Muscat, Oman – beautiful city, but don’t expect locally-grown grapes 2

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.

Muttrah Souq, Muscat, Oman

Inside historic Muttrah Souq, Old Muscat, Oman. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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!

Qurum Beach, Muscat, Oman

Qurum Beach, Muscat. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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. 🙂

Muscat, Oman

There are more than 500 forts scattered across Oman. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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).

muttrah incense burner monument, Muscat, Oman

Muttrah incense burner monument, on the rugged coastal range that separates modern Muscat from Old Muscat. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

In 1507 Portuguese admiral Afonso de Albuquerque 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.

Fort Al Jalali, Muscat, Oman

Fort Al Jalali, built circa 1580. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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 (Jibreen Castle, near Nizwa, was the palace of the Yaruba dynasty).

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.

Al Alam Palace, Muscat, Oman

Al Alam Palace; the ceremonial palace of Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat, Oman

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat, Oman

The famous chandelier. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

Royal Opera House, Muscat, Oman

Royal Opera House. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

Old Muscat, Oman

Old Muscat. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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, Muscat, Oman

Muttrah Corniche, Muscat, Oman. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

Practical information and how to reach Muscat:

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. More info here.

More on Oman:

The Balcony Walk – it’s Jebel Shams lite

Nizwa – swathed in date groves, capital of Oman proper?

Bahla Fort – labyrinthine 13th Century castle, but is it too schmick?

The archaeological sites of al-Khutm, Bat, and al-Ayn

Jibreen Castle – boiling date oil + murder holes = unhappy attackers

Misfat Al Abriyeen – mud-brick city, alpine oasis, all thanks to falaj

Yemini-style mudbrick village, Al Hamra

Posts on the Middle East:


Chogha Zanbil – the original ziggurat, built by the Elamites

Shushtar – downfall of Valerian, ends in triumph for Roman engineers


Petra – Al Siq: narrow, magical chasm leading to Al Khazneh

Petra – Ad Deir: the monastery?


Doha – Souq Waqif, a spiral minaret, and a masterpiece by I.M. Pei


Pamukkale – Romans bathed in these milky white pools, so why can’t we? 

Fethiye – painterly sunsets, Lycian tombs, and full English breakfasts

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