Tag Archives: Architecture

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 5 (I) – Split….

19th September. Now that I am a gentleman of leisure, one of the annoying aspects of being on holiday is having to get up early. An alarm set for 0630 seems to be par for the course for this holiday, bringing back dark memories of life as an employee, whereas having to set an alarm at all in normal life is a bit of a bore and if one has to do it, it should be no earlier than 0730. So the news from Željko that we would have to depart our hotel at 0600 in order to be on an 0630 catamarn bound for the town of Split was met with something of a groan. It turned out, as did so many of his plans, to be a good idea, but coherent thought, smooth co-ordination and swift action at 0500 are not my forte.

Anyhoo…at 0600 we bundled our cases onto a bus and stumbled down to the harbour in Bol, just as the sun was going about his (or her) business for the day.

and the catamaran duly arrived

to take us to Split, a journey of just over an hour to a very handsome town. At one stage, it used to be just this place on the Dalmatian coast, until this Roman chap, Diocles, came along, liked the weather and the local availability of fine (Brač) stone, and decided it would be just the spot to retire to once he stopped bothering about being Emperor, so he had a big Palace built there, which now forms about half of the old town of Split.

Željko had arranged for us to have a guided tour, and we met Malenka, who took us round the main sights of the Palace. As we went round, the reason for our very early departure became clear – the Palace fills with tourists very quickly, and by getting there promptly we were actually able to see it when it wasn’t mobbed. It’s an impressive site, with some of the original construction supplemented by modern reconstruction.

Some of the locals actually live within the confines of the palace; people had set up house there before its historical (and touristic) value was truly recognised, and so there are homes and apartments dotted around the site. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site, which is in part funding the reconstruction, and Malenka explained that UNESCO rules were that any reconstruction work had to be clearly recognisable as such. So, in the photo below, it is quite clear to see which is original tilework and which is modern

as it is with this mosaic.

I shan’t bore you with too many photos of the Palace – go and see it for yourself, and get a guided tour to give you some extra insight as you go round, is my recommendation. But there are some nice courtyards off the main streets

as a stark contrast to the crowded Hell that is “souvenir alley”, the corridor leading from the South Gate.

The sheer number of tourists has (unsurprisingly) had its impact. For example, there’s one square which used to have tables and chairs set out outside a restaurant, but now they are limited to setting up places on the steps.

Outside the confines of the Palace proper, there are some scenic corners

and you can see where building started by leaning extra houses against the Palace walls.

There is a large, sprawling and busy market with many opportunities to buy local produce (Jane bought some of the local tangerines which were, indeed, very tangy)

and the area around the Palace is, generally, very crowded.

That being the case, we decided to take up on a suggestion from Malenka and head over to a quieter aera of Split, towards the Marjan Forest Park (Šuma Marjan), which is on a hill to the north-east of the harbour.

(in the middle of the hill in the photo above, you can see the terrace of the bar ViDiLiCi where we stopped for a coffee and a beer). It’s a pleasant walk up a stepped road

and the terrace I mention above has a good view over the town

as has the walk back down towards the town.

All too soon we had to reconvene to catch the (somewhat knee-crunchingly cramped) tour bus to take us to the next stage of the day, in the Krka National Park, which held the promise of some spectacular scenery. So, to see this, read on, dear reader, read on….

Breathless in Cusco

16th April 2018

After the toils and travails of walking up to Machu Picchu, I was looking forward to some less relentless tourism – a visit to Cusco, the city that was the centre of the Inca empire in its glory days.

The journey from Machu Picchu involved once again catching the train to Ollantaytambo, where we had a chat with a couple from Bristol who were nearer the start of their South American adventure than the end. Remarkably, the train staff, having served drinks and snacks, then staged a fashion show with a view to selling us some fine examples of Andean costumery. I bet no-one told them about this sort of thing during careers guidance at school.

The train journey was followed by two hours of purgatory in a taxi. The driver seemed to be a devotee of a particularly tedious variant of traditional Peruvian music which he started playing to us, unasked. It involved a low-quality synthesised guitar/harp/keyboard background to a couple of guys who mainly shouted things like “Ariba!”, “chicos!”, “Cusco!”, “senoritas”, “cerveza!” and so on, and who very rarely actually sang anything recognisable as a tune. At every change of track, I prayed for some variety, but no – tempo, key and harmonic structure, involving just two chords, carried on unabated. I hope the driver enjoyed the music, otherwise there were three of us in the car who hated the music.

Since Cusco’s altitude, at 3,400m above sea level, is somewhat higher than anything I’d experienced before, I was expecting perforce to have to take things gently. In the event, I didn’t suffer from altitude sickness – but I did suffer from altitude. The visit’s prospect of a full day at leisure, something that we’d come to realise is important to factor in to long holidays such as ours, was thus very alluring.

However, we still had to be ready at 0830 to be taken on a guided tour of the city and its environs – who says tourism is relaxing, eh? We were reunited with Camila, our Sacred Valley guide, and she started off by taking us up to Cristo Blanco – the white statue of Jesus Christ which oversees the city. The site offers an excellent view over Cusco.

Cusco - City View

After this, we went to the nearby Inca site of Saqsaywaman. This was a citadel, with sections originally built by the Killke people, with the Incas adding to it from the 13th century. It’s a large site, with two temples either side of a huge plaza, large enough to hold several thousand people for ceremonial occasions. This is a panorama across the huge main Temple of the Sun, taken from the other temple on the site.

