On his first visit to the Middle East, Mark Bibby Jackson discovers none of the clichéd images of vast deserts, towering modern skyscrapers and camels, but instead in Oman, unearths a mountainous country rich in heritage.
In travelling as in life we often encounter challenges, it’s how we meet them that matters. Do we rush blindly towards them driven by that rush of adrenaline, or do we try to sneak around them like a child playing truant from school? I froze. Staring at a 22-metre drop that probably would have done little more than twist my ankle – even if the harness had somehow failed me – I refused to lean back over the chasm.
“Do many people do the same?” I ask my instructor Maher, who was brought up in these mountains and knows them better than most. He nods understandingly before recounting how he had taken two young children to the cliff’s edge that morning. One had taken it in her stride, while her sister had frozen just like me and refused to jump. They were six or seven. Somehow, this did not make me feel any bigger.
The abseiling and rock climbing is part of the activities laid on at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in Oman. Perched 2,000 metres above sea level, this is the highest luxury resort in the Middle East, according to the hotel management. Earlier in the day I had been shown to my pool villa with its majestic view across the most spectacular canyon. I genuinely feel like I have entered the set for the next James Bond movie, only my room number is 006. After my close shave with the abseil, I am most definitely left feeling shaken not stirred.
I can easily understand why Princess Diana chose to come here with Prince Charles in 1996, an occasion celebrated by the hotel’s Diana’s Peak panorama deck on the edge of the gorge. The view from the peak of Al Jabal Al Akhdar, which means “The Green Mountain” in Arabic, is simply breath-taking. This is as far from my image of the Middle East, its vast desert sand and modern skyscrapers as imaginable.
Before the road that spirals its way up from the Saiq Plateau below was built, it used to take 24 hours for local farmers to travel to the souk in Nizwa at the base of the mountain by donkey. The beasts of burden would be laden with fruit and nuts, which were exchanged for rice and other provisions, while the farmers walked in their sandals beside them. The return journey would take a further 36 hours.
Our drive from the capital Muscat took barely two hours. Most of it along a two-lane highway, but the final part involved us snaking our way up the mountain in a four-wheel drive. At times as we veered our way round blind bends in the middle of the road, I longed for the reassurance of a donkey.
En route we pass numerous jagged rocks and drive over the occasional dried up wadi (river bed). Given the unrelenting landscape, it is hard to imagine that it has ever rained here, yet there was a downpour the night before I arrived, and Salalah some 1000km to the north is green in the summer months from June to September.
The mountains carry a worn look, as if a company has recently mined here, but this is not man’s work but millennia of erosion. When the rains come, like the previous night, they strip away the soil and any vegetation, leaving bare rock.
Just after the small town of Izki we stop at Birket al Mouz where there is a huge plantation of date trees, alongside an old settlement with now deserted houses made from goats’ hair, small strips of date palm tree bark and soil, which are over a century old. Unfortunately, I have just missed the previous morning’s Friday market in Nizwa from 7am to 11am, where locals buy and sell sheep and goats. The town also has an impressive old fort.
Muscat had the feel of a modern city. Most buildings date from 1970 when the current Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said usurped sovereignty from his father, who had kept the country in isolation from the rest of the world. Upon arriving a few days earlier, I asked my driver to take me to the “city centre”, only to find myself in a multi-story car park. Apparently, the City Centre is one of the many shopping malls in modern Muscat. However, there is none of the sky rise sense of Dubai or Abu Dhabi. No buildings higher than eight-stories are allowed by decree of the Sultan – apparently, he intervened to have one that broke the rules torn down, and a couple of ministers who had approved the plans lost their jobs.
Although the city is set in a desert, the air is very clean and everywhere you are surrounded by the western Al Hajar mountains even those that drift into the sea in the nearby port of Muttrah. The weather is variable even on my short stay. I landed to a dry heat, as if I had walked into a hair dryer, and then as the temperature dipped a little the air became more humid and the roll of distant thunder could be heard over the mountains.
