- Nat Geo Traveller, March 2013.
(The story and photos of Oman appeared in the March 2013 edition of National Geographic Traveller)
Text: Mustansir Dalvi
Photos: Sanjay Austa
The word slides trippingly off the tongue of my host Joe from the oman tourism ministry. He’s of tamil origin, but after 18 years in oman Joe is now a true-blue Muscati. Can we stop along the ravine at ras al-Jinz for some photographs? “Khallas!” can we return to the Opera House at the crack of dawn? “Khallas!” Sure! no problem. Don’t mention it again. There is ease, humility, and a quiet confidence in the Omani character that pervades both its residents and its places.
I was struck by the effortlessness with which Oman has charted its own path to progress. Modern Oman has embraced the multi-cultural diversity of the Arabic world and the world at large. As an architect on a five-day trip through the country, I was eager to understand how the country had managed to retain a comfortable sense of place in the world, rather than sliding down the easy slope of international homogeneity that, say, Dubai has been prey to.
Among the buildings that best embody this attitude is muscat’s newest jewel, the Royal Opera House. It rises tier upon marble tier like a ziggurat, casting sharp shadows in the harsh middle eastern sunlight. The Opera House opened in 2011, and was already into its third season of performances. The playbill at the box office was impressive: Jessye norman, Branford marsalis, The Music Man, Madame Butterfly, verdi’s Aida.
- Nat Geo Traveller. March 2013
We were shown around by Dr. Nasser Al-Taee, its advisor. He was strikingly dressed in the Omani national attire of a flowing white dish- dasha, a turban, and the sheathed khanjar, or ceremonial dagger. While we waited for him, a military band in camouflage fatigues marched in the courtyard. This was a full dress rehearsal for a visiting dignitary.
Something like our own Republic Day, I thought, until i realised that every other soldier was female, differentiated only by a peculiarly integrated hijab and military beret. Another Arab stereo- type dispelled. All over Oman, I would see women and men occupying an equal space. Men wore dishdashas; women wore full body gowns. Both covered their heads, but out of choice.
As Dr. Nasser walked us through the structure, I was overwhelmed by the richness of its interior spaces, unequalled since the Golden age of art deco in the 1930s, when interiors were sumptuously adorned. Islamic tradition does not allow figurative ornament. This proscription had led to an architecture seamlessly covered with geometric, floral and calligraphic designs. In this continuous quilt of detail, Dr. Nasser pointed out influences from various islamic cultures: “the mashrabiya (screened bay windows) evoke North African morocco. the concentrically inset niches are of Mughal origin. The interlaced wooden ceiling takes from the craft of Omani forts.” From the exhibits of traditional musical instruments lining the foyer to the violin motif on the embroidered upholstery, this opulence never fell into kitsch.
- Nat Geo Traveller. March 2013
As I thanked him, Dr. Nasser gave me a perspective on Oman’s contemporary buildings. Modern Oman is the creation of Sultan
Qaboos bin Said, oman’s ruler of the last four decades, who makes no distinction between cultural heritage and contemporary needs, Dr. nasser said. All new buildings in Muscat are mandated to reflect the “Omani Style of Civic Architecture”. These rules, in effect since 1992, insist that the country’s architecture, particularly its public and ceremonial buildings, should follow “a combination of omani, arab, islamic and contemporary style”. this explained the unselfconscious presence of traditional elements in its newer buildings. Everywhere I saw arcades and mashrabiyas. White buildings rose in arched tiers and met the sky in fortress-like castellations. The architect in me appreciated why Omani buildings always grouped together into harmonious neighbourhoods.
What separates this desert country from its flashier nouveau riche cousins in the Middle East is the laidback poise that sucks you into its rich culture without fanfare, but on its own terms. Very much clued into millennial aspirations, here is a country on the move. This can largely be attributed to Sultan Qaboos, who has, since 1970, stamped his authority by relentlessly modernising the country, without feeling obliged to jettison its past. The Sultan himself is widely educated— from pune, where he received his primary education, to Sandhurst where he received military training—and he brings this inclusivity to his vision of his country’s future.
- Nat Geo Traveller. March 2013.
Borrowing freely from the history and visual culture of the Islamic world, Omani architecture displays the exquisite craftsmanship only possible in stone and timber. No curtain glass buildings here. By choosing culture as a modern leitmotif, Oman has preserved its historical warps and wefts. While the exteriors are restrained, mostly in off-white or in pastels, interior spaces, like the opera or the Grand mosque, explode in a colourful kaleidoscope of intricate carvings and rich ornament.
