Oman days one and two
09.02.2019 - 10.02.2019
Flying to Muscat
Although we live quite near Heathrow, an early flight to Muscat meant the rude awakening of a 5.30 AM alarm. We were soon on our way to the airport, by Tube, and arrived to find Terminal Four pleasantly quiet. Once we had dropped off our single (large) suitcase and gone through security we had time for a much-needed coffee before boarding.
Taking off from Heathrow
After take-off from Heathrow
Our Oman Air flight was on a comfortable new Dreamliner. We took off just ten minutes late in bright winter sunshine and flew out over Brighton, the white cliffs of the south coast visible to our left in the haze. A snack was served quite soon after take-off, a tasty mildly curried chicken pasty, which we ate while flying over the snowy Alps. Later I watched a film, Colette, which I really enjoyed.
Flying over the Alps
The main meal was also very good by airline standards, with several choices - my vegetable curry was well flavoured while Chris enjoyed his chicken risotto (we could also have had lamb). Once the meal was over there was only a bit over an hour of the flight remaining, but that last hour dragged a bit as the early start began to catch up with me.
Arrival in Muscat
By the time we reached the Gulf it was dark, and we descended towards Muscat over the bright lights of Dubai. We landed at Muscat’s shiny new airport about 20 minutes early, but those 20 minutes were soon swallowed up by a couple of delays. The first of these was predictable. When I had applied for my Oman e-visa I hadn’t realised that visas were only valid for entry within 30 days of being granted. I had applied on the 8th January and here we were, arriving on the 9th February! I knew this meant that I might have to pay for another visa on arrival so we went directly to the visa desk, but before I had even finished my explanation I was waved away by the official who assured me that Passport Control would deal with it. Of course, after queuing there I was told that my visa had expired (I knew that) and I would have to go to the visa desk. So back there we went, to pay $60 for a second visa before returning to the passport area where we were grateful to the supervising officer who sent us through the fast track route.
Postscript: our tour company, the excellent Undiscovered Destinations, have offered to refund me the cost of that extra visa as they acknowledged that the info they gave me about applying could have been clearer about the timing.
We were relieved to see our suitcase still sitting on the baggage carousel and to emerge into the arrivals hall to find that our driver, Assad, hadn’t given up on us! But then came the second delay. We walked with him to his car and he drove towards the exit where he was stopped for what we assumed was a routine check. But it wasn’t any such thing. They took his license and ID and he had to leave us waiting in the car while he went to discover what the problem might be and try to recover them. Twenty minutes later (!) he was back, still without his documents but with a receipt for them at least. As we finally drove out of the airport he explained. For some reason a new ‘rule’ had been introduced that drivers of tourist cars (distinguishable by their red number plates) were no longer allowed to pick up visitors at the airport but should instead tell them to take an airport taxi to their hotel! Clearly no one had told him or his manager about this, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that the rule had been invented to push money in the direction of the airport at the expense of tour companies. It will be interesting, I thought, to see what will happen when we fly back to Muscat from Salalah at the end of our tour!
And a postscript to that incident: four days later while visiting a ruined village in the mountains our guide, Said, had a call from Assad who said that the problem had been resolved. It turned out that the airport police had believed him to be a taxi driver, taking rides away from the official airport taxi service. A letter from his boss had convinced them that he worked for a tour company not a taxi one, and his license had been restored.
After that small hiccup things picked up again. The drive to the hotel, the Al Falaj, went smoothly with relatively little traffic on the Saturday evening roads. And on checking in we were told that the hotel was full so we had been upgraded from our standard room to what proved to be a rather spacious suite. I thought it was rather a shame that we would be leaving again first thing tomorrow, spending only about eleven hours here in total, and many of those (hopefully) asleep!
Our suite at the Al Falaj Hotel
The hotel is in a residential area of the city with no real sights on the doorstep, but as it was already dark and we’d been up for many hours we weren’t particularly interested in rushing out to explore, so that wasn’t a problem for us.
Behind the reception desk
The name of the hotel comes from the traditional irrigation channels for which Oman is famous, which we were to see many times on our travels, and I liked the large image of one which forms a backdrop to the hotel’s reception desk.
We didn’t feel the need for any dinner, having eaten so well on the plane, so just took a little stroll around the hotel before returning to make the most of our spacious accommodation, catching up with emails etc on the hotel WiFi before a prompt night ahead of what looked like being a busy day tomorrow.
The adventure begins
Despite being tired from yesterday’s early start, it had taken both of us a while to fall asleep last night, perhaps because of the four hour time difference. So the 6.30 alarm (2.30 am at home!) came as a bit of a shock. But we were soon up and enjoying the view from our seventh floor suite as Muscat woke up for the day.
Dawn over Muscat
Sunrise over the mountains
Looking towards the port
The Omani national cricket team trains here
It was lovely after the chilly February weather at home to be able to enjoy breakfast sitting on the terrace by the pool, and with good coffee and a tasty omelette cooked to order I concluded that breakfast had been worth getting up for!
At 8.00 we were in the lobby ready to meet our guide for the first week of our tour, Said. He had been highly recommended by my friend Grete, a recommendation echoed by another hotel guest who saw us talking to him and came over to sing his praises, having just yesterday completed a tour with him.
Introductions made and car loaded we set off on the first leg of our tour. We were to do a city tour in Muscat on our return here at the end of the week, but we made one stop today before leaving the city, at the Grand Mosque, better known as the Sultan Qaboos Mosque.
The Sultan Qaboos Mosque
Said parked the car and we approached the mosque through beautiful gardens. As we did so another woman from his previous tour group came up to us to tell us what a great guide he was!
