Does anywhere sound more exotic than “Muscat”? It summons images of camel trains arriving from the Empty Quarter, traders from Zanzibar moored up in weatherbeaten dhows along the quay and a general aroma of cardamon, frankincense and goat. Yes, well it’s not like that at all in fact.
Once, Muscat was its own Sultanate, cut off from the rest of Oman by the mountains, and heavily fortified along the coast thanks to the Portuguese who colonised it.. But they were kicked out and in the 1970s, with the discovery of oil and the seizure of power by a new Sultan, Muscat was Modernised. Not like the skyscraper forest of Dubai, but more like a posher version of what it used to be. Low rise buildings with castellated walls, broad avenues – of smooth tarmac. There are also narrow alleyways with small apartment blocks and washing hanging from balconies but much of the character of the old city has been lost. For a while though it remained a fairly closed society. To visit required the endorsement of an Omani resident and it wasn’t until 1983 that the first organised group of fourteen tourists was admitted. Today, there’s a cruise ship moored in the harbour.
We went first to the fish market at one end of the corniche along the waterfront. It’s a modern building with a metal roof like a shoal of fish flowing over it. Inside on metal tables, gleaming tuna, a pile of orange roughy – one still flapping – fish with green bodies and tangerine-coloured fins.
The sellers are used to tourists and a couple posed for photos holding fish and knives up with a grin. But most of the people there were buying fish not photographing them.
At 10am the temperature was already in the upper thirties. We went from one shady spot to the next along the corniche towards the Muttrah Souq, the biggest in Oman. You enter beneath a heavy beamed roof and into a maze of covered alleys.
It wasn’t the crush we expected. They are used to tourists and every stall holder was out front with a special price for something, but it was done with a smile and no-one chased you along the alley as can be the way of such places. Lots of pashminas and Aladdin lamps and tourist bric-a-brac. But off the main alleys there were Omanis doing their weekly shopping for clothes and fabrics, lightbulbs and batteries. No-one tried to get our attention here. We bought some bits and pieces and haggled the stall holders down to prices that were probably only two or three times the locals’ price but less, we hoped, than what the cruise ship passengers were paying. It was fun. The people were all relaxed and friendly. A relatively high standard of living means there wasn’t the desperation for a sale that can be hard to deal with in other places.
We took a cab to Old Muscat from Muttrah. “Twenty Euro?” Said the cabbie optimistically. He settled for 3 Ryal in the end (about 7 Euros). Old Muscat is old only in the sense that this was where the old bit of Muscat used to be. Now it is marble government buildings, the Sultan’s Palace and a series of museums. We went to the National Museum of Oman and it was clearly designed to be a no-expense-spared showcase for the nation.
It has the oldest hand made item ever found in the Arabian peninsula; a handy looking axe head that was two million years old. But there were boats of wood planking sewn together with coconut rope, curving scimitars and parrying shields made from rhino and hippo skins. I liked the detail about the rigid rules relating to hospitality, that anyone who arrives at your door has to be treated as an honoured guest; fed and given a place to sleep. The point was made that in a desert you are totally reliant on others to bring you news of the world around you and if you don’t feed them when they need it, they won’t come any more. Possibly because they will be dead.
It was a great introduction to this place. Originally, the Omanis were only from the interior of the country. Those on the coast were Persians, Baluchs, Indians and other merchant stock. There’s a sense of Oman being several tribal nations knitted together, and the faces and the subtly different clothing styles reveal the genetic variety. Wilfred Thesiger talks about the aquiline beauty of the Rashid in the desert and there are some striking looking people here. Tall, with high cheekbones, fierce eyebrows, very dark skin and gleaming teeth. The Omani women mostly wear black abayas but some sparkle with diamanté at the hem and others reveal bright coloured trousers as they walk. They cover their hair but very few cover their faces.
By 5 the light was already beginning to glow and cast long shadows. After a quick photocall at the Sultan’s colourful palace, we headed for the beach and a meal overlooking the water. There were people strolling the glowing sand and lads parading their cars along the strip…some things never change.