Day 22: Muscat, Oman
ABOARD OCEANIA’S NAUTICA — Probably not on many bucket lists, this ancient port city on the southeast coast of the Arabian Peninsula actually was on our “if we can get there list,” and so, was a factor in deciding to take this cruise. Stu did a report on Oman in 7th grade and has been intrigued with the place ever since. Today, a half-century later, he finally got there.
Oman today is a completely different country than the one Stu reported on. Oil revenues, modest by the standards of the Persian Gulf region, have been wisely invested under the leadership of forward-looking Sultan Qaboos, beginning in 1970. This has transformed Oman from an almost medieval place to a modern country. Free education and free quality health care are available to all Omani citizens. Electricity, roads and schools have reached even remote villages.
With Nautica secured to the dock by 8:00 a.m. and scheduled to depart by 6:00 p.m. the opportunities to explore the Muscat area were a bit constrained, although six or eight excursions were offered from the boat, including an 8-hour trip.
The city of Muscat is a startling contrast to Bombay — clean, safe and uncrowded. Ravi, our shore excursion guide was from India, and he emphasized the contrast. He said he found the Omani people very friendly and hospitable. In fact, 25 percent of Oman’s population of approximately three million people are foreigners. Most come from South Asia, like Ravi, but also from Europe and even Zanzibar. Foreigners hold many jobs in construction and services, but are generally not allowed to become citizens and must return home every two years to renew visas.
The Muscat that we saw on our excursion is a thoroughly modern city, with excellent roads, including super highways, modern shopping malls, huge, high-end auto dealerships, and many modern villas, all in an updated version of traditional architecture. With the exception of gasoline, which costs less than water in this desert country, the cost of living is high.
The most expensive thing we saw had to be the Grand Mosque, where thousands of faithful can pray at once. Built between 1995 and 2001 and financed entirely by the Sultan, the men’s prayer room is lined with gleaming white Carrera marble, inlaid mosaics and French-made stained glass windows. The 4,000 square meter floor is covered by a hand-knotted Persian carpet created on-site over four years by 600 young women and girls from Iran. The ceiling is paneled in Malaysian teak and adorned with Swarovski crystal chandeliers, including one 46 feet tall, weighing eight tons, and illuminated with 1,122 bulbs. As Ravi showed us the much smaller and less elaborate women’s prayer room he explained that women are not obliged to attend mosque but could pray at home.
On our way to and at the Muttrah Souk (or market), we noticed the long, white gowns and embroidered caps worn by Omani men and the often black gowns or abayas on women, although style and color varied. There is no requirement that women be covered but tradition is stronger in some families than others. The Souk is a large and lively place with scores, probably hundreds of vendors, mostly of clothing, jewelry and perfumes and other items appealing to tourists. We were searching for spices and finally found one vendor, wearing a t-shirt, where we purchased some curries and a garlic-chili paste with a captivating aroma.
Our excursion continued at the Bait Al Zubair Musuem, or the House of Zubair, where, in addition to getting oriented with a map of Oman and lineage chart of the Al Busaidi family, the ruling dynasty, we perused Zubair family collections of Omani artifacts. These include swords, guns, daggers, clothing, jewelry and household items.
We concluded with a stop at the Qasr Al Alam Royal Palace, one of eight Royal Palaces in the country. This one is not a residential palace, but a ceremonial one, really the Sultan’s office. The modern, impressive building dates from 1970 but sits between two 16th century Portuguese fortresses, presenting an apt image for this modernizing, yet traditional country and city.