It was early morning on the Mutrah Corniche, the traditional dhows moored in the harbour gently swayed in the waters of the Gulf of Oman. The first sun rays of the day emerged from above the sand coloured mountains that rise precipitously above the Mutrah Corniche. The balconied colonial style buildings that frame the waterfront are coloured soft ochre in the early morning light. The traders in their flowing white thobes slowly make their way to the Mutrah Souk to open their stalls, talking together and smoking in the early morning light. From a carefully framed view, one would be forgiven for believing themselves immersed in Muscat of old, the Muscat of intoxicating spices and transcontinental trade routes. A walk among the alleys of the Mutrah souk is to be transported to the Middle East of nostalgic exotica, brightly coloured spices lined up in front of the market stalls like an overflowing painters palette. The gentle hum of Arabic and the strong smell of frankincense in the air. Look beyond these vignettes of the past however, one equally glimpses the gleaming superyachts and cruise liners in the harbour, and the first of the days tourists visiting from one of Muscat’s many luxurious beach resorts. For Muscat has come along way from its illustrious and exotic past.
Muscat is not so much a single urban area, but comprises a series of districts spread out along its rugged coastline, interspersed by golden beaches and jagged mountain peaks. Mutrah Corniche is its nostalgic heart, anchoring the city in its evocative past. To the east, imperial Oman is on show in all its regalia at the Al Aram Palace. To the west is the stunning sweep of coastline at Qurum Beach. One of the best vantage points of the city is from the nearby Qurum Heights and the Crowne Plaza Hotel which has surely one of the best backdrops from its poolside of any hotel in the city.
Driving into Muscat from the airport one will not fail to miss the awe inspiring sight of the Sultan Qaboos mosque. In a region of competing superlatives, this mosque is undoubtedly on a par with Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed mosque. From the roadside, neat rows of shrubs and bright flowers provide a tantalizing glimpse of what to expect once inside. Approaching the mosque complex through its immaculately landscaped grounds, one is struck by the sheer sense of scale. Its pristinely white domes are near blinding in the intense Middle Eastern sun. Divided into female and male prayer rooms, there are a myriad of gracefully colonnaded corridors and gleaming marble courtyards to explore. The main event is undoubtedly the male prayer room with its patterned domed ceiling, richly intricate carpet and immense chandelier, which may or may not be the largest in the world. A visit to Muscat would surely not be complete without exploring this very Middle Eastern of landmarks.
In comparison to many of its illustrious peers from Doha to Dubai, Muscat is notable for its relatively low rise skyline and the prevalence of more traditional building forms. In the well-established Middle Eastern tradition of highest is best, this is somewhat refreshing. That is not to say however that Muscat has been fully immune from the pursuit of land reclamation. The Wave or Al Mouj is Muscat’s sole concession built out into the Gulf of Oman on the western edge of the city. Built to very much a European design, the district is characterized by palm lined pedestrian streets with outdoor cafes which seems somewhat alien in car-dominated Oman. As one of the few places that foreigners are able to purchase property in the Sultanate, the Wave was renamed Al Mouj when it became apparent that it was the Omanis themselves who wanted to live here most. Perhaps a sign of the times in this globalised world, that it is men in their traditional thobes who you will find most likely to be sitting idly outside the requisite Starbucks.
Another relatively recent addition to the city is the Muscat Opera House which is undoubtedly one of the city’s finest modern landmarks. This marble edifice was built as a symbol of prestige and Oman’s cultural development and has played host to such luminaries as Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli. As with so many of the city’s greatest buildings and monuments, this is another legacy of Oman’s historic ruler, Sultan Qaboos, who passed away earlier this year and was the Arab world’s longest serving leader. It is a measure of Muscat’s, and indeed Oman’s transformation that much of it would be unrecognisable from when Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970.
Muscat has modernized and developed significantly over the last few decades, from new shopping malls and luxury resorts, however it is its history and connection to the past that distinguishes it from its contemporaries. One should not leave the city before making one last detour to the unassuming harbour at Marina Bandar to the south of Muscat. From here, a fleet of jostling dhows set out for the Gulf of Oman. Instead of carrying cargo to and from the Indian subcontinent however, they now only carry the occasional tourist for cruises along the coast. There are surely few spots to rival sunset from the deck of a dhow, the waters of the Gulf of Oman gently lapping against its sides, the sail billowing in the sea breeze. These vessels were made for slow travel, watching the dramatic coastline slide effortlessly, turning deeper orange in the golden hour of the day. As the sun sets over the Omani mountains, it is comforting to think that sailors plying the ancient trade routes of Arabia in years gone by would have been able to recognise this very view.
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