Oman is very different from Dubai. Whereas Dubai is essentially flat, Oman, at least in the north where we were, has rocky mountains (OK, hills). Only about 700,000 of the 3,000,000 people are foreigners. Oman still has a significant oil and gas reserve. Our tour guide and driver were both Omanies whereas in Dubai, all our guides and drivers were foreign nationals. The rain followed us to Oman and they were very happy since it was the first significant rain in over 20 years. The wadis were filled and the schools had a holiday. Muscat is the largest city in Oman, with about a third of the country’s population.
Our excursion went to Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in Oman and, when it opened in 2001, the third largest in the world. (It is now about 11th.) It is the only mosque (so far) were have been allowed to enter. The mosque was, of course, built by Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled for 20 years since overthrowing his father. (Like the U.A.E., Oman is an absolute monarchy.) It took about four years to build the mosque and has been open only about six years. It is huge, and gorgeous.
The main prayer hall (musalla) is for the men and holds about 6,500 for prayer. The Oriental carpet (one carpet) on the floor took 600 women four years to make.
The outdoor area holds another 2500 men in prayer. The women have an indoor area for 750 with two closed-circuit screens so they can see the Imam in the men’s area. (For more information, check out the official site.)
After the mosque we went back to the port area and stopped at the Mutrah Souq as the rain was letting up.
The main alley into the souq (under the dome on the left in the above photo) was a rapidly-flowing stream draining the souq (and the trash it picked up along the way) directly into the harbor. We left John at a bus stop out front and were led into the souq by a helpful native (or marketer) through a side alley. You may have seen pictures of open-air markets in the movies. These souqs are not like that. They are a series of narrow, often curving, alleys formed as shops on the order of 12′ wide and 20′ deep were built in front of the existing buildings. There is a roof, of sorts, over the alley, which can vary from substantially built and elegantly decorated to random sheets of corrugated metal. The Mutrah Souq, unlike more dedicated souqs, has shops offering everything from toothpaste to very exquisite and expensive gold jewelry. Some shop keepers are Arab but others are foreigners, carrying on the centuries old trading traditions. For example one shop was operated by an Indian who as selling scarves, sarees, and other items made by is family in India.
From the souq, we rounded a rocky point and headed into the old walled part of the city. (Muscat was a well fortified city with lookouts on most high peaks. You can see a fort above the souq in the photo above.) We were guided through a small but well done museum of the culture of Oman. The guide started with a map they had and briefly explained the regions and their specialties. There were displays of clothing, weapons, household goods, etc. After the museum we walked around the corner and walked past the sultan’s palace, one of many in the country. After a brief photo stop on the beach across the road from the Incense Burner—a piece of public art on the hill between the port area and the old walled city—we returned to the ship for lunch.
After lunch Janice and I took the port sponsored shuttle to the port gate—for security reasons, they don’t allow pedestrians in the port. Even though most shops close between 1 and 4 pm for lunch and prayers, we wanted to go back to the souq for more local color. Some of the shops were open and offering “good prices because of the rain.” After a bit another thunder storm rolled through and again the alleys became small streams. We hung out at a couple of shops with another couple from the ship. Eventually the storm passed and we resumed our explorations and shopping. Then back to the ship for the 6pm sail away.