Muscat Enwraps the Past with the Present
By Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
It seemed as we drove on a wide thoroughfare, edged by well-tended shrubs and trees, that we were travelling from town to town rather than traversing the city of Muscat, Oman’s capital. All along this boulevard and its roundabouts, covered with flowers and greenery, were eye-catching sculptures of artefacts from Omani history and life. It was truly an imperial avenue uniting a 40 km (25 mi) spread-out city – inviting in its historic and modern attractions.
Greater Muscat, with a population of some 600,000, in reality consists of three large towns: Muscat, Muttrah, Ruwi and their suburbs – all divided from each other by low hills.
At the southern end is located the old town of Muscat, a city with an illustrious past. Overpowered by its scenic ancient forts and beautiful mosques, it stands, as it has for centuries, the crown jewel of the Sultanate of Oman. Unlike almost all the other towns on the eastern Arabian shores, it does not have an artificial air, having been for centuries an important trading centre and an imperial capital.
Poised on lofty crags, guarding the mouth of its harbour are two recently renovated citadels. They were built by the Portuguese during their 16th – 17th centuries’ occupation of parts of Oman’s coast and expanded by the Omanis after these European invaders were expelled.
Overlooking the walled city, in the midst of which is located the flamboyant Sultan’s Palace, stands on one side the Mirani Fort and on the other the Jalali Fortress, housing a museum which needs a special permit to visit. One of the Sultan’s palace guards who was talking to us as we surveyed the forts, described them well when he remarked, “Are they not majestic these fortresses? You know, they are the symbol of our country.”
For us, it was exciting to explore and savour the city by foot while we reminisced about its history. After our tour of this immaculately clean compact town with its impressive structures, we stopped a while to photograph the Sultan’s Palace, seemingly a vision from the Arabian Nights, then left for Muttrah, 4 km (2.4 mi) away.
Just before entering Muttrah, the Corniche and its surroundings, said to be one of the most beautiful spots in the Arabian Peninsula, we were struck with a fairytale aura. On the edge of Riyam Park, dominated by a gigantic white incense-burner, we stopped awhile to enjoy the view.
The burner-monument, a very impressive replica of an artefact which, for centuries, has been important in Omani life, soared above the coastal highway – a road seemingly overwhelmed by the huge colourful flower-urns dividing the lanes. Like us, first-time travellers always stop to admire the breathtaking natural scenery – greatly enhanced by the hand of man.
I was driving slowly savouring the panorama when my daughter tapped me on the shoulder, “Look at that fort! It looks like a storybook fortress.” I turned my head. Towering above us was the Portuguese Fort, dominating Muttrah’s port, which bristled with cargo ships, modern yachts and dhows (traditional Arab sailing ships) – all overshadowed by a huge passenger liner.
We parked our auto on the long sweeping Corniche, and then walked the seaside avenue, edged by plaques of fibreglass birds representing Oman’s wild-life. At the end of the Corniche, past a fish roundabout, we stopped to explore the fish souk (market). One side of the souk housed a fruit and vegetable section and on the other side was a very clean, well-stocked fresh fish market.
Crossing over to the other side of the Corniche, past men playing the ancient seashell game of hawalis, we walked back under the shadows of the many architecturally delightful old merchant houses, dating from the 19th century. A good number were being painted sparkling-white or a light beige tone- the sole colours allowed for the outside of buildings in Greater Muscat. The only exception for the use of other colours is for decoration. There is a governmental law that stipulates that structures must not look rundown. Hence, most of Muscat’s buildings always appear to glow in the sunlight.
At the Bank of Oman, we turned right and entered Muttrah’s souk – the most interesting traditional market in the Arab Gulf States. Its meandering alleyways, sprawling in all directions, are filled with tiny shops, stocking everything from stainless steel products to the handiwork of the Bedouins. Above all, frankincense and myrrh, traded in Oman since time immemorial, were on sale everywhere. It was as if we had walked back into history.
A cruise liner had stopped in Muscat for the day and its passengers saturated the souk. Bargaining was impossible. The passengers, with a few hours to spare, would pay whatever the merchants asked. My daughter noting the wide grin on the face of a shopkeeper whose shop was filled with these sea travellers, remarked, “He should smile! Look at the money he’s raking in from these gullible buyers.” It was apparent that in this venerable Arab trading port, as they have for centuries, the merchants were still plying their profitable trade.
From Muscat, we drove on the main motorway until we reached Ruwi – Greater Muscat’s commercial heart. Here and there along the thoroughfare, man-made specimens of Oman’s wildlife like ibex, oryx, and tahr, lurked- in the roadside vegetation, beautifying the sides of the road. Soon, we were driving on Ruwi Souk Street, where it is said ‘everything sold in Oman can be found’. Here, merchandise is sold at a lower price than what we paid after bargaining in Muttrah’s souk.
Leaving Ruwi, we drove on to explore Qurum, Madinat Qaboos and other newly built sections of the city. It was a transformed world. Where a quarter century ago there were no paved roads, virtually no grass and shrubs or even water and electrical systems, greenery now covers the city landscape. Mile after mile of lush turf, trees and bright flowers beautify the city – already possessed with the natural beauty of beaches, mountains and sea.
Thanks to fibreglass, amid all this man-made natural beauty, there are giant silver-painted pieces of Omani jewellery, coffee pots, chests overflowing with treasures, and much more decorating the sides of the avenues. Hence, it surprised no one when Muscat came first in the 1995 ‘Arab Cities Prize Organization Awards’, winning in the most beautiful city category.
For the last night in this modern city of Sindbad, we went on an evening’s dhow ride in the Gulf of Oman. As we sailed along the coast, in the distance, the glowing lights of Muscat brought to my mind the city’s illustrious history. No doubt, Sindbad the Sailor gloried in its waters since it is said that he was born in Sohar a short distance away. If Sindbad could only see Muscat now, it past enhanced with a garland of superb modernity, he may well have put his travels on the back burner never wanting to leave the beauty of this city.