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Muscat enwraps the past with the present

By Habeeb Salloum

IT SEEMED, as we drove on a wide thoroughfare edged by well-tended shrubs and trees, that we were travelling from town to town rather than traversing the city of Muscat, Oman's capital. All along this boulevard and its roundabouts, covered with flowers and greenery, were eye-catching sculptures of artefacts from Omani history and life. It was truly an imperial avenue uniting a 40km spread-out city — inviting in its historic and modern attractions.

Greater Muscat, with a population of some 600,000, in reality consists of three large towns: Muscat, Muttrah, Ruwi and their suburbs — all divided from each other by low hills.

At the southern end is located the old town of Muscat, a city with an illustrious past. Overpowered by its scenic ancient forts and beautiful mosques, it stands, as it has for centuries, as the crown jewel of the Sultanate of Oman. Unlike almost all the other towns on the eastern Arabian shores, it does not have an artificial air, having been for centuries an important trading centre and an imperial capital.

Poised on lofty crags, guarding the mouth of its harbour, are two recently renovated citadels. They were built by the Portuguese during their occupation, in the 16th and 17th centuries, of parts of Oman's coast, and expanded by the Omanis after these European invaders were expelled.

Overlooking the walled city, in the midst of which is located the flamboyant sultan's palace, stands on one side the Mirani Fort and on the other the Jalali Fortress, housing a museum which needs a special permit to visit. One of the sultan's palace guards who was talking to us as we surveyed the forts described them well when he remarked: “Are they not majestic, these fortresses? You know! They are the symbol of our country.”

For us, it was exciting to explore and savour the city by foot while we reminisced about its history. After our tour of this immaculately clean compact town with its impressive structures, we stopped a while to photograph the sultan's palace, seemingly out of the Arabian Nights, then left for Muttrah, 4km away.

Just before entering Muttrah, the Corniche and its surroundings, said to be one of the most beautiful spots in the Arabian Peninsula, gave the landscape a fairy tale aura. On the edge of Riyam Park, dominated by a gigantic white incense-burner, we stopped to enjoy the view.

The burner-monument, a very impressive replica of an artefact which, for centuries, has been important in Omani life, soared above the coastal highway — a road seemingly overwhelmed by the huge colourful flower-urns dividing the lanes. Like us, first-time travellers always stop to admire the breathtaking natural scene — greatly enhanced by the hand of man.

I was driving slowly savouring the panorama, when my daughter tapped me on the shoulder: “Look at that fort! It looks like a storybook fortress.” I turned my head. Towering above us was the Portuguese Fort, dominating Muttrah's port which bristled with cargo ships, modern yachts and dhows (traditional Arab sailing boats) — all overshadowed by a huge passenger liner.

We parked on the long sweeping Corniche, then walked the seaside avenue, edged by plaques of fibreglass birds representing Oman's wildlife. At the end of the Corniche, past a fish roundabout, we stopped to explore the fish souk. One side of the souk housed a fruit and vegetable section and on the other side was a very clean, well-stocked fresh fish market.

Crossing over to the other side of the Corniche, past men playing the ancient seashell game of hawalis, we walked back under the shadows of the many architecturally delightful old merchant houses, dating from the 19th century. A good number were being painted sparkling-white or a light beige — the sole colours allowed for the outside of buildings in Greater Muscat. The only exception is the use of other colours for decoration. There is a government law which stipulates that structures must not look rundown. Hence, most of Muscat's buildings always appear to glow in the sunlight.

At the Bank of Oman, we turned right and entered Muttrah's souk — the most interesting traditional market in the Arab Gulf states. Its meandering alleyways, sprawling in all directions, are filled with tiny shops, stocking everything from stainless steel products to the handiwork of the bedouins. Above all, frankincense and myrrh, traded in Oman since time immemorial, were on sale everywhere. It was as if we had walked back into history.

A cruise liner had stopped in Muscat for the day and its passengers crowded the souk. Bargaining was impossible. The passengers, with a few hours to spare, would pay whatever the merchants asked. It was apparent that in this venerable Arab trading port, as they have for centuries, the merchants were still plying their profitable trade.

From Muscat we drove on the main motorway until we reached Ruwi — Greater Muscat's commercial heart. Here and there along the thoroughfare, man-made specimens of Oman's wildlife like ibex, oryx and tahr, lurked in the roadside vegetation, beautifying the sides of the road. Soon, we were driving on Ruwi Souk Street, where it is said that “everything sold in Oman can be found”. Here, merchandise is sold at a lower price than that paid after bargaining in Muttrah's souk.

Leaving Ruwi, we drove on to explore Qurum, Madinat Qaboos and other newly built sections of the city. It was a transformed world. Where a quarter of a century ago there were no paved roads, virtually no grass and shrubs or even water and electricity, greenery now covers the city landscape. Mile after mile of lush turf, trees and bright flowers embellish the city — already possessed with the natural beauty of beaches, mountains and sea.

Thanks to fibreglass, amid all this man-made natural beauty there are giant silver-painted pieces of Omani jewellery, coffee pots, chests overflowing with treasures, and much more decorating the sides of the avenues. Hence, it surprised no one when Muscat came first in the 1995 “Arab Cities Prize Organisation Awards” in the most beautiful city category.

For the last night in this modern city of Sindbad, we went on an evening's dhow ride in the Gulf of Oman. As we sailed along the coast, in the distance, the glowing lights of Muscat brought to my mind the city's illustrious history. No doubt, Sindbad the sailor gloried in its waters since it is said that he was born in Sohar, a short distance away. If he could only see it now: a city which has enhanced its past with a garland of superb modernity.

The writer, a Canadian author of five books, is specialised in Canadian, Arab and Latin American history, travel and the culinary arts. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

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