Oman day eight
16.02.2019 - 16.02.2019
Shia Sur al Lewatia Mosque, Muttrah
Although our room at Al Falaj Hotel was comfortable, we were woken far too early (just after 5.00 am) by the noise of the TV in the room next door. Some people have no consideration for others! As on our first day in Oman we had breakfast outside by the pool, enjoying the warm sunshine. At 8.30 Said picked us up for our city tour on what was to be our last day with him as our guide.
Breakfast at the Al Falaj hotel
Muscat city tour: Muttrah
We started our city tour in the district known as Muttrah, its commercial heart – home to the city’s port and a number of sights.
The first stop on our tour was at the fish market, a modern building down by the waterfront at one end of the Corniche. I liked the design - the roof looks a bit like fish scales, and although not obvious from ground level, when I looked at the building later on Google maps (satellite view) I could see that the shape echoes that of a fish – very clever!
Muttrah fish market
Muttrah fish market on Google maps
Muttrah fish market
Sign in the market
- English on this side, Arabic on the reverse
We strolled through, taking photos of both fish and fish-sellers - some of the latter were happy to pose, other shots had to be grabbed surreptitiously.
In Muttrah fish market
I think these are red mullet
In the next-door vegetable market too we found most people tolerant of our cameras, although we didn’t spend long here as we had already been in the one in Nizwa a few days ago.
Happy to pose
Dates for sale
Our next destination after visiting the markets was the souk, and Said suggested that we might like to walk there along Muttrah’s famous Corniche while he moved the car, to save us walking back the same way afterwards.
Pavilion on Muttrah Corniche
We enjoyed our walk in the warm sun, taking photos as we went. The mosque is the Shia Sur al Lewatia Mosque with a Shia community living in a walled area, off-limits to visitors, nearby – a sign on the mosque also made it clear that non-Muslim visitors were not permitted to enter.
Shia Sur al Lewatia Mosque, Muttrah
A heron on the rocks below caught my eye. He was diving regularly for fish and I managed to catch him in action after a few failed attempts!
There was a cruise ship in port (just visible in the background on the far left of my image below) and at first I thought the large boats moored nearer to shore were smaller cruise ships, but Said enlightened me when we met up a bit later – these are the private yachts of the Sultan!
The Sultan's yachts
We met up with Said again outside the souk and went in to explore on our own while he waited at a coffee shop outside. I had read that the souk was modern and had expected the rather sterile atmosphere of the one I visited in Abu Dhabi last year so was pleasantly surprised to find that this one has lots more character. There were lots of tourists, in particular from the large cruise ship we had seen moored in the port, but it was clear that locals also shop here, especially when you penetrate a little further from the Corniche entrance.
For the most part we simply enjoyed just wandering around, absorbing all the activity around us. Of course I also took lots of photos and found this easier than in many other similar places. Most of the shop-keepers seemed not to be bothered that they might be in my photos, although a few of these were ‘shot from the hip’.
In Muttrah Souk
Many of the stalls of course sell quite similar goods, most of them (but not all) aimed at tourists rather than locals. Omani antiques sit alongside tacky souvenirs, knock-off football strips alongside t-shirts adorned with camels and palm trees, cheap bangles alongside rather lovely silver jewellery and so on. Of course being Oman there is frankincense – in fact, this is, according to the Rough Guide, ‘one of the few markets in the world where it’s possible to buy gold, frankincense and myrrh all under a single roof’.
Shops in the souk
I found the levels of hassle from sellers here somewhat less than in some other places we have visited, notably Marrakesh, although a few were rather quick to pounce when I stopped to look, and pressed me to buy something. This had the usual opposite effect from the one they intended as I moved swiftly on! But I did want to get one or two souvenirs and after browsing for a while chose a pretty scarf. The vendor wanted 6 rials, I offered 3 and we settled on 3.500, which I felt was fair. We also got a cushion cover for 2.500 - the seller admitted that, as I suspected, it was made in India rather than Oman, but we liked it and it will go with our décor and with the similar cushion we bought in Udaipur.
For sale in the souk
Leaving the souk we joined Said at the coffee shop but after waiting twenty minutes for them to bring the mango juice we’d ordered we told them not to bother as we were keen to get on with seeing the sights and had in truth wanted the brief rest more than the drinks! Said had done his best to chivvy them along and as we left mentioned that he would probably not take visitors there in the future – there are certainly plenty to choose from along the Corniche.
