Oman days eleven and twelve
19.02.2019 - 20.02.2019
From our hotel window
I took some photos of the view from our bedroom window this morning, with the Al-Nahdah Clock Tower on the roundabout immediately opposite the hotel and a long tree-lined street stretching away from it. This is Al Matar Street which leads to what used to be, until just a few years ago, Salalah's airport. The clock tower is something of a landmark in, and symbol for, the city.
Our last morning for sightseeing in Salalah, and indeed in Oman. At breakfast I noticed that the hot dishes had made a reappearance but they didn’t look especially appetising so I settled for fresh fruit (melon, apple, pear) which was delicious, and a rather dry croissant, which wasn’t.
After breakfast we packed our suitcase and checked out, leaving the bag to collect later in the day. Before that we had a half day city tour planned, and we were happy to see that, as he and we had hoped, Hussain was allocated as our guide again.
The first stop on our tour was scheduled to be the Grand Mosque, but Hussain proposed going first to the produce markets in the centre of the city. He took us through the fish market, where we saw dried shark which he told us is a very popular food in this part of Oman. We had seen fishermen with their catch of small sharks, destined for drying, in Mirbat two days earlier and here now was the finished product.
In the fish market - big tuna, small cat!
From here we went to the camel meat market. Hussain explained that each meat had its own section of the market - camel, beef, goat. Apologies to vegetarian and vegan readers for the next two photos!
In the camel meat market
We also saw the fruit and veg market. There were lots of herbs, spices and grains for sale as well all the usual, and some unusual, fruits and vegetables. A man was grinding coconut on what looked to be a rather dangerous machine!
In the fruit and vegetable market
The Grand Mosque
When we arrived at the Grand Mosque it was very quiet - we had beaten the relatively few other tourists and had it to ourselves!
Sultan Qaboos Mosque
I was surprised to find that we were to go inside as I'd read that the Grand Mosque in Muscat was the only one that permitted non-Muslims to visit. But on the contrary, we were welcomed by a friendly man who gave us a leaflet about the Islamic religion, ‘100 tweets about Islam’, and was happy to pose for a photo. He also tried to sell us a book about Islam, which we declined.
Welcoming visitors to the mosque
Like Muscat’s Grand Mosque this was a gift to the people from Sultan Qaboos and is named for him. From what I observed elsewhere, for instance in Nizwa, the sultan may have paid for the construction of a mosque in every major city – no doubt another reason why he is held in such high esteem.
The mosque opened in 2009. Although not quite on the same scale as Muscat’s Grand Mosque this is still an impressive structure. Hussain told us that the main hall holds 3,200 worshippers, while overall the mosque can accommodate 14,000. Much of the craftsmanship is the work of Moroccans, and the wood for the huge doors came from Indonesia.
Main prayer hall with chandelier and doors
Inside the dome
Inside the dome - chandelier and stained glass window
The handwoven carpet has 115,000,000 individual knots and weighs 20 tons. Its delicate pale green shades are broken by bands of rather jarring royal blue, marking the path that non-Muslim visitors should stick to – or, as the sign outside said, ‘Visitors to the prayer halls must bind oneself to walk on the particularised carpet’.
Main prayer hall
The 'particularised carpet'
I liked the elegant carved and painted stonework which somehow manages to be both restrained and yet ornate at the same time – perhaps because of the subtle colours and overall pale tones.
Carving detail, and window
I commented on the electronic screen above the minbar (where the imam stands to lead the prayers) and Hussain told me the significance of the times listed there – the times on the left, in green, are those of the daily prayers for today (although I am not sure why there are six rather than five) and those on the right, in red, are the times when the call to prayer will start.
Minbar and Mihrab
As had Said in Muscat, Hussain showed us the ornate pages in one of the copies of the Quran distributed around the prayer hall.
Hussain with a copy of the Quran
And outside in the courtyard he was happy to play the role of photographer’s model!
