The very name of this exotic sultanate has always seemed an epitome of fairytale. Closed off to all visitors for so long, it seemed to hold endless secrets somewhere among the shifting sands of Arabia. Visiting it seemed an impossible feat, like going into a fairytale. Little did I know…
Oman was not always a hermit of nations. In 17-18th centuries the Sultanate of Oman was a dominant seafaring empire which controlled the Indian Ocean and possessed a network outposts in an arch stretching from Mozambique all the way to India. Oman successfully held off and defeated the Portuguese and only in 19th century did the British and the French gradually subdue it. In Arabia only the Oman’s ruler is titled “sultan” – which is the most important title in the East. (The king of Saudi Arabia does call himself “the guardian of Mecca and Medina”, which is more prestigious from the religious point of view, the word “king” used to translate it into Western languages being a kind of a misnomer.) Moreover, the Oman’s dynasty is by far the oldest of the Gulf dynasties. Thus when the Arab rulers gather, the sultan of Oman possesses a special weight among them – rather like the sultan of Brunei among the Muslim rulers of South East Asia. In the case of Oman though the historic importance is not supported by economic might – among the Gulf states Oman has long been the poorest, endowed with the least oil. Yemen is poorer still but it’s not in the Gulf. In recent times Oman has embarked on an energised development track, to a great extent inspired by the current sultan Qaboos, a unique figure.
I had considered flying to Oman from Dubai or combining it with Bahrain or Kuwait on a sort of an air triangle. Soon I realised that it was not worth it price-wise, and then I came across information that Dubai is connected to Oman by a regular bus! Which is ridiculously cheap – about 10 euros. Actually taking a physical bus seemed a lot more interesting too. And so I did -not with some difficulties, as the office of the Oman’s company that provides the link is well hidden in Dubai’s Deira, and there is no bus station as such. Soon though I find myself on the bus wondering if the border guards in Oman are aware of the new rules freeing me from the visa requirement?
No problem at all! Crossing the border was quick as a flash. The bus did have to stop three times, with intervals of several kilometres – first on the UAE border, then Oman border guard, then the Oman customs. On the last stop all the bags had to be removed from the bus and lined up for a friendly dog to sniff. Last time I went through such an old fashioned check was in Paraguay customs as I took an endless bus over Chaco from Bolivia.
The bus reaches Muscat about 10pm at night. The smartphones have transformed the way we travel – as I’d downloaded a map of Muscat, even in the dark of the night I easily found my hotel, which was some 20 minutes walk from the bus stop. The next morning a set off for a walk around Old Muscat.
The geography of Muscat is rather extraordinary. The capital of Oman is built on the ocean coast among the hills. The hills separate it into many valleys which historically used to be separate settlements, and to get from one to the other you need to drive several km. Therefore Muscat stretches along the coast for some 30 km. Its major areas are Old Muscat, Mutrah, Ruwi and Qurm. The sultan lives in Old Muscat, surrounded by fortresses, museums and administrative buildings, but no hotels are located there. The hotels are either in the business centre of Ruwi, the touristic and port centre of Mutrah or in posh expat area of Qurm. I stayed in a middle range Mutrah Hotel about midway between Ruwi and Mutrah.
On my first morning in Muscat I passed through the old souk to the Mutrah Corniche. First sighting of the sea:
Suddenly the seafront opens in front of you in all its glory:
Dolphins are the symbol of Muscat. You often see them – as a sculpture and sometimes even live in the sea!
One of the many fortresses that the Portuguese built in and around Muscat. They took this regions for a short time at a time of Oman’s weakness. Uniquely the sultanate managed to rebuild its strength and to expel the Europeans! Stopping the expansion of the West for some 300 years.
As I walk on the waterfront in the direction of Old Muscat – some 4 km – I look back at the Mutrah port:
A huge entertainment complex is finished off with a giant incense burner on the top. No coincidence – the incenses are the famous product of Oman. You have to visit the park to climb the lookout, however to the left there was an open guard tower that I headed for.
The views from there over the surrounding rocks:
And back at Mutrah:
Finally after about 2 hours leisurely walk in the sun – the gates of Old Muscat.
You can climb the gates and take a look at the old city:
Actually there is a museum upstairs, but I never managed to catch it open. The doors look intriguing:
The main draw of Old Muscat is surely the Sultan Qaboos Palace. A first look taken from the main roundabout:
The palace was commissioned by Qaboos in 1970s, which is reflected in its retro inspired architecture. The previous sultan, the father of Qaboos, was an arch conservative. He banished all traces of modernity from Oman – no cars, no modern medicine, not even sunglasses were allowed to enter. Very few foreigners could visit the country. Finally in a bloodless palace coup Qaboos overthrew his father and embarked on a program of reforms – a very gradual one, but transformative nonetheless. This is quite a contrast to the Emirates which have embraced modernity with seemingly insatiable thirst, as well as to Saudi Arabia that seems proud of its backwardness. The Sultan is extremely popular. He is not married and has no children – it is an open secret that he is gay. Nevertheless he enjoys full respect and authority in his sultanate. He will probably be succeeded by one of his removed cousins in the male line.
The palace is therefore a signature building. For the Omanis in 1970s, it must have looked like a UFO that landed in the middle of Old Muscat.
The exotic coat of arms of Oman, omnipresent in the country. I think it’s awesome. In the middle is the khanjar, a traditional Omani bent dagger.
Looking back at the palace square. The Omanis are quite different from the other Arabs. Not only do they follow their own version of Islam, the so-called Ibadi faith. They are much less corroded by the wealth and the extreme consumption boom. These are proud but very friendly and hospitable people. You notice it on every turn – they greet you on the streets with a smile, they stop to help you find your way – no money needed, just so. They are also very handsome – you can see the mix of the Arabic and the black features. No surprise, given that for centuries Oman ruled East Africa!
After marvelling at the palace, I headed for Bait az-Zubair museum. Very tastefully curated, more like an art gallery, it speaks of various aspects of Omani life and culture.
But I liked the most the museum café, choke full of various art books – extremely well chosen at that! I must admit I got stuck in that café for some four hours. It is situated in an old Omani house and of course offers a great latte. But the books! The contrast between the exotic city and a cutting edge art literature couldn’t be starker.
As the museum café closed, I discovered that the darkness had already fallen. I walked back. The Sultan’s palace by night:
A mosque next to the palace:
Another Portuguese fortress, right above the palace. Fascinating to roam the empty streets.
A mysterious looking palace from the Old Muscat seafront:
Through a tunnel in the hill I returned to the Mutrah seafront and to my hotel. The next morning I was to discover the rest of Muscat.