|Muscat, Oman: Mutrah, The Fish Market and Souk
17 February 2011
This time around I am being a little less adventurous and travelling around northern Oman on a small-group tour. I am spending an extra three days in Muscat before joining the rest of the group as there is more I want to see than is allowed for in the tour itinerary.
I treated myself to an airport pick up and a luxury hotel room - or so I thought. In fact the talkative driver, who is delighted to discover I am from Britain, deposits me at the hotel where I am informed they have over-booked and I will now be shuttled with one other to alternative accommodation they just happen to have nearby. It is spacious - more spacious than I need (it's in effect a small apartment) - but not what you would call luxury. And there is no hot water. Oh and I don't know where it is on the map which is especially irritating as I had been careful to book somewhere near the action and marked my map with its exact location. It is gone midnight and I am in no mood to argue. But before I get to bed I do manage to work out my approximate location which is not so bad.
Oman turns out to have a fascinating history, being one of the longest-standing nation states in the region. Back in the Bronze Age it gained great wealth as the principal provider of copper to Mesopotamia. The sixth century destruction of the Great Dam of Marib in Yemen - a wonderous 14m-high edifice, part of an extensive water management system - caused the irrigation system to fail and gradually led tens of thousands to migrate north into Syria and east into Oman. The Arabs, originating from Yemen, battled the Persians for control of Oman, steadily asserting their influence. Islam arrived in the seventh century through Mazim bin Ghaduba Al-Tay.
Oman was strategically well positioned to exploit the trade between Europe and Africa & Asia which also brought great wealth: silk from China, pepper, gold and cinnamon from India. They had also historically, as far back as 5000 BC garnered great wealth from collecting two rare and expensive aromatic resins: frankincense and myrrh.
The Portuguese invaded and controlled Muscat and other coastal parts for over 140 years (1507-1650), but Omanis eventually kicked them out (with a little help from the British) not only from Oman but also from their fledgling toehold in India and, in 1698, from Zanzibar. Under Sultan Al Sayeed Said (ruled 1804-1856) Oman used its large and well-equipped navy to expand its influence still further south and east. The Omanis controlled Zanzibar until 1890 when it became a protectorate of Britain. In fact Oman had interests all along the east African coast.
Later the British and French squabbled over access to Muscat harbour (why doesn't that surprise me).
Sprinting forward to the 20th century the country was going through one of its divided periods with the coast and interior at loggerheads. In 1938 a new sultan, Said bin Taimur (the 'bin' means 'son of'), tried to regain control of the interior which a bunch of imams had taken over. This prolonged struggle led to the Jebel Wars of the 1950s but in 1959 Said was successful in reuniting the country with British backing. However, Said was inward looking and Oman retreated into its shell, no longer the expansionist power of yesteryear.
In July 1970 Said's only son, Qaboos, launched a coup against his father and, with covert British help, took power. Said lived out his remaining years at the Grosvenor Hotel in London, not a bad place to retire to.
In 1970 Muscat covered 0.5km of coast between Al Jalali and Al Mirani forts; there was 7km of asphalt road, one hospital and three schools. Today Muscat covers 3900 sq km and stretches 200km along the coast. The country has 1000 state schools with 650,000 students and has one of the best health care services in the world. Over 50% of the population is under 25. In November 2010 the United Nations Development Programme listed Oman as the most improved country over the past 40 years out of a list of 135. Interestingly they were followed by Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and we have recently seen what has been happening in a number of those countries. Note that according to the UN this index largely takes account of the 'impressive long-term improvements in health and education'.
Bait Al Baranda
The day dawns bright and sunny and not too hot. I report the lack of hot water and on return to my room after breakfast find the water heater in the process of being replaced and brown sludged coating most parts of the bathroom, walls and floor alike. I get moved to another apartment.
I eventually find my way to a main road by a coffee pot fountain (which turns out to be a useful landmark); this affords me a half-decent chance of getting a cab down to Bait Al Baranda, a small museum almost on the harbour. It literally means the Veranda House after the first floor internal veranda. The fine whitewashed building was renovated by the British Council when they took it over in 1972. More recently it was further renovated in 2006 by the City of Muscat and opened as a visitor centre.