In the courtyard with Hussain
The old city
We drove through an older part of the city and stopped briefly by a small mosque which Hussain said was one of the oldest in Salalah. This is Aqeel Mosque, built in 1779. Although it has been restored, that restoration was faithful to the original design and it therefore looks quite different to modern day mosques. The angular white outline to the roof reminded me a little of Navajo motifs, somewhat to my surprise.
Many of the houses in this part of the city are in a poor state of repair. As elsewhere in the country people had chosen to abandon their old homes and move to new ones with modern utilities (electricity, water) rather than renovate what they had. My guess would be that this is a sign of the rapid leap forward Oman made from feudal to modern society in a single generation. Homes weren’t slowly adapted and improved over time as they have been elsewhere but instead were suddenly found wanting in all the ‘mod cons’. It was easier to simply leave and start again. Today, however, people are starting to realise the tourist and aesthetic values of a restored older house and are slowly starting to invest in their restoration.
Old houses and a mosque
We drove through the plantations area of Al Haffa, and stopped to take a short stroll through one of the farms.
Walking through the plantation
The main crop is coconut, but they also grow papaya, bananas and other fruits. Hussain told us that the taller coconut palms were the native ones but in recent years they have introduced shorter ones from Sri Lanka. These are easier to harvest and their yellow fruit is especially sweet.
Green papaya, yellow coconut
The road here is lined with fruit stalls - all looking much the same and all selling the same products. It seems surprising that they all make enough money to survive but Hussain told us that as well as selling to the general public many also supply shops and restaurants. He also said that the plantations mostly belong to Omanis who in the past would have farmed them themselves and worked at the stalls, but today many employ workers from abroad - mostly from the sub-continent.
Roadside fruit stall
We enjoyed a drink of coconut water at the roadside stall and Hussain also bought some small bananas for us all to share, which were excellent. I was rather less keen on the slimy pieces of fruit cut away from inside the coconuts when we had finished our drinks!
Al Baleed Archaeological Park
Next we visited the Al Baleed archaeological site and the Museum of the Frankincense Land which is located there.
On the far side of the lagoon we could see the archaeological site – what remains of a medieval trading port. This is the fourth site included in the UNESCO Land of Frankincense listing that also covers Sumhuram, Wubar and Wadi Dokah, all of which we had already seen. The frankincense trade flourished here between the 8th to 16th centuries AD, so the port is much more recent than that of Khor Rori at Sumhuram. The most significant building here is a large mosque. It had 148 pillars surrounding a courtyard, of which only a few stumps were preserved. The missing pillars have been replaced by new, half-height stone columns which are visible in my photo below.
Al Baleed Archaeological Park
There is also a citadel and residential houses. The whole site is so extensive that it’s possible to hire a golf cart in which to tour it, but a lot is yet to be excavated. Those excavations are on-going – you can see a bright yellow bucket being used by the dig team in this photo.
Al Baleed Archaeological Park
There was no real harbour at Zafar. Instead goods were loaded and unloaded in the shallow water of the lagoon using small boats. Besides the car park are some replica boats with information boards. One, with a rather striking prow, is described as a ‘Fishing Battil’. The sign says that, ‘This Omani boat is built exclusively in the Musandam Governorate where it is used principally as a fishing vessel, using vertical nets.’
The planks of another of the boats are lashed together in the traditional way, using rope. The sign says that this is a ‘Kambari’ and goes on to say that, ‘This traditional Omani boat represents the last generation of the well-known woven sambuq. It is used in Dhofar strictly for sardine fishing or for off-loading cargos from large ships anchored offshore.’
Prow of the fishing battil
Museum of the Frankincense Land
As we walked towards the museum I was surprised to be told by Hussain that photography was allowed inside, as I had read otherwise. He explained that it was only this year that the no photos rule had been withdrawn, so we were lucky with our timing!