Muscat city tour: Old Muscat
After visiting the souk we drove to the oldest part of Muscat, which is separated from Muttrah by a headland, Riyam. Said stopped at a spot with a good view of the old houses and forts beyond, so we could take a few photos. In my photo below you can see the two forts on the left – Al Marani nearer the camera and Al Jalali just behind. From this vantage point the two forts appear to be close together but are in fact on either side of the bay. In the middle of that bay is a blue building with white arches and an Omani flag which can be seen on the right side of my photo. This is the royal palace, Al Alam, which we were to visit later.
View of the old city
Al Marani and Al Jalali forts
On the left side of the city as we looked down on it, we could see the restored city gate, now a history museum. Up until the mid 20th century these gates were closed at night, three hours after dusk, and anyone going out after that time had by law to carry a lantern. We were to learn a lot about the restrictive laws under the old sultan from Hussein, our guide in Salalah, so my guess is that this is another example of these.
The restored city gate
We drove down into the old city to visit the Bait al Zubair museum, which is privately-owned but (judging by the large banner outside) government supported. The exhibits are split between several separate and rather attractive old buildings.
Banner, and colourful door at the Bait al Zubair museum
To my frustration no interior photos are allowed so I can’t share any of the exhibits, but those I found most interesting included old prints and photos of Muscat, regional costumes, jewellery and some beautiful wooden doors. I was intrigued by the room layouts of the 1940s and 50s, based on the living quarters of the late Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali (who founded the museum) and featuring furniture that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an English country house during the same era.
There was also a temporary exhibition of paintings by an Iranian artist, Mina Rezaee, called Women and the World of Traditions. You can see some examples of her work on this website: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/mina-rezaee.html. Some of those paintings were included in the exhibition, including several in the series of Middle Eastern Women.
We also liked another temporary exhibition, in the café where we had a cold drink, of rather good photos of owls. Somehow however we managed to miss the garden with a miniature Omani village, which we could have photographed – a very rare example of Said failing to mention something we would have liked to see!
But we did spot a number of painted goats, following the trend started, I believe, by the Cow Parades which began around the turn of the century.
Painted goat outside the Bait al Zubair museum, and attractive wall lamp
From here we drove the short distance to the striking royal palace, Al Alam. The name means ‘The Flag’ in Arabic and this is one of six royal residences in the country – although in practice it is more of a ceremonial palace than a residence. It was built in 1972 on the site of an earlier royal palace, which had stood here for about 200 years.
Al Alam Palace
The design is contemporary Islamic, with echoes of the past in the use of columns, arched windows and tiles, but modern in its lines and very colourful, especially when set among the beautifully planted flower beds. Around the main palace are a number of more restrained white government buildings – also modern but with more traditional elements in their design.
Al Alam Palace, with government building beyond
Coat of arms on the palace gate
Both here and in other conversations with Said, as well as with the guides we met in Salalah, it was clear that the Omani people love their sultan and are full of praise for all he has done to build a modern, tolerant society.
Again Said left us to walk around the palace on our own and met us on the far side with the car.
Side view of the palace, with gardens and egret
This gave us a closer look at Al Mirani Fort and the Al Khor Mosque which stands beneath it. This fort was built in 1550 by the Portuguese in an effort to defend the city against the frequent attacks of the Ottomans. A legend describes how this fort played an important role in expelling the Portuguese from Muscat in the mid-17th century. According to the story the Portuguese commander, Pereira, fell in love with the daughter of a local Hindu merchant, Narutem, who forbade them to marry on religious grounds. When the commander threatened to ruin him, Narutem pretended to give in and agree to the marriage. He spent an entire year appearing to prepare for the wedding, cleaning the fort’s water tanks, replacing old contaminated gunpowder and restocking supplies of grain and other food. However, what he actually did was slowly clear the fort of all ammunition. When all the supplies were removed, he signalled to his ruler Sultan bin Saif so he could attack and easily conquer the defenceless fort.
