or Indian cuisine at popular restaurants like Mumtaz Mahal and Bollywood.
For tourist information, visit http://www.omantourism.gov.om
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the May 2014 issue of JetWings International magazine.