The Museum of the Frankincense Land
There are two main halls here. We started in the Marine Hall, which explains the importance of sea trade for Oman, particularly in the context of the frankincense trade. Everything is well signed, in English as well as Arabic.
Replica sailing ship, a baghla
There are several model boats on display. Most are small but there is also a large replica of the stern and part of the deck of a sailing ship – big enough that you can climb on board. A sign describes this as follows:
‘Virtual Sea Life
This model of Baghla represents one of the two prestigious long-distance sailing boats used on voyages from Moan to the east coast of Africa (Zanzibar and Mombasa) that lasted for several weeks. The voyages were full of danger and required determination and skill to complete. Departures and arrivals were joyful celebrations, especially for the sailors returning home.’
Since I found it hard to believe that only two ships were used to make these voyages my assumption was that there were two kinds of ship, of which this is one. Wikipedia confirms this: ‘A baghlah, bagala or baggala is a large deep-sea dhow, a traditional Arabic sailing vessel.’
Other sections focus on navigation (sextants, compasses etc.) and on the goods other than frankincense that flowed between Oman and its trading partners. One display in particular caught my eye, the one about a stone known as gabbro. This igneous rock was an important export from the ancient land of Magan, thought to have encompassed modern-day Oman, to Mesopotamia where it was a favourite of Sumerian sculptors.
A sample of the rock taken from Rustaq in northern Oman (near Jebel Shams) is displayed alongside a replica of a gabbro statue of:
‘Gudea, king of Lagash (2144-2124 BC). On his dress is written, in cuneiform, “from the country of Magan he – Gudea – ordered black stone and had it sculpted in the shape of his statue.” The original is housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.’
In the second room, the History Hall, we watched a short film about frankincense which showed us examples of the different grades and how it is collected – something we had already seen ‘out in the field’ yesterday. The ancient burners displayed here didn’t look so very different in design to the present-day ones, and brought home to me how rooted in the past is the present-day custom of burning the resin in every Omani home.
The rest of this gallery focuses on the history of the country from early times to the present. Among the items included are finds from the archaeological site here – this column is dated to the 10th century AD.
There were some beautiful illuminated Qurans – this one is three hundred years old, but some were even older.
Three hundred year old Quran
We were most interested in the displays about recent history, since 1970, covering the coming to power of Sultan Qaboos, his approach to ruling the country and its modernisation. I particularly liked the speech he gave on the day of his accession:
'... With increasing concern and profound indignation I observed that my father was no longer able to handle the affairs of state. My family and my armed forces pledged allegiance and loyalty to me. The previous Sultan has left the Sultanate. I pledge that the first task I undertake will be to make this Government a modern one as quickly as possible. My first aim will be to relieve you of the unnecessary strain you are living under...'
Recent Omani history
Al Hosn Palace
From here we drove to the Royal Palace, Al Hosn, and stopped to take a few photos. It was in an older fort on this site that the Sultan was born.
Al Hosn Palace
Gardens in front of the palace
The palace mosque
While we took our photos, Hussain told us more about life in Oman prior to the bloodless coup in which the Sultan overthrew his father. In the last five years of his reign, 1965 to 1970, according to Hussain, the old Sultan became increasingly strange, creating bizarre laws which prohibited, for example, the wearing of sandals and dictating in which exact position caps should be worn, i.e. not tipped forwards. Life in Salalah revolved around this palace – the souk was inside its walls, and people queued here daily for permission to work or to marry, for instance.
Lamppost and minaret at the palace
It seems clear that even prior to this period of strangeness the old Sultan wasn’t an especially good leader. Most Omanis lived in poverty and were way behind much of the world in terms of technical developments. There was no real infrastructure - few roads, hospitals or schools. It is little surprise that the people now hold his successor, who transformed and modernised the country in just a few years (helped it has to be said by the discovery of oil), in such esteem and affection.