Al Marani Fort
Minaret of Al Khor Mosque and Al Mirani Fort
After picking us in the car on the far side Said stopped again briefly so we could get photos of Al Jalali Fort on the other side of the bay. This was built in 1587, after Al Mirani had been partly destroyed in an Ottoman attack. It in turn fell to Omani forces in 1650. It later served as a jail, into much of the 20th century, but was restored in the 1980s and converted to become the sultan’s private museum of Omani cultural history, open only to dignitaries visiting the country as it is cut off from the rest of the city by the government buildings attached to the royal palace.
Al Jalali Fort
Said also pointed out the graffiti on the rocky islet across the bay. Traditionally visiting sailors would paint the name of their ship here, forming an unofficial log book.
Rocks and forts near Muscat Harbour
I was intrigued by these and later dug up the following quote from a book by James Morris, ‘Sultan in Oman’, published in 1957:
‘Hundreds of naval names were therefore on the rock, some of them freshly painted, some of them so faded that you could barely make out their letters. There were innumerable good old British names like Teazer or Surprise, and several American and Indian ships were also represented. One inscription records a visit by H.M.S. Hardinge, the ship which hovered so effectively along the Arabian shore during the Arab Revolt and which the Arabs thought must be peaceably inclined because she had only one funnel. I sympathised with the generations of midshipmen who had climbed those rugged rocks with their painting parties, in the heat of the Muscat sun…. I was all very well when the ship's name was Swan, Fox, or teal, but imagine painting H.M.S. Duchess of Edinburgh on the bare rocks in such an inferno! Some people thought the efforts of such resolute sailors had disfigured the captivating harbour of Muscat. I like the inscriptions, for they reminded me of the Greek travellers who carved comments upon the Collosi of Memnon, at Thebes, and of the generations of explorers who cut their names upon the rock of El Moro in Mexico; and anyway an honest British naval name never disfigured anything. The Sultan liked them, too. He called the anchorage "my visitors' book".’
Legend has it that Horatio Nelson, when a young midshipman, himself scrambled up these rocks to leave the name of his ship here. Although most of the ‘signatures’ are old, a few are more recent. The name RELUME on the rocks just above the small fort which guards the entrance to the bay (visible in my photo above) is that of an offshore supply vessel that has also helped in a number of recovery operations in the Gulf. Others in that photo may be harder to make out, but include at least one in a Cyrillic script (right at the top, just left of the watchtower) and several from New Zealand including HMNZS Canterbury.
Other names I spotted in our brief stop here included HMS Perseus, painted just above the water line in the middle of the island with the added detail of a Union Jack. This is probably the signature of HM Submarine Perseus which was built in 1929 and struck a mine off Italy in 1941.
Writing on the rocks
And HMS Falmouth which visited Muscat in 1974. This ship was built at the Swan Hunter yards on Tyneside in the 1950s so Chris can claim some connection to it, having been born just a couple of miles away and in the same decade!
Said also obligingly stopped on our way back to Mutttrah so that I could get some good photos of the enormous incense burner which stands on the Riyam headland at the western end of the Corniche.
Riyam incense burner
Back to the Corniche
By now it was time for lunch. The plan was to eat in a restaurant back near the souk but we had to park some distance away as everywhere was full. On a Saturday there is free parking in the city and everyone seemed to be taking advantage of it! But luckily we found a spot back near the fish market and again walked along the Corniche to the restaurant, Al Rafee. This was on the first floor above a shop. In appearance it was nothing special, even a little grubby looking, but the meal Said ordered was delicious and plentiful - grilled fish, spicy vegetables, rice with lamb, chicken curry, more vegetables in a Thai-style coconut sauce and naan bread. Every time I thought there was surely enough for the three of us on the table, another dish appeared! I have a feeling Said was pulling out all the stops for our last meal together, although he didn’t say so. The meal was washed down with my favourite refreshing lemon mint juice.
Sleepy cats outside the restaurant
Al Rafee Restaurant
As we walked back to the car I took some photos of a few of the older buildings on the Corniche which I believe are merchants’ houses from the 19th century.
Old merchants' house on the Corniche
Sunset cruise (?)
We went back to the hotel for a short rest while Said went to the mosque. The next thing on our itinerary was supposed to be a sunset cruise on a dhow, but when he returned to pick us up Said broke the slightly disappointing news that the dhows were fully booked with cruise passengers (a large P&O ship was docked today and we had been seeing the passengers on their shore excursions everywhere we went in the city). As an alternative we were to go on a modern ‘speedboat’ cruise instead, which sounded like an OK compromise. After all, I reasoned, we would still have the sunset views and it wouldn’t be so very different as once on the boat the views mattered more than its appearance. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
Said drove us over to the marina and made a fruitless last ditch effort to get us on a dhow while we took a few photos and soaked up the late afternoon sun. Then it was time to board what proved to be a very small boat, along with three German tourists who had presumably also been ‘bumped’.
