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Travel Guide: Exploring Muscat, Oman

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

Stretching along Oman's coast the ancient city of Muscat is surprisingly modern. GRAHAM SIMMONS takes a look at the city that only three decades ago was considered by its own countrymen too isolated to visit.

Stretching along Oman's coast the ancient city of Muscat is surprisingly modern. GRAHAM SIMMONS takes a look at the city that only three decades ago was considered by its own countrymen too isolated to visit.

Muscat, the capital of Oman, seems to have sprung ready-made from an architect's drawing-board. On a classic crescent-shaped harbour, Muscat seems to have been laid out by extra-terrestrial beings, who must have visited the site in winter. Had they come in summer, they might have chosen a different location, as the shimmering heat trapped by the surrounding hills makes this one of the hottest places on Earth. July temperatures can reach as high as 55°C. Indeed, the city was once described by a visiting Persian poet as giving to the panting sinner a living anticipation of his future destiny".

Greater Muscat, with a balmy climate from October through to May, is laid out along the coast like a string of pearls on a thread. But this 'necklace' has a large number of gaps, each a space where there will one day (with any luck) be a new pearl.

The city stretches for more than 60km along the Gulf of Oman from Seeb International Airport in the west to the fishing port of Quriyat in the east. The main centres are Qurm (an upmarket residential district), Mutrah (with a corniche fronting a superb natural harbour), Ruwi (the business district), and Muscat proper, on a smaller harbour flanked by twin fortresses.

Muscat's achievement is all the more stunning when it is recalled that the city in its modern form is a mere 36 years old. Prior to 1970, under the xenophobic reign of Sultan Said, there were no schools, newspapers, radios or televisions in Muscat, and just 10km of paved roads in the entire country. Visitors then described Oman as being even more isolated than Tibet.

All this has now changed. Under the rule of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who overthrew his father in 1970, Oman (and Muscat in particular) has made astonishing progress. Dual lane freeways link the major cities, literacy is universal and internet cafés have sprung up like mushrooms after rain.

Oman is also renowned for its commitment to women's rights. The tourism and education ministries are both headed by women, with several other female members of parliament. Nearly two-thirds of university students are girls, and it is not unusual to see women heading major corporations. On the streets, women wear superbly colourful outfits, insouciantly pushing back their multicoloured scarves to provide the bare minimum of head covering.

At night, Mutrah Corniche becomes a fairyland of lights. The two mosques (Mutrah Mosque and Lawati Mosque) are brilliantly silhouetted by the dying sun's rays; later, the Sultan's private yacht wears a necklace of coloured lights. From power-walkers to strolling families taking in the evening breeze, it seems that everyone in the city has converged on the Corniche.

Sightseeing

The new Al Zubair Museum (Bait al Zubair) is a collection of heirlooms amassed by the wealthy Zubair family over a period of four centuries. This place is the Omani past in a nutshell," says Mohammed al Zubair, heir to the family's treasures.

The Al Zubair Museum, located in a new fortress-style building in the oldest quarter of Muscat, houses a unique collection of artefacts. Among these are men's and women's costumes, suits of armour, shotguns, rifles, swords, jewellery and household utensils. While there, take a look at the museum grounds, which replicate a rural village, complete with irrigation channels (aflaj), traditional fishing boats and a house built from date-palm fronds.

For a different take on Muscat, take a trip past the Zubair Museum to Muscat Harbour (smaller and more encircled than Mutrah Harbour). Here, towering over the surprisingly low-key Sultan's Palace, an ancient Portuguese watchtower towers over the spectacular waterfront. This whole precinct is currently under restoration, and will increasing become a must-see in its own right.

Muscat has heaps of other attractions, too. A near-obligatory visit is to the morning fish market down at Mutrah Harbour, where seemingly every fishing boat from Zanzibar to India has arrived to offer its wares.

In the hills inland from Muscat, Nizwa (the former Omani capital) offers many other insights into the ancient culture of Oman. It's great to wander the refurbished craft markets, where fine silverware (including the national khanjar dagger), leather goods and pottery are on sale. The old goat market, held on Fridays in a shady palm glade, is well worth a visit - but many of the goats are mangier than a worn-out football.

Shopping

The place to shop is in the old Mutrah Souq (market). Jewellery, leather goods, spices, clothing (of dishdasha robes, kufri caps, hajj caps, ladies' beak-masks and simple headscarfs) and many other items can be found here. Possibly the best buy is frankincense, the exquisitely fragrant tree-gum, harvested in the south of Oman. A range of colourful incense burners are also available - and don't forget to stock up on a good supply of charcoal discs, which are used to ignite the frankincense.

What's new

As part of a concerted effort by the Omani government to boost visitor numbers to Oman, and to the region between Muscat and Sur in particular, a number of big new developments are currently underway. Here are just three of the things happening right now:

• Rebuilding and rebranding the Oman Dive Centre, which bills itself as "the world's best dive centre". See www.diveoman.com.
• The Wave, a giant resort development along no less than 7.3km of beachfront. See www.thewavemuscat.com.
• The Muriya Egypt-Omani consortium is developing unique resorts at four locations, including the Qurm precinct of Muscat. The Qurm development is intended to address what many see as one of Muscat's major problems, namely the lack of a single, well-focused city centre. The development will include an old Omani souq (market), linked to a 35,000m_ shopping mall, as well as office blocks and restaurants. Al Soda Island, Sifah and the southern city of Salalah will also have major tourism developments."