Al Haffa souk
In Al Haffa souk
In nearby Al Haffa souk we learned more about frankincense and incense. The latter is used exclusively by the women, who burn it to scent their clothes. Frankincense is used not only for its fragrance, to make the home smell nice, but also to keep flying insects such as mosquitoes at bay and for its perceived medicinal qualities – inhaling the smoke is said to be good for asthma, for instance, and the best quality frankincense is steeped overnight in water which is then drunk at breakfast time to treat a number of ailments.
The best frankincense, for medicinal use
Everyday frankincense, for burning
We realised that if we wanted to buy frankincense to burn at home, we also needed to buy the charcoal that provides the flame, so we bought a small packet of both and a little burner at one of the stalls.
Incense burner, and incense
Along the Salalah coast
Hussain thought that the fishermen on nearby Al Haffa beach might be landing a catch of sardines, so we drove over across the sand to have a look - I think he was hoping to perhaps buy some for his dinner! But no, they were simply at work mending their nets and getting ready to go out to sea later. They agreed to let us take photos while Hussain had a chat with a couple of them.
Mending the nets on Al Haffa beach
It would have been good to have watched the fishermen in action I reckon. Sardine fishing is still done the traditional way here, with a huge net dragged around a school of fish using two boats, and then tightened around them. I found a good video of the process online: The dwindling Omani sardine catch.
Fishermen on Al Haffa beach
After watching the fishermen for a while Hussain drove us slowly along the white sand beach, fringed with palm trees. Although attractive, this is definitely a working beach, and signs warn against swimming here for reasons of safety - although Hussain couldn’t explain why it might be unsafe and said his cousin swims there daily!
Palm trees on Al Haffa beach
He showed us the next beach to the east, A’Dahariz, which is more of a resort beach, lined with holiday apartments and a few restaurants. The nearby lagoon of the same name had a few flamingos and herons, but too far away from the road to get good photos.
A’Dahariz beach and lagoon
The beach has a number of attractive shelters which Hussain told us were provided by the government. When his family wants to spend a day on the beach one of the men is sent ahead to ‘bag’ a shelter and hold it so that when the women arrive they have somewhere to sit out of the sun.
Shelter at A’Dahariz beach
We had already seen and done more than was in the official tour but Hussain was keen to suggest further stops. We drove through another area of mostly ruined old houses and he offered to take us to some shops, but we knew we had already taken more of his time than was scheduled and in any case had no interest in further shopping. So we asked him instead to drop us somewhere in the city centre where we could get lunch before returning to the hotel in time for our afternoon airport pick-up.
We decided to try a well-reviewed Turkish restaurant not too far from the hotel, Marmara. So Hussain dropped us off there and we said our good byes, rather sadly. He had already been so generous with his time, and now added to that generosity with gifts - a book about the significance of frankincense to the Dhofar region, and a burner with both frankincense and incense to burn at home as a memory of our visit to Salalah. This was larger and nicer than the one we had bought ourselves, so I immediately decided to gift that one to my sister and keep Hussain’s present as our own souvenir!
Presents from Hussain
We decided on a rather lighter lunch than those included on the tours, which had mostly been tasty but far more than we are accustomed to eating in the middle of the day. So we enjoyed Turkish bread with various dips, including hummus and moutabel, with delicious mango juice to drink.
We intended to walk the four blocks back to the hotel, despite the heat, but a passing taxi driver tempted us. I told him our destination but when Chris asked the price he offered to take us for free as it wasn’t far! Of course, however, we insisted on paying him something, but this was yet another sign of the hospitality of the Omanis.
Back at the hotel we retrieved our case from the store and rearranged our bags for the journey. We then had some time to wait for our transfer driver who, when he came, proved to be rather pleasanter and friendlier than the one who had met us.