It is not huge but the building is lovely with a splendid ceiling. For the most part there are very few other visitors, making for a relaxing wander round looking at the history of Oman.
The Fish Market
From Bait al Baranda I headed past the fish roundabout too the fish market. One most enjoyable feature of Oman is its roundabouts - no, really, stay with me on this - as most of them have sculptural centrepieces and lots and lots of flowers. I am a bit late in the day to see the morning's catch for sale as most of it has gone but I nonetheless pass a diverting hour people watching. Right next door they are building a new fish market which I presume will be on a bigger and more modern scale.
About Town & A Spot of Lunch
The market is at the west end of the Corniche. I strolled east, soaking up the unfamiliar 30 degree heat. By the time I reached the entrance to the Souq I felt in need of sustenance. The heat had decidedly dimmed my appetite but not my thirst. A tall glass of chilled, fresh mango juice was just what the doctor ordered. I drank it looking out across the harbour, the world's largest natural harbour.
From my vantage point sunglasses are clearly being worn big this year. As I sat, a steady stream of lovely ladies sashayed by each wearing a pair of shades seemingly intent on being bigger than the last pair to pass before my eyes.
Ghalya's Museum of Modern Art
After resting I wandered through the near-deserted souq (most of the shops - and indeed almost everything else too - is shut between 13.00-17.00) and round the flanks of the 16th century Mutrah Fort which is not open to the public. It was built on a rocky outcrop in the 1580s by the Portuguese and to this day dominates the eastern end of the harbour. The Corniche runs directly in front of it and a clutch of houses and small businesses nestle to its rear. On the eastern flank is a small road along which I took a photograph which looks like it could have been taken in the most remote of spots despite being just a few yards from the busy Corniche.
Returning to the Corniche I came across a small museum, Ghalya's Museum of Modern Art, an interesting choice of name. It is a group of 'typical' Omani houses with rooms furnished from the period 1950-1975 illustrating the changes over time. I am the only visitor. I got talking to the gut at reception. The buildings have a number of mighty fine doors, some sourced from surrounding villages to provide an authentic feel. One pair are over 500 years old and another over 300. They plan to develop a clothing museum on the site but that is still just at the planning stage.
The 'modern art' bit of the enterprise is a room as far removed as it could possibly be from what went before, a pared-down white box which would not be out of place in the trendiest galleries of London, Milan or New York. White halogen-dotted ceilings, marble floor and white walls hung with just a handful of works by artist Alia Al Farsi, a famous female Omani artist www.aliafarsi.com.
Mutrah Souq and then Home
The sun is setting rapidly behind me as I exit the museum and head for the souq which is by now coming alive, the air suffused with the scent of incense, the hustle and bustle of traders and the good citizens of Muscat going about their evening shopping. There are few Western tourists around. At the end of my trip I returned to the souq in the late morning when two cruise ships were in the harbour and the place was heaving, especially with Italians.
After some Omani-style fast food from a souq 'coffee shop' I headed home to Ruwi, back along the Corniche stopping to photograph the now illuminated Mutrah Fort before heading inland south along the busy main road down which my taxi had brought me this morning. Here too lighting was used to attractive effect, the road initially lined with illuminated arches close to the Corniche and later, as it became a full-blown multi-lane highway it passed through a brightly lit gate.
I stopped at the vast LuLu hypermarket to stock up on bread and fruit for the next couple of days. I had read that Omanis liked their fruit and veg, and that department was extremely busy with people buying huge quantities. You could buy boxes of oranges and they even had a special machine to trim and core pineapples which certainly saved a great deal of effort for the woman buying half a dozen of the things.
After about an hour's walk I reached my apartment. It had been a grand day. And hey, I even had hot water.
Entry to both Bait al Baranda and Ghalya's Museum of Moderrn art was OMR1.
Exchange rate: OMR1 = GBP1.6