If I had to choose a crayon from a box of Crayola 64s to color Muscat, it would simply be white. From its pristine white architecture set against the sepia-toned Hajar Mountains to the crisp white dishdashas worn by Omani men, Muscat has a uniform feel – clean, modern, orderly and bathed in a white glow. There’s a bit of tan mixed into some of the design, but mostly it’s a white phoenix rising from the surrounding desert.
Herb and I had signed on for a tour of the city’s highlights. At first glance, Oman’s capital was a sharp contrast to the more rural, old-world feel of Salalah. But the commentary from our guide Yusef was surprisingly similar, focusing on Sultan Qaboos, who brought the country out of isolation and wove it into a modern-day fabric and player on the world stage.
Muscat From My Window
We traveled along a busy road on the way to our first stop, passing beautifully maintained buildings, landscaped and dotted with palm trees. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Muscat, but it struck me as a sophisticated city, new and shiny. I captured a few architectural images as we rode along, and Herb shot a brief video.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Oman’s largest mosque was built in 2001 to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Sultan Qaboos’ reign. Constructed over a period of six-and-a-half years, the mosque can accommodate 20,000 worshipers. The exterior has an elegant, understated feel, but the interior lives up to its “grand” name, containing both the world’s second-largest single-piece carpet and second-largest chandelier. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi boasts the world’s largest.
Muscat’s Muttrah Souq
Our next stop was Muttrah Souq, a 200-year-old market near the harbor. We headed into what appeared to be a bright modern entrance and quickly found ourselves in a dark maze of colorful shops and food stands. Vendors selling everything from perfumes and pashminas to spices and souvenirs were advertising their wares, negotiating prices with locals as well as tourists. It’s a fun place to wander and soak in the atmosphere.
Bait Al Zubair
This privately owned museum collection of the Zubair family is one of those “if you have extra time” kind of travel stops. Rooms of Omani artifacts, jewelry, weaponry, furniture, clothing, maps, books and stamps are nicely displayed and labeled in an attractive setting. The display I found most interesting was outside the museum – a full-scale model of an Omani village and souq.
Al Alam Palace
Although not open to the public, visitors to Al Alam Palace are permitted on the outer grounds near the gates. The sultan’s ceremonial palace was rebuilt in 1972 and is used for official functions and receiving distinguished visitors. Al Alam sits strategically between two forts, Al Jalali and Al Mirani, built by the Portuguese in the late sixteenth century.
Muscat’s Muttrah Corniche and the Waterfront
We returned to the ship along the Muttrah Corniche, a waterfront promenade that runs between the port and the old city of Muscat. It’s a beautiful, view-filled spot, and I would have loved to have had time to explore the area on foot.
The news that Sultan Qaboos passed away caused me to pause. We had been home only a few weeks, and the images of Oman were fresh and vivid. What would have been a brief mention of a faraway leader was suddenly a meaningful story.
I thought about Mohammed and Yusef and how they spoke with such deep pride and passion about Sultan Qaboos. He had brought Oman “from darkness to light,” as Mohammed so beautifully explained. I wondered who the new sultan would be and how he would be able to follow in such grand footsteps.
One of the most profound impacts of travel is how it seeps under your skin and alters your perspective. There’s an interest, a curiosity, that didn’t exist before. Your understanding has been expanded, and what was once an intellectual idea becomes an emotional one.
You were there. And that simple fact changes everything.