Taking leave of the Opera House, we drove along Sultan Qaboos Street to Muttrah, Oman’s old port. We passed several pedestrian overbridges. Each one was faced with beige limestone and had balustrades incised with intricate floral motifs. Concrete and craftsmanship. Contemporaneity and continuity. I could now recognize Omani Civic Architecture.
I also saw an alternative, intangible Omani style in the common touch, where neither detail nor amenity distinguished high from low. While the Opera may be to the taste of few, football was for everyone. The Sultan Qaboos Stadium was not far from the Opera, and can accommodate every soccer-mad Omani, of which there are many. All along the main avenues, I wistfully gazed at banners announcing the FIFA qualifying match between the hosts and Jordan, scheduled to be played a few days later.
- National Geographic Traveller. March 2013
The Muttrah Souq abuts the corniche of Muscat. The souq is a labyrinth, with ceilings of lashed timber, varnished and painted like
an earlier avatar of the Opera House. Inside, my senses were assailed all at once with perfume, frankincense, and spices all mingling in its shop-lined caverns. My nose led me to a perfumery and I shopped for little vials of attar. Vendors of wholesale foodstuff betrayed a Gujarati presence in their name boards: Mohandas Muthradas, Harishchandra Dipchand Karamchand & partners. Outside, I stopped by the sea-facing Ramesh Mahal, one of Muttrah’s older buildings dating back to 1939, with a plaque in Gujarati and Arabic. this is the old- er part of Muscat, where Indian immigrants first came to seek a better life, many decades before the Gulf phenomenon of the ’70s, and left their mark everywhere.
Today, there are an estimated 2.3 million Indians in Oman. There are many things we Indians and Omanis share, most common among which is food, and the obsessive-pathological love of the mobile phone. No Omani can be separated from it, and if they are not talking to you, they are taking into a mouthpiece. Sulaiman al Alawi, Joe’s assistant, drove us northeast to the city of Sur. the grand freeways were smooth as silk. My enjoyment was soon tempered by the views of craggy geology and azure waters whizzing past faster than I could register. I turned to Sulaiman, only to find him driving the SUV one handed, negotiating turns and bends at 160 km/hour, his other hand stuck to one ear, confabulating about the evening dinner, and compiling a menu: “Samboosa, kachoooree, cutless….. chapauteee!”
Sur is spectacularly arrayed on the Gulf of Oman. Like most Omani cities, the tallest edifices in Sur were the minarets and the forts. Its sweeping waterfront was lined with houses of the wealthy, variously ornamented, but similar in height and mostly white. Omani Civic Style was at work here. I could only imagine the extravagance that lay with- in. One thinks of the Middle East as mostly desert but it also has hundreds of kilometres of coastline, beaches, harbours, and ship-building yards. There is a dhow factory outside of Sur. Can we go there, I asked Sulaiman. “Khallas!” he replied, with Omani consistency.
- National Geographic Traveller. March 2013
Two dhows were under construction, made from Burmese and Malaysian timber. The boats were for the wealthiest Sheikhs. Once ready, they would be sent off for modern fittings. I once visited a dhow factory in Bekal, Kerala. Large wooden vessels were similarly made, with preindustrial techniques: planking lashed together; crevices filled with sealant. The Arabian Sea has been the sealant between cultures around it for over two millennia. Indus pottery has been found in Oman. Ruins of the port of muziris described in ancient Roman texts, have been found in Kerala. many workers in the Sur factory were from Kerala too.
The fort in the Omani landscape is easily recognisable: tall, cylindrical with smooth, unscalable walls and battlements. They recall a time when Oman was pivotal on trade routes to India. The most famous is at Nizwa, once a former capital. Dating from the 1600s, Nizwa Fort bleeds history. I climbed its fortifications, and ran the gauntlet of architectural deceptions, maze-like stairways and stout defences, most notably the “murder holes” that hovered above me at all times. Were I an invading force, this is where I would be stymied, scalded to death by boiling date syrup poured from above.
- Nizwa- Shopping Market.
But it was peacetime, and I made it to the top, where a large store was filled with gunnysacks of dates. The museum in the fort is a pre- served residence, with living and sleeping spaces, kitchens and privies. Floors were made of wooden beams, overlaid with palm leaf matting and stone slabs. Wooden construction links the various architectures of oman, from its dhow builders, to bedouin tents at Wahiba, to rural settlements in Al Batinah, to the forts and souqs, and the new mosque and opera.