(Note: I had to walk up about 30 largish Inca-style steps to bring you this photo, at the top of which I had to sit down for a couple of minutes, since this site is at 3,700m altitude. So, thank you. Thank you for appreciating the effort I’ve had to make to bring you this educational piece.)

As you can see, the main temple is very substantial (indeed, the whole site occupies some 3,000 hectares). The wall is some 400 metres long, and the estimated volume of stone in the temple is 6,000 cubic metres. The stones in the bottom layers of that wall are vast, with the largest estimated to weigh 125 tonnes.

Saqsaywaman - Inca stonework

and yet, you can clearly see the precision with which the stones have been fitted together, with no mortar, and no room even to slide a piece of paper between the stones. The precision of construction and the intricacy of interlocking design are thought to have been the reasons that the site has survived Cusco’s various devastating earthquakes.

To remind visitors that there was doubtless a ceremonial aspect to the site involving the sacrifice of llamas, there are camelids on the site, in this case alpacas, both long- and short-haired varieties; we were particularly taken with this cute little one which can only have been days old.

After the visit to Saqsaywaman, it was time to head back into Cusco proper, where Camila took us to a well-known market called San Pedro (in the square outside St. Peter’s Church).

Before going in, she warned us to take only essential items, as the risk of pickpockets was high.

The San Pedro market was similar in concept to the San Francisco market we’d visited in Quito – organised in sections and with a food court – but much larger and more crowded (hence better turf for pickpockets, I suppose – at any rate we escaped unscathed in that respect). Like all such markets it’s very interesting, varied and colourful.

San Pedro Market Scene

San Pedro Market Scene

San Pedro Market Scene

San Pedro Market Scene

San Pedro Market Scene

There are plenty of stalls offering fabrics and clothes; and if they don’t have your size, they can easily make adjustments for you there and then.

San Pedro Market Scene

San Pedro Market Scene

As well as the official stallholders, there are people selling from ad hoc locations just sitting on the floor (they need the relevant stallholder’s permission to do this). This one, for example, was selling cuy (guinea pig), and you could take your pick – raw or cooked!

San Pedro Market Scene

After the bustle of the market, it was time to make things more thoughtful and spiritual, with a visit to a major temple site in Cusco, called Qorichanka. This was the most important temple in the Inca empire (of which Cusco was the capital, as you’ll know, because you’ve been keeping up).

Church of Santa Domingo

Since this can roughly be translated as “the place with gold”, you’ll not be surprised to learn that it was pillaged by the Spanish when they arrived. Indeed, having stolen the gold, they destroyed much of what was left in building the Church of San Domingo which stands there now. However, some of the original Inca stonework survives, and, indeed supports parts of the church.

Qorikancha Temples of the Sun and Moon

There were three temples on the original site – the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of Venus and the Stars. The type of stonework was the most sophisticated and labour-intensive sort, called ashlar masonry, involving cuboid blocks of similar size, fashioned to the most exacting standards in order to fit together with complete precision.

Qorikancha Temples of the Sun and Moon

Here you can see the precision involved; even though the lines of the stone are not necessarily completely straight, the fit is as snug as a very snug thing indeed.

Qorikancha Temples of the Sun and Moon

and the precision of alignment of the various components very high.

Qorikancha Temples of the Sun and Moon

This was why the Inca remains have survived Cusco’s devastating earthquakes, whereas the church has had to be rebuilt. Hah!

Camila pointed out one other feature which underlined how clever the Incas were. As I say, the stonework was made to great precision (indeed, modern “experts” have failed to disassemble the remnants of the temple stonework without damage, trying to understand how the ashlar masonry worked, and have been unable to reassemble it with the original precision).

Qorikancha Temples of the Sun and Moon

The protuberance top left is actually part of a sundial, very carefully calibrated to allow the Incas to understand the time and the seasons. Clever chaps, the Incas.

We were allowed to photograph as much of the Inca work as we liked, but prohibited from photographing the colonial/catholic religious parts of the site. In theory this is out of respect (cameras can be noisy in use; and there is nothing in the world of photography more dispiriting than seeing someone waving a selfie stick around in a place of worship) and possibly because camera flash light can be damaging, and there are (too many) people in this world who don’t even realise that their camera is using flash, far less understand how to stop it doing so. In practice, I actually believe it’s so they can sell you postcards.

The next place we visited, and the final one on our tour, was the cathedral, on the (handsome) main square of Cusco.

No, they don’t let you take photos inside there, either, so this is all you get. However, we were amused by the stories that Camila told us of the rivalry between the cathedral (left, above) and the Franciscan church (the other slab of masonry in the photo). There was politial point scoring on every side, with the cathedral having to add elaborate decoration on the front and a dome on top to match the (very ritzy) façade and dome of the Franciscan church; to add two other chapels to make it larger than the Franciscan church; and to forbid the Franciscans from using a part of the building for religious purposes to limit the size of the Franciscan church so that the cathedral was actually larger.

Despite not being able to do anything without sitting down and taking a rest every few minutes, despite the occasionally ridiculous and noisy traffic and despite the difficulty sleeping because of the resonant quality of the hotel plumbing and/or the barking dogs, I liked Cusco a lot. It felt safer, it was more compact, and it had more history to be explored than other South American cities and it has been a pleasure to be here.

A train, a boat and planes lie between us and going home, so stay tuned. But for now it’s time for lunch. (Time For The Bar happened about halfway through the above.)