Muscat: Mutrah, Qurm & Muscat Festival
19 February 2011
The Sultan's Armed Forces Museum
The Sultan's Armed Forces Museum might not sound like the sort of place to quicken the pulse of anyone, save for those who get their rocks off playing with armies of tin soldiers or re-enacting the English Civil War in a muddy field. However, that was my destination this morning and I am here to tell you that it was worth every baisa of the admission fee.
Once again I am awoken by drilling and the drone of earth moving equipment as work continues on the construction of a nearby drainage channel. Well at least it's a reliable alarm clock and it is another lovely sunny day.
The receptionist has not got a clue as to the whereabouts of the museum so I use my finely tuned navigation skills and discover it is almost opposite my accommodation, just a gentle ten-minute stroll down the road.
The approach is along a palm-lined avenue at the end of which is a sentry box where I am asked my business, like he couldn't have guessed. Beyond the sentry box the path is lined by manicured hedges, a small team of blue-boiler-suited Indians labouring under an already baking sun to maintain the pristine appearance of their verdant charges.
The museum is not exactly overrun with visitors, which is just my sort of place. I am required to have a personal guide, all included in the admission fee of OMR1 (about £1.60). He is Royal Guard Isaa Bin Said Al-Kalbani, an Ibadi who originates from western Oman. He has allegedly only been learning English for one year. If true, this makes him a fast learner and he is more than up to the task, at least with the verbal communication. He spends the next two hours with me as we tour what was Bait Al-Falaj, built in a strongly defensive location in 1845.
A Spot of History
The building was first a royal home, then a fort and army headquarters and on 11 December 1988 was opened as a museum by Sultan Qaboos. Despite its name, the whole ground floor of the museum is devoted to Omani history, with only the upper floor covering the development of Oman's armed forces. The former was of great interest, the latter not so. As it happens we ran out of time on the upper floor, having spent so long touring the lower.
Oman is, we are told: "A country of dualities: sea and land; coast and interior; mountains and plains; oasis and dessert". My only criticism of the presentation is that the timelines tend to jump around a bit which can cause confusion for a bear of little brain like myself.
I have already related a potted history of Oman in my first post so will detain you no longer on that point here; if you missed it you've missed a cracking read! At one point Issa has to ask me to step outside a room we are viewing as there are several military VIPs getting a whistle-stop tour and the powers that be clearly did not want tourists cluttering the place up. By coincidence I had just been trying to explain the difference between 'import' (in the trading sense) and 'important'.
As you might expect much space is given over to the achievements of the current Sultan who came to power in 1970 after ousting his father in a peaceful coup. One of the new Sultan's first priorities was to resolve the Dhofar War in the south where 'foreign powers' (the Chinese, although not mentioned by name) were agitating, looking to gain influence. By the end of 1975 the communists were defeated. Ironically many of the information boards relating to the armed forces use language that has more than a passing similarity to that I found in China. All the good guys are heroes and act heroically. During the Dhofar War the Sultan acquired new armaments. The conflict proved the new weapons were "being competently and knowledgeably used to the utmost level of their functions". Meanwhile the good guys were fighting against "deviant groups whose interest lay in slaking their lusts and desires".
The Western Suburb of Qurm
Tonight I am staying at the tour group's hotel, the Ramee Guestline, rather more upmarket and consequently expensive than I would consider if travelling under my own steam. It's a taxi ride west to the area known as Qurm (or Qurum) which has a sandy beach, a large park and um seemingly not a lot else.
I had a most civilised, if very late picnic lunch on the beach in the shade and went for a stroll along the sands listening to Radio Magazine on 90.4 FM, one of at least two English language radio stations. They were reporting on the UN Youth Road Safety Assembly being held in Muscat, a title almost beyond the female presenter's ability to relate without getting the words mixed up. She did eventually get it right first time when introducing the third and final interviewee, a young man from Austria (the previous two were from Lebanon and India). She also gave a whole load of road traffic accident statistics for Oman which suggested it was a very good place to hold such a convention. I tried not to think about them too much, knowing that I was about to spend a week travelling many hundreds of miles by road.
The Muscat Festival
After returning to the hotel for a quick wash and brush up I set off for Qurm Park, one of several venues hosting the spectacular annual Muscat Festival which runs for about a month. It was a 20 minute walk to the park which was festooned with twinkling coloured lights. Entry was all of 200 baisa, about 32p; now that's what I call value for money. The guy checking the tickets was a chatty sort who was keen to find out where I was from, where I was planning to go and, of course, the $64,000 question, what did I think of Oman. That was an easy one to answer truthfully as I have really enjoyed the trip so far and found all Omanis, and indeed all the Indians I have met (of which there are many working in Muscat) very pleasant, helpful and courteous. He was happy with my answers. He also kindly allowed me to keep my ticket. When I visited again a week later with the rest of the group the guy on the gate tore up all the tickets and disposed of them. Meanie.
The festival is a wonder to behold as I hope you can see from the pictures. There is a heritage village majoring on Omani culture, crafts and music. Stages are dotted around, hosting a medley of entertainments, both audio and visual. At the centre of the park is a large, permanent lake ringed by chains of coloured lights, some flashing, punctuated by giant beams punching an arcing white path into the night sky.
At 8.30 pm the lights around the lake were snuffed out and the carnival began. A procession of illuminated floats and illuminated dancers circumnavigated the water in a blaze of colour. As they completed their circuit so began a laser son et lumiere with flame throwers, dancing fountains and a grand finale of fireworks all accompanied by stirring music. Magic.
The night was still young and there was much, much more to see. I was captivated by a variety show on 'ice' (the synthetic sort) which required no language barriers to be surmounted. There was acrobatics, complex choreography with multiple skipping ropes, performing cats and a clever act where the performer 'talked' to the audience with a whistle.
With the festival still going strong I headed back to the hotel to meet up with the group.
Entry to the Sultan's Armed Forces Museum was OMR1 (about £1.60). It closes at 13.00 not 14.00 as suggested in some guide books.
The Muscat Festival in Qurm Park runs for about one month, this year ending on Thursday 24 Feb. Entry 200 baisa.