Muscat, OMAN, October 20-21 – Our approach into Muscat reminded us that we were definitely coming into the desert. Rugged barren rock mountains, and sand sand sand, alongside the glimmering Gulf of Oman. In the 1500s the Portuguese sea traders came to occupy this area, followed by the French, and ultimately the British who made this place a protectorate until the 1970s. Discovered in the mid-70s, the main resource in Oman is still oil – producing 1 million barrels a day with a large international export market, including the U.S. Today, natural gas is also exported … 10.4 million tons of gas exported internationally. Muscat is not the glitzy high rises of Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi. This is the more traditional development albeit with everything ultra-modern. Our beachside hotel, The Chedi, is an exceptional ‘oasis’ in the desert.
On our first afternoon we drove down the coast to ‘old Muscat’ to the main marina where we boarded a large catamaran for a private late afternoon cruise along the scenic historic coastline, enjoying a magnificent desert sunset, as well as cocktails, wines and canapés. It is a glorious time of day to be out on the water. We’re a happy group of people. Cruising past the old Portuguese forts (from the 1500s), we see the names of the old trading ships that visited here, as well as the Sultan’s large white seaside palace. The exotic coastal architecture and gentle breeze provoke thoughts of Arabian nights as the moon glistens high in the sky, while the water is calm black ink beneath us. We returned relaxed to our sumptuous Chedi.
The next morning we began exploring Muscat with a visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. We take care to be dressed appropriately out of respect for the local Islamic culture. Over 70% of the almost 5 million Omani population is Ibadi Islam, a more progressive, less conservative side of the religion. Ibadi still pray five times a day, but it’s not mandatory if you are busy. In fact, all religions are welcome in Oman. In terms of religion, it’s an open community. Women in Oman are allowed to work and drive. While Omani women generally wear black outside their homes, some traditions are loosening and women sometimes wear more colorful attire.
The exquisite Grand Mosque is an extraordinary sight to behold, with its 5 minarets, representing the 5 ‘pillars’ of Islam. Built as a gift by the Sultan to his people, the mosque took 6 years to complete (1995-2001). This grand and palatial place holds up to 20,000 worshipers. It is a combination of different architecture … including Turkish, Moroccan, Iranian, Indian, & Burmese. While the style is Omani, the amazing materials came from all over these areas as well as gigantic fine wool woven carpets from Scotland and Persia. The one in the main men’s prayer hall weighs over 21 tons. The huge Swarovski crystal chandelier weighs over 8 tons. The marble floors of the Mosque are chilled as everyone must remove shoes to visit. Women and men are separated in prayer, avoiding distraction. Children may not enter during prayer times – but they can go to the Mosque’s Koranic school to learn Koran. Before prayers all go to the ablution room to wash. This place is extraordinary beyond belief.
We continued back to ‘old town’ to visit the Sultan’s official palace … just a photo stop for us, but the resting place of foreign royals and dignitaries. This palace situated between the two old Portuguese forts of Mirani and Jalali was built in the early 1500s. The Sultan enjoys seven palaces in Oman. We drove along the attractive waterfront ‘Corniche’, headed to the Muttrah Souk. It’s a labyrinth of unending alleyways beckoning with a plethora of merchandise such as local fabrics, exotic Oriental spices, perfumes, and richly handicraft artifacts. It’s a busy place, a frenetic hub of Muscat’s old quarter. This is living history … an unusual and exciting experience for us. Scents of exotic Arabian perfumes and spices. One of the local specialties are the Omani Khanjars (daggers) – formerly made with rhino horn scabbards and encrusted with precious stones. Today these are made with aluminum and silver with camel bone handles, and no precious gems. Many of the little shops carried strands of old trade beads, silver jewellery, handicrafts in copper, exotic wood, leather, and camel bone. Colorful hand made Omani traditional costumes and pashminas abound.
Our lunch is at the excellent Indus Restaurant, next to the Muscat Opera House. It’s an exotic lunch of the very finest Indian cuisine. We enjoyed the varied sampling courses that were offered. It was decided that the ‘call of the Chedi’ was just too alluring to all … and so our afternoon private museum visit became a leisurely afternoon to enjoy all the pleasures of our seaside hotel – the spectacular spa and the massive lagoon pool, the long beach and warm gulf waters. Dinner continued the relaxed theme of the afternoon with all enjoying as little or as much indulgence as desired.
An early morning start for us to depart Oman. There’s anticipation and excitement … we’re headed southwest, this time right to the equator. Into Africa! On to the high savanna plains of the great Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Our destination is Kenya’s famed Masai Mara, contiguous with the Serengeti National Park. Wild Kingdom … here we come.