The top 10 most interesting cultural attractions in Muscat
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Opened in 2001, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (previous page), is the country’s only mosque open to non-Muslims. The opulent main prayer hall can accommodate up to 6,500 faithful and features the second largest hand-woven carpet in the world – it took a team of 400 women four years to complete and is dominated by a 14-metre-high Swarovski crystal chandelier weighing eight tonnes.
Flanked by the Gulf of Oman and the craggy Al Hajar Mountains, Muscat is made up of a string of low-rise, whitewashed suburbs and restored Portuguese forts that hug the coast. Old Muscat, the original walled town, is home to Sultan Qaboos’ futuristic-looking palace, while the port of Muttrah bustles with life.
Sultan Qaboos, who has ruled Oman since 1970 after ousting his father in a palace coup, is credited with guiding Muscat’s transformation from backwater to modern city, while safeguarding tradition. While the locals appear to genuinely love the Sultan, it’s still best to avoid discussing him or regional politics.
Muscat’s simple whitewashed houses feature stunning carved doors with traditional Islamic geometrical designs, stylised lotus leaves and other floral patterns, reminders of the influence of Indian and Persian trading partners.
Wander the labyrinthine alleys of the hassle-free Muttrah Souk to shop for frankincense, myrrh, attar (Arabic perfume), rosewater, antiques, silverware and khanjars and watch abaya-clad women haggle for gold in the tiny shops of the Gold Souk. Frankincense, (below) the aromatic amber-coloured sap of Boswellia sacra trees, was once more valuable than gold. Harvested for over five millennia in the Dhofar region in the country’s south, it was carried by caravan across Arabia and exported by sea to India in exchange for spices. Locals burn it as an incense to perfume their homes and clothes.
Omani men typically wear a full-length tunic called a dishdasha with a wazar (cotton wrap) underneath and either a pillbox cap called a kuma or a turban known as a massar. The kuma originates from Zanzibar, colonised by Oman in the late 17th century, and is traditionally made from white cotton with vibrant embroidery called tanjim.
Muttrah’s attractive corniche is a popular spot for sunset strolling. Dramatically framed by mountains, the sweeping boulevard is lined with latticed buildings and colourful minarets while wooden dhows bob in the harbour, dwarfed by the Sultan’s cruise ship-sized yacht.
Once worn for protection, today Omani men wear a khanjar, or dagger, on their belts during ceremonial occasions as a symbol of manhood, courage and tradition. Fashioned by a master craftsman, the khanjar has a curved steel blade, a horn or resin hilt and an intricately patterned sheath adorned with silver and sometimes gold.
Fishing remains an important part of Muscat’s seafaring traditions. Each morning, the daily catch of hammour, tuna and octopus is delivered to the small fish market at the northern end of Muttrah corniche.
One of the best places to sample authentic Omani cuisine is Al Mandoos restaurant in the Al Ghubra district. After welcoming you with dates and kahwa (Arabic coffee laced with cardamom), celebrity chef Issa Al Lamki (pictured above) serves up succulent shuwa, marinated lamb cooked in an underground oven that is often served during Eid celebrations.