This is a modern mosque, built as a gift to the nation from Sultan Qaboos to mark the 30th year of his reign. Although by no means the largest in the world, or even in the Gulf region (the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi wins that prize), it is nevertheless pretty impressive in its scale, as we were to see on our walk around.
Approaching the mosque
Building the mosque took six years and seven months, which while it sounds a long time actually seems surprisingly short to me when I consider the size of the structure, the quality of the build, and the intricacy and scale of its decorative elements. It opened in 2001 so is still relatively new – and looks it.
- The mosque is constructed from 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone
- The central dome rises to 50 metres, and the main minaret is 90 metres tall
- The main prayer hall is 74.4 by 74.4 metres square and holds over 6,500 worshippers
- In total (in main and women’s prayer halls, courtyards etc.) the mosque can accommodate 20,000 worshippers
This is one of the few mosques in the country which permits non-Muslims to visit, but of course you have to respect their practices and follow the rules. These include respectful dress with arms and legs covered, and in addition women must cover their heads. I had taken a scarf along for that purpose but it’s possible to hire one, and a robe too if necessary. You also need to remove your shoes, and little cubicles are provided by all the entrances to store them in.
The first building we entered was the women's prayer hall or musalla. This is much smaller than the main musalla but can nevertheless accommodate 750 women. It has many wonderful decorative features – none of which, following the Muslim rules, depict living souls.
The Women's Prayer Hall
The wooden ceiling, although new, is in a traditional Omani style which we were to see some days later at Jabrin Castle. There are some beautiful inset stained glass panels which provide extra soft lighting.
Ceiling and wall details, Women's Prayer Hall
The sandstone walls are intricately carved with quotations from the Quran and ornate geometric designs which reminded me of the havelis of Jaisalmer. And the large wooden doors are similarly ornate.
Women's Prayer Hall, door details
From here a series of courtyards and arcaded walkways led us to the main musalla, and Said was very helpful in pointing out good angles for photographs, waiting patiently while we took them, and even posing for me!
In the Grand Mosque
The main prayer hall took my breath away! It apparently has what was once the world’s largest carpet and its largest chandelier, until people from the UAE and Qatar came to measure them and made bigger versions for their own new mosques! But these remain pretty amazing.
In the Main Prayer Hall
The chandelier is 14 metres in height, weighs 8.5 tons, has 600,000 Swarovski crystals, 1,122 halogen bulbs, 24 carat gold plating, and even has a staircase for maintenance hidden within it.
Chandelier and dome
There are numerous smaller chandeliers ('smaller' being a relative term!) all around the outer part, which is separated from the central section by ornate pillars and arches, while the walls are pierced by beautiful stained glass windows.
Windows and smaller chandeliers
The carpet measures over 70 metres by 60 metres, covering an area of 4,343 metres. It was made in Iran and took 600 women four years to weave. There are 1,700,000,000 knots and 28 different colours, most of them from vegetable dyes. The design draws from a number of traditional influences - Tabriz, Kashan and Isfahan.
Just part of the carpet
The outer area has a wooden ceiling which, as in the women’s prayer hall, is stunningly carved and painted.
As befitting the scale and spectacle of this room, the mihrab (the niche which indicates the direction to be faced when praying, towards Mecca) is adorned with intricate carvings and mosaics, which reminded me of the mosques and tombs we saw in Uzbekistan.
Mihrab and chandelier
Smaller niches all around the walls hold copies of the Quran. Said showed us the beautifully decorated pages and calligraphy.
Qurans in a niche, and Said showing us a copy
After visiting the prayer halls Said gave us free time to wander around. I was keen to take some photos in the beautiful gardens which surround the mosque, especially the bougainvillea bushes which I had spotted from the road, planted in a large swathe of colourful humps!
In the gardens of the Sultan Qaboos Mosque
Nearby a long colonnaded walkway is lined with decorated niches, all different. Each section of niches is devoted to a different style of Islamic art, and a panel at the start of each section explains more. We walked this colonnade backwards, as it were, so were treated to a journey back in time through Islamic design.
The first niches we came to were in the style described as Ottoman, depicting lotus flowers and tulips. The panel told us that, ‘The Ottoman expression of art and ornament celebrates the flowers of paradise in the favoured Islamic geometric discipline.
Ottoman style niche and sign
Next we came to a series of panels in the Mamluk style. The panel called this ‘Imagery of Light’ and described how ‘geometric and floral patterns became a major form of the Islamic arts.’
Mamluk style niche and sign
The next section of niches were in the Maghrib style, in which ‘Islamic art delved into geometry as the major source for decorative panels and architectural forms.’
Maghrib style niche and sign
Continuing our journey back in time we came to Byzantium and Early Islam, and learned that ‘early Islamic art was in the thrall of the classical heritage and in touch with the art work of Pompeii and Constantinople. The subtle colours here were perhaps my favourites, contrasting as they did with all the rich splendour elsewhere.
Byzantium and Early Islam niche and sign
Finally we saw the pre-Islamic period and the art of Egypt and Mesopotamia which the panel said, ‘provided a design matrix for the later development of Islamic art’.
Egypt and Mesopotamia niche and sign
Tour group arriving
After our explorations we headed back across the beautiful gardens to the car park where we had arranged to meet Said. Somehow we managed to miss him, so for a short time we were waiting by the car while he had gone back into the gardens to look for us. The taxi drivers were convinced that we must want a ride and disappointed by our constant 'no thank you's!
Looking back at the mosque
By now it was mid morning, and the mosque was starting to get very crowded; a German cruise ship was in town and several coach-loads had arrived on the first stop of their day’s excursion. So we left them to it and headed south out of the city.
It was time to see more of Oman …