Oman Day 8 – Muscat Ramble

Thursday 28 Feb. We spent the morning with Rashid, who took us to see some of the highlights of Muscat before lunch. We certainly packed it in – Grand Mosque, Opera House, Souq, Sultan’s Palace, National Museum. I took loads of photos, but really feel that I need to get to a PC to tweak them to do the sights justice. Here are a few, and I will come back and update them with improved versions once I can get my hands on decent RAW processing software.

The first item on the itinerary was the Grand Mosque, a gift to the people of Oman from Sultan Qaboos, with the intention of spreading a clear message of inclusive and peaceful Islam. It’s an impressive building, certainly on a par with the Sheikh Zayeed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, Through a knowledgeable and impassioned exposition of information about the mosque, Rashid also showed that he has a serious and thoughtful approach to his Ibadi Islam religion. (Ibadism, a school of Islam pre-dating Sunni and Shia denominations, is dominant in Oman and is noted for its realism, tolerance and preference for solving differences through dignity and reason, rather than confrontation).

I could drown you with photos and information, but I’ll try to include just the bare essentials and will set up a full Flickr page on the mosque in due course.

Right from the first approach, you get the sense that the building is intended to inspire awe and devotion. It combines places of worship (white marble) with places of enquiry, scholarship and administration (pink marble).

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

As you approach the central hall, there are many impressive views of the buildings.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

Before entering the main hall, Rashid showed us that this is also a place of learning and scholarship. An impressive door leads into a library

Inside the Library

where people may read, study and learn. There are also imams on the site who will give guidance to anyone who asks for help.

Then we entered the main hall of prayer, which is hugely impressive. It really is difficult to convey this in photos. Here’s an overall impression

and here are some other highlights as you walk around: A vast carpet, hand stitched in Iran by (I think) 43 women over four years, and valued at around 10 million pounds

Prayer Hall carpet

(interestingly, it has no lines in it to instruct worshippers how to line up – the Abu Dhabi mosque does – but apparently they line up OK anyway. See later for more lines). The detailing all around is very intricate and beautifully done

Prayer Hall - ceiling detail

and there are detailed carvings and mosaics all around the walls. Some are functional – this contains copies of the Quran

Niche inside Prayer Hall

some are decorative

Here’s a set of individual Quran chapters laid out in a niche.

and here’s a view of the central dome and massive (Austrian crystal) chandelier.

Prayer Hall - chandelier and carpet

Outside the main hall of worship are several courtyards where worshippers can find a place when the main hall is full.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

In the above photo you can also see carved script running around the walls; the entire Quran is written in the fabric of the buildings – albeit in a highly caligraphic style which is difficult to read, apparently.

The lines you see in these courtyards are lines along which (male only) worshippers stand and kneel to pray. The number of courtyards with these lines in really underlines that the mosque can accommodate a huge number of worshippers, the vast majority of whom will be male.

Females are by no means excluded, oh, no, absolutely not. Here is the hall where women can worship.

Women's Prayer Hall

As you can see it’s much smaller than the spaces reserved for male worshippers. This is because it is apparently OK for women to pray at home, but men have a duty to attend a mosque to pray if they can. Women pray separately from men in order that the men don’t lose focus on the act of worship by catching sight of a fetching female, albeit one wrapped up in a scarf.

For a fan of architectural photography such as myself, there are many opportunities for striking photos.

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

We left the mosque with one final view

The Grand Mosque, Muscat

before heading to our next stop – the Opera House. This is a pretty monumental slab of architecture – modern because recently built (at the behest of the Sultan, who was educated in England and acquired a taste for opera there, poor sap).

The Royal Opera House, Muscat

Inside is, as you’d expect, very nicely done, with a posh ticket hall leading to the auditorium.

Ticket Office, Inside the Royal Opera House, Muscat

(on the extreme left you can see the security scanner whch prompted the nice guard chappie there to relieve me of my Swiss army knife for the duration of our visit, just in case I had considered running amok with it). The auditorium itself is large but not huge – a capacity of 1,100 poor unfortunates – and with a very large royal box (not a surprise, given whose idea the building was).

It’s all very comfortable, with screens in the back of each seat showing the translations which are so critical when trying to make some kind of sense of the ludicrous plots that are unfolding before you.

You may have guessed that I don’t like opera, and you’d be right. It’s the singing that I hate, mainly. In fairness the auditorium is also used for ballet, orchestral, local and international song and theatre productions…

Anyhoo – our next stop was the Souq – Muscat Souq is in an area of the town called Mutrah. Jane was looking for some of the kind of glass receptacles that were used on our camp majlis tables:

and we thought, of course, “Souq and ye shall find”. So we souqht, among the many colourful boutiques:

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

and were offered many, many opportunities to buy all sorts of things, but mainly Kashmiri cloth and incense; but the requisite glassware was not around, although there were some other nice scenes.

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

Muscat Souq Scene

Most places were selling tourist tat, and so our occidental appearance was very much grist to the mill of the local importunate selling technique. We just said “shukran” (meaning literally “thank you” but in this context “no, thank you” and eventually escaped so that we could visit our next stop, the fortifications and Sultan’s palace on the outskirts of Muscat.

The Royal Palace is stylistically a bit off the mainstream in my humble opinion – it looks more like something that Gaudi might have dreamt up.

Royal Palace, Muscat

Overlooking it is Al Mirani Fort, one of a pair of ancient forts guarding Muscat from those marauding Riffs from Nizwa (the other is called Al Jalali and is across the harbour from Al Mirani).

Al Mirani Fort, Muscat

As you look away from the Royal Palace, you see a monumental street with monumental buildings and, at the end of it, the National Museum.

National Museum, Muscat, Oman

I’m not normally a great one for museums and my back and feet were aching for some respite – lunch, say; but in we went. The museum is not vast but the scope of its exhibits is, covering Oman’s prehistory and history, renaissance, relationships with the world, Islam, heritage, maritime history and the land and the people. There’s an airy central atrium

with lots of exhibition halls going off it. Some things were very striking, such as the relief map of an irrigation system from mother well, through habitations and finally to the plantations

Sample irrigation plan

which, if you look closely, is beautifully done in layered wood to show the contours.

Sample irrigation plan

Another such relief map illustrates clearly how Muscat nestles among mountains.

Muscat Harbour relief in wood and photo

We also found an exhibit hall dedicated to the “beehive tombs”

and a selection of very imposing gates such as this one

which was made in 1126 and guarded the entrance to ash-Shibak fort. If you look closely, you can see the UK Royal Coat of Arms among the other calligraphic, floral and animal motifs. It reflects the close ties between Oman and the British East India Company in the time of the Mughals.

After such a sprint round the tourist boxes-to-be-ticked, we were ready for a break, and Rashid took us to the Turkish House for a seafood meal – wonderfully grilled prawns and some sort of snapper, accompanied by calamari, hummus, a spinach salad and some wonderful flatbread – a nice way to round off the day’s touristing.

By the time we’d finished lunch (around 2.30pm) the traffic had really built up, as this was a Thursday and therefore people were heading out for the weekend. So it was a bit of a grind to get back to the hotel, but we made it in time for (complimentary) afternoon tea followed by (complimentary) G&T and an opportunity for me to update the blog. We have one more day in Muscat and you’ll simply have to read the next instalment to find out how that went.

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