Flying back to Muscat
As always in our experience, the tour company had arranged for us to get to the airport far too early – well over three hours ahead of our departure time. Salalah Airport is very new, very clean and attractive, and was very very quiet! We were the first to check-in for our flight and were given the boarding passes for tomorrow’s flight to London in addition to those for today’s to Muscat. Fortunately the assistant queried whether we needed our bag for the overnight stop in Muscat (we did!) rather than check it straight through to London - it hadn’t even occurred to us that might be an option. He also helpfully moved us to better seats on tomorrow’s flight.
We were equally speedily through security and then settled down in a deserted café to wait for boarding. Luckily the airport had free WiFi so we could use the time to check emails and connect with friends as well as sort photos, read and (in my case) draft this blog entry!
Our Oman Air flight passed quickly and reasonably comfortably, and we landed five minutes early in Muscat. There was a bit of a wait for the luggage - long enough for me to start to wonder if it had maybe been sent straight through to London after all! But our case appeared eventually and we were pleased to see Assad waiting for us in the arrivals hall.
Last night in Oman
We had decided to stay in an airport hotel tonight rather than drive into the city centre as it didn’t seem worth it when we were flying out again tomorrow. So Assad drove us to the Golden Tulip, one of the older hotels in the cluster on the fringes of the airport.
We had a decent sized room, quiet despite the location so close to the airport. We freshened up and headed for the roof top bar, keen to have a beer night-cap after several alcohol-free evenings in Salalah. The bar seemed to be slightly confused about its identity - the sign above the door looked like that of a discotheque, while the serving area looked like an English pub bar, but with seating only at counters around the edge, all facing outwards and the centre completely empty. TV screens in the corners were showing European Champions League football. Next to this bar was a small room with a few sofas and a pool table, and beyond that a larger room with the same soft furnishings and low tables, obviously used mainly by shisha smokers. This led out on to a roof terrace with conservatory style seating, a big screen showing the football and bland Euro-pop on the speakers. We chose to sit outside watching planes taking off and the football on the big screen.
After just one beer we retired to our room, ready for an early night. Tomorrow would be a long day.
Postscript: time to go home
Our bed at the Golden Tulip was comfortable and we would have slept well had a very angry-sounding man not chosen to have an argument at two in the morning just below our balcony! Fortunately he didn’t go on for too long and we were able to get back to sleep.
Views from our room
- yes, that is part of a rusty old airplane!
We had a few hours to spare before Assad would return to take us back to the airport for our flight home, so we had a large leisurely breakfast and took a few photos around the hotel before going back to our room to finish packing and take advantage of the free WiFi.
Mynah bird at breakfast
Assad arrived promptly at 11.30 as arranged and drove us the short distance to the airport. We were impressed all over again by the newness, attractiveness and quietness of Muscat Airport!
We dropped off our bag and were quickly through security. With time to kill (as always the local tour company had got us here far earlier than necessary) we had a coffee in one of the cafés - for me a last chance to enjoy Arabic coffee with dates, beautifully served.
Traditional Omani coffee
There was another security check at the gate, and I noticed that they were confiscating bottles of water, even those bought airside, which must have annoyed the passengers concerned!
We took off on time and for the first time on the trip I was able to see, and photograph, Oman from the air - all our previous flights, both take-offs and landings, had been after dark.
Taking off from Muscat Airport
The return flight went as smoothly as the outward one had done. I enjoyed a lamb kofta dinner, watched a forgettable film, and managed to get some photos of the mountains as we flew over Iran.
Flying over Iran
Later we had one of those seemingly endless sunsets you get when flying west at this time of day. It started somewhere over eastern Europe and was still going strong as we flew in over the Thames estuary to land at Heathrow.
Sunset from the plane
Arriving over London
There was a frustratingly long queue for the e-passport gates at immigration, but it did mean that our bag was already on the luggage carousel when we finally got through. And as on so many previous occasions we were grateful to live so close to the airport and be home, courtesy of the Piccadilly line, only 30 minutes or so after picking up that bag. Another great holiday had, sadly, come to an end.