In Muscat, I stay at the Chedi Muscat. Set in 21 acres of perfectly manicured gardens with only 158 rooms, here there is space a plenty. You only really detect the presence of your other guests, even though it is running at 90 percent occupancy, when you go for dinner or venture to one of the three pools. One is specifically aimed for families, allowing those without kids to enjoy the peace and quiet of the remaining two child-free pools, the largest of which measuring just over 100 metres is the longest in Muscat. It also has its own private beach.
The resort has a minimalistic colour scheme; the buildings are white, the flora is green and the large water collecting jugs and furniture are dark brown. Even the birds conform to the house rules, with small brown pigeons and green parrots blending in. And there is water everywhere with pools creating a sense of calm. More Asian than Arabic in design, this is the type of resort you might find in Thailand or the Maldives, with the occasional Arabic ornament and barren tufts of dry grass emerging from sand, reflecting a dried-up wadi bed, strategically positioned to make it clear we are still in the land of Lawrence.
Omanis have the reputation for being amongst the most friendly and courteous in the Arab world. Also, it is relatively liberal; unmarried men and women can share the same room and alcohol is available freely in hotels, but not restaurants, so there is little chance of being stuck next to a stag night from Billericay here.
I encounter this friendliness throughout my stay. But nowhere more so than at the Al Dhalam souk in Muttrah. One of the oldest markets in the Arab world, the souk literally means “darkness” due to the absence of sunlight here during the day. In the past, the market was made of palm leaves and clay, but has now been modernized, leaving little sense of tradition. However, the lingering smell of burning Frankincense is timeless.
I stop at one shop run by an Indian called Paresh. His family set up this shop around 1950, having come to Oman shortly after the partition of his native country. He says that most of the shops are owned by traders from Kerala. There is a strong sense of community here, he explains, but also one of religious tolerance. As if in explanation he adds that he has Pakistani friends himself. “Religion is never a problem,” he says. “The sultan is very nice. He makes peace everywhere.”
Further along I meet Abdullah, who stems from Bangladesh. He wants me to enter his shop to see his impressive collection of notes. I leave a few moments later regretting I had left all my weird currency back at home in my drawer. There is no hard sell here like in many a market. Just plenty of smiles.
From here it is a short taxi drive along the harbour road to the sultan’s former palace. Along the route spectacular cliffs slide into the sea, with small buildings crammed into what space is left. One road is cut through the rock, and at the end awaits the spectacular Ministry of Oman building, its design based on Granada’s Alhambra Palace. There is a good museum next to the palace and an impressive opera house en route, but the stand out building is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in modern Muscat, which was inaugurated in 2001.
Non-Muslims are permitted to enter the mosque in the morning, but must leave by 11am when daily prayers commence. On Fridays, which is the equivalent of the Christian Sunday, the mosque’s huge chamber and surrounding grounds can be filled with 4,000 people praying. Women have a smaller separate mosque set in the grounds, which tourists can also visit. Those dressed inappropriately, can hire a robe from the mosque shop, where you can also purchase an audio tour. The interior chandelier has a definite wow factor and the massive carpet within the main mosque is just one piece and from Iran. Interesting mosaics adorn the outer wall representing different styles of Islamic art.
I spend my final night in the mountains. The temperature here is some 15C cooler than on the coast and I find myself putting on a jacket, something I could not have envisaged upon my arrival. My only regret is the lack of genuine Omani food – rather than a Middle East hybrid – that I have experienced. I raise this with the management at the Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar and soon am introduced to Chef Ibrahim, who promises to prepare me a traditional samaka hara, a “spicy fish” stuffed with pickled dates, nuts and spices.
The fish arrives served on a huge platter in silver foil, set on a bed of saffron rice and surrounded by vegetables. On each side the foil has been raised and the oil inside lit to create the effect of two rising volcanoes. The wait has been worth it, for this is a dish fit for a sultan.