A dhow - the sort of boat we should have been on!
Our ride took us south down the coast from the marina to the luxury Al Bustan and Shangri La hotels, and past some interesting rock formations.
The Al Bustan Hotel
The light was lovely but it was hard to get decent photos from the rocking boat, although the pilot did stop at the most interesting points and turn slowly so that everyone got a chance.
The pilot didn’t speak much English (or German) but Said translated his occasional bits of commentary into both languages so that our companions could also understand. From one of these snippets we learned that this rock is said to resemble a baby elephant. No, I couldn’t see it at first but if you peer carefully you can just make it out, although it’s maybe more like a hairy mammoth than an elephant!
'Elephant' rock formation
Now you see it!
We then returned past the marina and past the old city. We got another look at the ‘sultan’s visitors’ book’ and the forts guarding the bay.
The 'sultan's visitors' book' from the sea
Watchtowers from the sea
We could also appreciate from here the scale of the Al Alam Palace and the way in which it dominates the waterfront here.
Al Alam Palace from the sea
- with Al Jalali Fort on the left and Al Mirani Fort on the right
Wishing again that we were on one of these lovely boats!
In my opinion this would have made a great spot from which to wait for the sunset, with the giant incense burner and several watchtowers to lend foreground interest.
Sunset over Muscat
But we continued on to a spot off the Corniche where we were to wait for the sunset. The backdrop here was not especially scenic - rather than the fort or watchtower that I would have chosen we had the cranes of Muttrah’s port area.
Also, the speed of the boat on the final leg of the ride had meant that my camera got splashed with salty seawater and I found it hard to get the lens clean enough to get decent photos of the sunset itself. Still, I managed a few as the sun descended towards the mountains beyond the port.
Sunset over Muttrah
But if we had been a bit disappointed in our trip to this point, it went further downhill from here. Firstly, the pilot left the bay before the sun had fully set, so we missed the ‘magic moment’, having turned our backs on it! Secondly, he then got up such speed on the return to the marina that we got drenched in the spray - not ideal given that we had a flight this evening to Salalah.
Luckily there was to be another short break back at the hotel so we would get a chance to fish dry clothes out of our suitcase and change for the journey. But before that we had to say goodbye to Said who had proved to be as good a guide as we had been promised when we booked the tour. We were sorry to part company, but excited to be heading to a new part of the country for more adventures.
Journey to Salalah
Once in dry clothes we were picked up for our airport transfer by Assad, who had met us there a week ago. He reassured us that the problem with tour company drivers picking up and dropping off passengers at the airport had been resolved, and so it had, as we drove in with no police check in sight. We arrived at Muscat’s attractive modern airport with plenty of time to spare for a coffee and muffin before boarding our plane for the one hour 45 minute flight.
At the airport
The flight passed quite quickly, although we were glad we had eaten something at the airport as the quality of the snack served (a chicken pastry) was disappointing after the good food we had eaten on our flight with Oman Air from London last week.
Salalah Airport is as bright and modern as Muscat’s, and much quieter, plus there was no need for border control formalities as ours was a domestic flight. We were soon emerging into the arrivals hall, where we were met by a very taciturn young rep from the local tour company. He wasn’t even there when we first emerged but had passed the sheet of paper with our names on to another man (presumably while he popped to the loo) and on returning seemed surprised that we had appeared and were claiming to be the passengers he was meeting!
Our room at the Haifa House Hotel
But he did the job of driving us to our hotel, Haifa House, adequately, and even broke his silence to welcome us to Salalah as we left his car – suddenly conscious, I suspect, that a tip might be in the offing (it wasn't!).
By now it was well after midnight and we were tired, so we were glad to have a friendlier welcome from the hotel staff and to have them handle our registration with speed. We were soon in our large room where we got the first clue that this hotel has at times its own way of doing things - an ironing board was set up in a prominent corner by the window! Needless to say, we didn’t bother to do any ironing before falling gratefully into the large comfortable bed!