I was looking forward to some top quality muscat grapes – the big red ones – when I arrived in Muscat, Oman. I wasn’t expecting wine, or moscato, I was perfectly aware that Oman upholds the traditional Islamic value of abstinence from alcohol, but I was still looking forward to eating the grapes.
Shortly after arriving in Muscat I entered a supermarket, went straight to the fruit section, and searched around till I found a packet of giant red grapes. Success!
Except… something wasn’t quite right. It was the branding on the packet; it looked oddly familiar. I grabbed the pack, flipped it over, and there it was. My suspicions were confirmed.
Product of Australia!
It turns out that muscat grapes aren’t necessarily related to Muscat, Oman, at all. There is a strong chance that muscats did originate in this part of the world; but there are also rival claims from Greece and Persia.
Anyway, nowadays muscats are mainly grown in Italy and France. And also in Australia. 🙂
The founding of Muscat
People have been living in the Muscat region of Oman since at least the 6th Millennium BCE (revealed through the discovery of burial sites and pottery in nearby Ras al-Hamra). The first formal record of a settlement here appears in the chronicles of Ptolemy of Greece in the 1st Century CE. The ancient geographer labeled the settlement Cryptus Portus (meaning: the Hidden Port).
In the 3rd Century CE, Muscat was captured by the Sasanids of Persia, led by the unstoppable Shapur I (whose defeat of Roman Emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab is immortalised in the Triumph of Shapur I inscription at Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran).
In 1507 Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque (who also made an appearance in Mombasa, Kenya) attacked Muscat, killed most of its citizens, and burnt the city to the ground.
The Portuguese found the port to their liking; they returned to it time and time again, and slowly developed it into a stronghold. Forte de São João (now called Fort Al Jalali) was constructed circa 1580 to defend the harbour.
During the next two centuries the Ottomans twice captured Muscat, only to lose it back to the Portuguese.
In 1649, the unified tribes of Oman, led by Nasir bin Murshid of the Yaruba Dynasty, succeeded in ousting the Portuguese from Muscat.
In the ensuing years the Omanis went on to become a maritime power in their own right, expelling the Portuguese from sea ports up and down the coastline of East Africa, including at Lamu, Mombasa, and Zanzibar.
In 1840 the capital of Muscat and Oman (as the country was known at the time) was relocated to Stone Town, Zanzibar. But this arrangement ended with Said bin Sultan’s death in 1856.
The following century saw Oman embroiled in internecine fighting. Circumstances escalated in 1963 with the outbreak of the Omani Civil War (also known as the Dhofar Rebellion). During the war Qaboos bin Said staged a coup d’etat, and took over as ruler.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said continues to rule Oman to this day.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
One day, in the early 1990s, Sultan Qaboos decided he wanted to build a grand mosque in Muscat. And what the sultan wants the sultan gets.
Completed in 2001, the mosque is made of imported Indian sandstone. It can hold 6,500 people inside its main prayer hall, and accommodate approximately 20,000 people in total in its grounds.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque has the honour of containing the largest chandelier in the world. The chandelier is 14 metres in height, and weighs nearly 8,000 kilograms.
The mosque also contains the 2nd largest single piece carpet in the world (it was the largest in the world at the time of completion). The current largest single piece carpet is in Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Royal Opera House
With the Grand Mosque completed, Sultan Qaboos, a long-time patron of the arts, decided what his capital was missing was a magnificent new opera house displaying the highest calibre of contemporary Omani architecture. And so it came to be.
The Royal Opera House was completed in 2011.
Old Muscat is separated from the modern capital (a sprawling metropolis crisscrossed by ten-lane freeways and dotted with giant westernised mall complexes) by a rugged coastal range, and it feels like an entirely separate city.
Old Muscat is full of well-presented colonial buildings, historic gates, and forts, and it is so quiet it at times it feels like a ghost town. It is well worth exploring on foot – if you can tolerate the heat (average temperature in summer months hovers around 40 degrees).
The sights include Al Jalali Fort, Al Alam Palace, the National Museum, and the Omani French Museum, although it was the rugged coastline and harbour that I liked best.
Muttrah, two kilometres west of Old Muscat, is the site of the largest sea port in Oman (Sultan Qaboos Port).
For tourists there is the attractive Muttrah Corniche to stroll along, and a fascinating souq (marketplace) to explore. The souq is one of the oldest in the Arab world; it’s called Al Dhalam Souq (Al Dhalam means darkness in Arabic), and I can attest it is quite dark inside.
Muscat is not the easiest city to get around. The city’s primary tourist sights are spread out over a large area, there is little in the way of public transport, and accommodation and transport costs are steep. There is a hop-on hop-off bus that takes you around the city, but tickets are exorbitantly expensive.
If you want to reduce costs I recommend finding cheap lodgings on the outskirts of the city and hiring a car for the duration of your stay in Oman. It isn’t exactly cheap, but nothing in Oman is cheap, and this way at least you are mobile.