Muscat, OmanApril 10, 2018 in Oman ⋅ ⛅ 82 °F
We have left hot, humid, loud and chaotic India and have arrived in hot, arid, pristine and peaceful Oman. The only thing India and Oman have in common is heat but Oman’s dry desert heat is much more comfortable.
The Sail-in to Muscat really was amazing. It was like sailing into a dream or a movie set. Vaguely, out of the fog materialized faint forms of castles and palaces. All were white. All were modern, yet oriental with their endless expanses of narrow, pointed arches. In flat, white bands they lay peacefully along the harbor’s edge. As we sailed in closer, their shapes became clearer, and the tan castles became visible on the craggy mountains surrounding the bay. Then we saw the filigreed monument a hundred feet tall, standing on top of another pinnacle, making the monument appear even taller. It is also white, and as you close in on it you see that it is unlike any monument you’ve ever seen before. It is not a monument to war, generals, or vainglorious politics. It is a monument to frankincense, one of life’s simple pleasures. Sailing into Muscat really is like sailing into a dream. This is arguably the most beautiful city in the world.
Oman is an absolute monarchy. The Sultan (King) is the Head of State, Head of Government, Secretary of Defense, Treasury, Interior, Health, Education and Commerce. He overthrew his very backward father in a bloodless, palace coup in 1970, capitalized on the nation’s oil reserves, and never looked back. Omanis are among the world’s wealthiest populations.
We have entered a world of white and beige, clean buildings with no litter, or hawkers or beggars. All buildings are a shade of white to light tan because the Sultan decreed that it should be so. The result is a beautiful, pleasing sense of harmony among all of the buildings in Muscat. Besides, the Sultan felt that multicolored buildings would distract drivers. There are no slums or poverty and everyone is employed. There is very little crime because no one needs to steal. The Sultan is the supreme ruler. Period. And his subjects think he is doing a grand job. I wouldn’t argue with them.
We first visited the Sultan Qaboos al Said Grand Mosque, which he built in 1998. Even in the hot desert climate the marble of the mosque is cool to the touch. The Islam here is unusual. Most of the Islamic world is divided between Sunni and Shi’a. Yet Oman follows a third way called Ibadi, that actually predates the Sunni-Shia division. In fact Omanis will let you know quickly that their version of the religion is the oldest, purest form of Islam on the planet. It is moderate, accepting of other religions, and does not dare to question the sincerely held religious opinions of others, whether they are Muslims or not. They honor the faith of Christians, Jews, Hindus, and other Muslims.
After visiting the lovely mosque the Sultan has provided for the Omanis, we headed to the souk, a market filled with vendors selling silver, gold, spices, clothing, brass, jewelry and food. You can go into sensory overload in a souk. Finally we headed to the royal museum and palace before heading back to the ship. The museum has an excellent exhibition not only of Omani customs, furnishings, weapons and jewelry, but also of this nation’s ancient seafaring traditions. We don’t often think of the people on the Arabian peninsula as sailors, but Omanis have lived on the sea as traders since prehistoric times. I kept thinking of Sindbad the Sailor from A Thousand and One Nights. The Romans called this place Arabia Felix, “Blessed Arabia,” and distinguished this place from the rest of Arabia. The main distinction as far as the Romans were concerned was the fact that this is the only place in the world that produces frankincense. Romans used it in everything from perfume to incense, and it was so expensive that ordinarily only kings could purchase it.
Arabia Felix, indeed! Happy Arabia. All is well in Oman, for now at least. However there may be a snake hiding in this Eden. The Sultan is 77 years old. The citizens here do not know whether he is married or not because the Sultan’s private life is, well, private. Very private. He has no children, and the tradition here is that the Sultan must be succeeded by a son. If the wives (plural) of other Islamic monarchs do not produce a male heir, then those Sultans usually have a harem of mistresses and concubines who will. Yet, Sultan Qaboos has no children. Another serpent in the Garden is that oil reserves under Oman are expected to be depleted in about 20 years. This is one of the reasons that the Sultan is seeking to boost tourism as quickly as he can. Indeed, we were made to feel like royalty here. So come if you can, but don’t wait too long. In another couple of decades things could get rather stormy here in “Happy Arabia.”Read more