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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.

Day 10 – High points and high winds!

September 24th. As we breakfasted in the warm sunshine aboard Perla, it was difficult to believe that we were effectively pinned into the Milna marina by a coming storm – things were calm and all my weather apps were forecasting 25°, light showers and a moderate breeze. But Filip warned us, as we set out for our day visiting the highlights of Brač, that we might need rain jackets and warm clothing. As we left Perla the wind had risen a notch and there were clouds in the sky, but the sun still shone and it was hot.

Our first port of call was Vidova Gora, a place we had hiked up to in the previous week. It was windy at the top and the visibility was even poorer than it had been the first time we were up there. This made it slightly difficult for Filip, who was trying to point out various islands and other things that we could have seen had it been clearer. He did explain the derivation of the name Vidova Gora, which has the same root as that of Saint Vitus (best known in the UK for his dance). St. Vitus is patron of many things, including dance and the arts for the northern Slavs, and of seeing, or vision, for southern Slavs – hence the name for this, the highest peak (or “penk” as the sign has it) in the Adriatic islands.

Our next stop was in a small town called “Pučišca”. In Croatian, the č is pronounced “ch” as is “cheese”; the š as “sh” and the c as “ts”. So good luck with getting the pronunciation of this town right. Apparently many of the locals can’t.

Like so many Croatian places, Pučišca is a handsome place

and its claim to fame is that it has a stonemasonry school (“Klesarska škola” in Croatian). Since Brač is famous for its white limestone (to be found in Diocletian’s Palace in Split, bits of St. Mark’s square in Venice and other notable places, although not, probably, the White House), it’s good to see that investment is being made to maintain and develop the skills of working it.

Our time there was sadly short, as it is an interesting place to visit. We had an explanatory description and a bit of a technique demonstration from a professor at the school, Siniša Martinić, against a background of the students hammering and chiseling away. Here is a link to some video clips of the place.

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Here’s the template for the item that Siniša was using as a demo:

and here’s how it’s coming on:

If reproducing a complex shape, a kind of 3D manual pantograph arrangement is used.

The shape to be reproduced is in the foreground, and the odd-looking frame in the background is used to measure specific dimensions to ensure correct reproduction.

Siniša also showed us different sorts of stone. Some, from near the surface, has fossils clearly visible in it

and some is from deeper and has fewer fossils visible.

(The lump of stone from which this piece is carved would set you back €3,000, and the work to complete it would cost you an extra €6,000. Just so you know.)

Everything done at the school is done by hand – no machinery or power tools. If polishing is needed, the process is done by hand, using eight successively finer diamond pads, like the ones shown here.

It would have been great to have spent more time there, but the scale and scope of the storm started to become apparent and so we left the stonemason school in a hurry… the harbour in Pučišca was being whipped by a strong wind (the other image in the set is the BBC Weather App’s forecast of moderate breeze!)

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And, as we ran for a cafe, we realised that the gusts were really very strong – outside tables and chairs were going flying and awnings were in danger of being ripped apart. The cafe we got to had a really tough time with ladders and rope to secure their awning. I would have videoed it, but that seemed a bit ghoulish, so I just drank their coffee instead.

After our coffee break, the script called for us to visit a place called Škrip, where there was a historical and archeological museum and also an olive oil museum, which sounds a bit niche. On the way, we could clearly see from our minibus how the wind was whipping up the waves, and how sensible had been the decision of our gulet captain to stay put for the day, rather than strike out for a different destination.

The wind is my introduction to the word “katabatic”. The locals call it “bura” or “bora” and it is caused by the clash of continental and adriatic weather systems. A major characteristic is strong gusts rather than simple raw wind speed, and what we experienced was actually quite light – 200 kph gusts have been registered in the past, apparently.

In our first museum in Škrip, a delightful lady called Andrea took us through a rapid overview of the history and culture of the island over the centuries, since there have been people living here since at least 900BC. At various stages in the island’s history there have been three alphabets in use: latin, cyrillic and glagolitic. This is terrifically important as one characteristic which defines the change from prehistory to history is the development of written language. So one display in the museum formed my introduction to glagolitic script

while a second was a reproduction of one of the earliest recorded instances of the cyrillic script used on the island.

Andrea was a real story-teller and covered many of the aspects of society as it developed on the island, with too much detail to record here. And then it was time to go and meet another charming hostess, called Dora, who looked after us as we went to the olive oil museum round the corner.

An olive oil museum sounds rather niche, and it is in fact quite a small place – but they gave us a nice lunch (I have a photograph of the spread of tapenades, prosciutto, bread, local cheese, tomatoes from their garden, marinaded olives, locally baked bread and fig jam, but my religious principles forbid me from sharing it, of course). After lunch, Dora explained how the process of making olive oil used to work, with a huge old wooden mill to create a paste from the olives and an impressively large press to extract the oil from the paste (which was put in rope baskets to filter out much of the remaining bits). Cold water was used at first, but still there was oil in the paste, so a second pressing used to be done with hot water, resulting in oil which was edible but not very nice. To get the last knockings out of the paste, boiling water was used, and the result was inedible, but could be used in, for example, oil lamps. So “cold-pressed” was the good oil, and you’ll see that on many an olive oil label these days. But all the olive oil one buys today is electrically extracted and with cold water, so it’s all cold-pressed. If it says it on the label, it’s because the marketing department put it there, and is nothing to do with the basic quality of the oil – the key phrase is “virgin” which (according to Dora at least) refers to oil produced no more than 24 hours after picking.

One of the recurring themes of our travels in Croatia is the presence of locally-produced liqueur wherever we have gone. The olive oil museum was no exception, and produced a sour cherry liqueur for us to taste which was very nice but not significantly better than others we had tried. But they also produced an olive liqueur, which was strikingly different… in a good way… so we now have two bottles of Croatian liqueur to take home – cornelian cherry and olive. Our New Year celebrations will be considerably enriched, I think.

Despite unpropitious weather, we had an absorbing day, indeed quite an exciting one at times! And when we got back to Perla, we found that the crew had set things up so that we could still have dinner on the deck, protected from the wind by screens and warmed by blankets as needed. And once again, we had a great dinner with much conversation, great food and good local wine. Here we all are – our tour group, and Filip and the boat crew:

We will stay on Brač tomorrow, so stay tuned to see what we get up to. For now, good night!