The Sultan’s Palace, Oman March 2014

It seems to me such a shame to arrive in an exotic land by ways of a generic international airport. I would very much have liked to arrive at the port of Muscat, Sultanate of Oman by boat!

First sight of Muscat from the sea would be the imposing Al Mirani and Al Jalali fortresses sitting atop the cliffs at the port inlet. The old walled city sits in a narrow cove with waves pounding the rocky shoreline.  But the shore gives way immediately to the lush lawns of the Sultan’s Palace. You look up to the grandeur of towering blue and gold trumpets that form the palace proper but with an arc of cannons pointed seaward at would-be watery invaders. Date palms line a marble forecourt, a white mosque shimmers in the sunlight and a carpet of golden marigolds stretch to the city walls. I sigh as this is how I would have liked to arrive at the land of milk and honey rather than my memory of the long queue at the visa counter.

I have spent the last week in the capital Muscat and travelling through the Western Hajjar mountain range. Many of the mountain villages comprise mudbrick houses wedged into steep hills with date palm groves stretching down to the wadis (valleys) below. Rock irrigation channels up to two thousand years old bring water from mountain springs  – an ancient engineering marvel. The oases around the villages bear citrus, pomegranates and figs. Round watchtowers and forts seem to sit atop every hill, and while the hospitality of the Omani and Bedouin towards travellers is legendary, their defences were more so. I’ve visited several of the famed fortresses and castles of the region – invited guests would be regaled on fine cushions and rugs with coffee and dates, but the uninvited would be repelled with musket-shot from the turrets and boiling date-juice and honey poured from secret chutes above the fortress doors.

Oman was a key port in history controlling seatrading from the east including India and beyond and down the Swahili coast of Africa. Merchants have travelled for centuries by sea and overland to Oman to trade in exotic goods  – silk and rugs, indigo dyed cloth and pottery, perfumes and spices. To step into the souqs and markets in Oman is to sense two millennia of trading. On Friday I joined the throng at the weekly livestock market in the mountain centre of Nizwa.  The owners of goats and sheep parade their beasts in a ring all at the same time shouting their price. It seems like mayhem as buyers stop them to inspect the animals and negotiating proceeds over the shouting and bleating as the tide of traders and animals continues to circle. The scenes include a kaleidoscope of Arabic characters – the wiry Yemenis from over the border, the masked Bedouin women from the interior deserts and the turbaned Omanis pulling at their beards. Salaam aleykum!


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