Oman has its fair share of rural idyll, settled cosily around oases and date palm plantations. Dates are one of its chief exports. Some villages predated Islam, and allowed me to trace the precursors of later Omani architecture. I visited the settlement of Al Hamrah, southwest of Muscat along the Akhdar Range, aka Oman’s “Grand canyon”. Houses in Al Hamrah were built directly on the tilted rock face of a hillock. I walked between alleys of two-storey houses of mud, stone and plaster. In these houses, now largely abandoned, floors were made of palm trunks, split lengthwise and tied with rope. Later, the dying sun hit the upper floors and I felt myself transported east, into the gullies of Jaisalmer, into the “Sonar Kella”.
to the northwest of Al Hamrah is the Wadi Ghul, an ancient ruin. The remains of the huts reveal walls of dry masonry, held together only by the precision of stone placement. They withstood the ravages of time, like the cyclopean walls of Machu picchu, although on a human scale. As I meandered around, taking photographs, Sulaiman cautioned me that the word “Ghul”’ referred to snakes, which present themselves for human contemplation when the wadi swells with mon- soon runoff.
- The Sink Hole
No trip to Oman is complete without a visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Since 2001, this is the central symbol of Oman. I en- tered through interlocking, arcaded courtyards. the entire mosque was faced with indian sandstone, carved with geometric motifs. My gaze kept returning to the central dome, gilded on the outside and then intricately latticed in hand-carved sandstone, like an upside- down basket.
The central prayer hall had to be one of the largest interior spaces in contemporary architecture, a square 75 meters on each side. The immense dome rose 50 meters off the floor. Everyone around me stared upwards, open-mouthed, at a phenomenal installation, nearly five floors high, floating above us. from the dome’s eye, a 14-meter-tall chandelier, gold plated with Swarovski crystals was suspended like the mothership from e.t. I walked around in bare feet on the carpet that covered the entire floor with endless arabesques. It was handmade, from the Khorasan province of Iran. I was told this was second-largest hand-woven carpet in the world. When the mosque was full, during eid for instance, 20,000 faithful would submit to allah here.
On my last evening in Muscat, as we traced our steps back along its central spine, where the mosque and opera dematerialised in the glare of the mid-afternoon sun, we crossed the path of hordes of enthusiastic Omanis, waving national colours, moving with determination and gaiety all in the same direction. Oman was playing Jordan to qualify for the World cup! Joe, I asked, do you think we could er… you know his answer.
- The Football Captain loses his shirt to his fans.
And so it came to pass, on that evening I found myself planted squarely on the playing field of the Sultan Qaboos Stadium, not ten meters away from the Omani goalpost, proudly wearing a press card. Like the players, I felt the weight of 26,500 spectators on my back. No score at half time. A goal was missed on the Jordanian side, and, as if immersed in a 5.1 Dolby universe, I heard the roar of a Mexican wave whoosh behind me, left to right. This sound was much more impressive than merely watching it. It went all round the stadium two or three times before it died out. after 90 minutes, three minutes of injury time were played out. From every stand a high pitch whistling ensued, like a legion of bats had descended into the stadium. in the melee, the last minutes ticked by. Game over. the score, 2-1. I am happy to report that my newly adopted team, Oman won.
Musat, the sultanate of oman’s capital, is located in the northeast of the country. Although oman’s landscape is dominated by the arid al-hajar mountain range, it is a harbor city, opening into the Gulf of Oman, which separates it from Iran, further North East.
- Dune bashing at Wahiba Sands.
There are direct flights (3-4 hours) to Muscat from Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, and Chennai.
Easiest way to get around the city is by taxi. Most taxis do not have meters and require a fair bit of haggling. It’s a good idea to talk to a few locals before heading out, to find out the acceptable fare. There are a number of car rental services that allow visitors with an international driving license to hire a vehicle. A basic four-door vehicle costs about `2000 a day.
The geometric, jagged-edged facade of the Ras-al-Jinz Visitors Centre is misleading. The building doesn’t house a secret scientific base as its exteriors seem to suggest, but is one of the largest eco-tourism centers in Oman. Green sea turtles are the biggest draw here, and visitors can witness them nesting, and watch them crawl to the shore almost every night. As of 1996, Ra al-Jonz and its surrounding areas were declared a nature reserve with 45 km of protected shore. The visitors centre educates newcomers about responsible tourism and provides accommodation to those who’d like to stay on.
- The Green Turtles of Ras-al-Jinz