A hidden paradise


With its palm trees, tiny secluded beaches, well-kept avenues, and balconied houses in all the colors of the Mediterranean, Muscat is a virtual oasis in the desert...

When I saw Muscat among the list of new destinations to which Turkish Airlines has direct flights, I was ecstatic. I’m headed now for ‘Muscat, capital of Oman, mysterious land of Sinbad the Sailor’, on flight TK 1158. The captain is just starting to announce the flight, and all is well. To suppress my excitement I review my notes over and over, and when we land at Muscat
I don’t know where the time has gone...

No sooner do I exit Seeb Airport than a wall of hot air redolent of incense and spices hits me in the face. As we proceed from the airport to the city center, we seem to be moving through a flood of light. The light reflected from the glass and gold mosaic dome of the mosque, as elegant as it is gigantic, built for his mother by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who came to the throne in 1970 after deposing his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur, seems to permeate the entire city. As the Middle East’s second largest, the Sultan Qaboos Great Mosque, built over an area of 933,000 square meters, has five minarets,

a main building capable of accommodating 6,600, an outer courtyard with a capacity for 8,000, a library with upwards of twenty thousand works on Islamic culture, and a 300-seat seminar hall. A crystal chandelier which hangs fifty meters above the floor of this mosque, which was opened for worship in 2001 to great ceremony, is illuminated by 1122 light bulbs. Greenery and colorful bougainvillea line both sides of Sultan Qaboos Avenue, creating a striking contrast between this rainbow of color and the magnificent volcanic rocks that rise some distance away. Muscat is like an oasis in the desert; indeed even more than that it’s like a paradise! Giant symbols of the nation grace every intersection along the road: a dagger, a ewer, an incense burner in the shape of a castle...

The dagger, which is also on the flag of Oman, is the most conspicuous feature of the traditional male costume. The tip of the dagger, which is worn at the waist attached by an ostentatious sash of embroidered cloth, curves to the right. Incense burners of red earthenware and decorated with hand-worked motifs in vivid colors are another national symbol. In them, little balls of pungent resin are burned on tiny bits of red-hot charcoal. An important source of revenue to Oman for centuries, these resin balls, obtained from the ‘frankincense’ tree, are used in making perfumes as well as incense. Indeed the secret of the world’s most expensive scents lies concealed in these minuscule balls.

As we approach the center, I first spot the government ministries between the road and the sea, and then the embassies of all the countries along the coastal strip. Everything is extremely neat and orderly. The buildings that stand as an indication of how to modernize a city without forfeiting its identity are four or five-storey but all are whitewashed, and their balconies are festooned with bougainvillea.
In recent years especially, Oman has become a favorite holiday destination with foreign tourists, enthusiasts of the various nature sports such as swimming, diving, fishing, desert skiing, jeep safaris, trekking, golf and sailing, which are possible all through the mild winter months when the temperature never falls below 25 C. But the ideal season starts from the second half of October, when not only does the tourist season open but the festival season also kicks off. The Muscat Festival, which starts on 20 October, culminates on 18 November in the celebration of Oman National Day. A host of exhibitions and fairs are held at the Oman International Exhibitions Centre near the airport for the duration.

Oman, a name that derives from the Arabic ‘Umm An-Nar’ meaning ‘Mother of Fire’, is believed to have emerged out of the sea following a great volcanic eruption. Residents of the Sultanate are the oldest
- and perhaps the only - seafaring Arab people of the Arabian Peninsula. Fishing and farming have been their main source of livelihood for centuries. In 1970, Italian archaeologists found on the 1700-kilometer Oman coast a fishing village dating back 7000 years where some 400 people lived. This too is an indication of how closely engaged in seafaring and fishing were the ancestors of the people who inhabit on these lands today. At a square near Al Bustan, you can see a model of the boat said to have been used on his voyages by the epic hero Sinbad, who is believed to have been born in Sohar. Called a ‘dhow’, this boat differs little from the boats used in Oman today. Only now powerful engines have replaced Sinbad’s sails and oarsmen.

If you want to see red mullet, small and large, grey mullet, bream, tuna, barracuda and a host of other varieties of ocean fish all in one place, then you must go to the enormous fish and vegetable wholesale market at Mutrah, where you can also wander through the Mutrah Souk, a traditional covered bazaar. Everything from silver jewelry, filigreed daggers, plentiful incense burners and resin balls, and special ewer-shaped coffee makers to dates, silk fabrics, pearls, precious stones, local costumes and traditional Oman ‘halva’ is sold at the Mutrah Souk, one of the region’s longest and most famous Arab markets.

Among the scores of museums in Muscat, I am able to visit only the National Museum for now. A magnificent but extremely delicate palace, inspired by traditional Ottoman architecture and built by the Sultan right on the shore...

Clouds like pure white cottonballs dot the brilliant sky and the air is crystal clear. I am at a loss for words to describe the harmony of this riot of colorful flowers and verdant green grass beside the vast blue ocean. The only problem is the temperature, which is higher than I’m used to. I’m dying to take a dip. But only after sundown, in the light of the moon. I go to the yacht club near Sidap and taste the pleasure of swimming in the ocean for the first time in my life.

Like every beautiful thing, even my Muscat adventure has come to an end. I return to the airport down the ‘flood of light’ road bearing shopping bags crammed with incense burners, miniature daggers, embroidered tunics, jasmine-scented soaps and perfumes, ‘frankincense’ balls, and scads of other Oman souvenirs. My stay here was like a dream and leaving is very difficult. I start up the stairs to the Turkish Airlines plane hoping I can come back to Muscat again to take part in those vibrant festivals and visit the public market set up every Friday in the big square. Before drifting off, I add a final paragraph to my notes. “With its palm trees, tiny beaches hidden at the foot of the rocky mountains that stand like a barrier between the ocean and the desert, its succulent fish, its well-kept avenues and its balconied houses in all the colors of the Mediterranean, Muscat is like an oasis in the desert... On one side the exquisite mosques from which the call to prayer rises and the air-conditioned luxury cars skimming along the smooth asphalt road, on the other the salt-scent of the sea and the fishermen plying their traditional trade... There’s something for everybody here.”