How are you this morning?" I had enquired. "Fine, thanks be to God," he had
His initial greeting had been "peace be with you", which I'd last heard as a
Christian embrace at St Michael's Catholic Church, Dunedoo, country NSW. Saleh
embodies the politeness and the graciousness that underscores legendary Arab
hospitality. The only impolite thing I ever heard an Arab say has been: "Thy
mother mated with a scorpion." And that was uttered by the well-known
Mexican-born Greek and Arab, Anthony Quinn, in David Lean's 1962 cinema classic
Lawrence of Arabia.
As a destination, Oman takes away the breath with its carefully conserved
Arabian heritage and an unspoiled natural environment that ranges from beaches
to mountains. Its vision for the future is as commendable as its respect for the
past and, where elsewhere these two would provide a dramatic contrast, in Oman
it's a seamless progression.
Why don't we know more about this fascinating place that is bigger than
France? Dubai, Bahrain and even Qatar have pulled out all stops to become the
flashy cultured pearls of the Arabian Peninsula. But as recently as man walking
on the moon, Oman closed its doors to the world, literally and figuratively.
Until 1970, the great wooden gates to its capital, Muscat, would shut each
evening at dusk as a symbolic defence against anything that might corrupt
Islamic and Arabic traditions.
Today's Oman, however, is both progressive and impressive. The vision and
benevolence of the current Sultan Qaboos bin Said are qualities that can give
absolute authority a good name. Change is no longer feared in Oman but nor is it
embraced for no good reason.
Oman has been called the yin to Dubai's high-rise theme-park yang. And maybe
nature has an explanation for this. Where Dubai is flat and featureless, Oman is
dramatically mountainous and its landscape impossibly diverse.
Oman is a destination that rewards the traveller more than the tourist. It
may take 20 or even 100 experiences to come to terms with the character, the
appeal and the spirit of the place. But, for a start, here are my top 10
1 MUSCAT AND MUTTRAH
MUSCAT is a cluster of white
buildings and gold minarets sparkling against a backdrop of jagged brown
mountains that fold around it like the pleated robes of a protective parent. It
has defiantly maintained its old-world character and charm, but pampered parks,
gardens and nature strips contradict its desert heritage. Muscat and the
commercial centre of Muttrah are twin towns separated by 2km of sweeping coast
The Corniche, with its promenade, makes it possible to walk from Muscat to
Muttrah with its famous souk (market) and vibrant trading activity. The Sultan
of Oman is an avid environmentalist with a particular aversion to visual
pollution. As a result, buildings in the capital are limited to nine storeys,
which keeps historic forts, castles, mosques and towers prominent on the
Muscat, its port and its palace, are guarded by two forts built during
Portuguese occupation in the 16th century.
2 BAIT AZ-ZUBAIR MUSEUM
AS early as 3000BC, Oman was
exporting copper to Mesopotamia (much of which is now Iraq and Syria) and by
1000BC was an important link in the spice trade with India. The Omanis'
excellent navigational skills made them great maritime traders and by 740AD they
had opened a major trading route with China.
This strategic importance made them a target for foreign invaders and, in the
16th century, the Portuguese occupied much of Oman in their bid to control trade
between Europe and the East. The thriving commercial centre has been ameeting
place of many cultures and races over the years and, in a quiet corner of
Muscat, Bait Az-Zubair displays the magic and mystique of Omani heritage. Here
is the most comprehensive collection of artefacts from the Sultanate-traditional
weapons, jewellery, costumes, ceramics and art-which convey a rich perspective
of Arab life and culture. A visit here immediately instils the respect Oman
3 MUTTRAH SOUK
MUSCAT'S Muttrah Souk is generally
regarded as the most atmospheric of any on the Arabian Peninsula. Its labyrinth
of alleyways exudes deep mystery as well as a heady aroma of exotic perfumes and
aromatic spices. Dusty shafts of light also reveal the usual cheap market tat
ranging from daggy to Disney. Think: vinyl shoes, fluorescent T-shirts, American
baseball caps and cutesy toys.
But a mystique and authenticity is protected by the traditional (decorative
khanjar daggers, colourful kaftans, intricate jewellery and frankincense), which
have forever been the mainstays of the souk. Good-natured haggling is an
intrinsic element of the experience, as are theatrical performances of outrage
and agony. But an unexpected code of honour exists here, too, and if the price
you settle on is generous, the trader will often include a small free gift.
IN all fairness to Nizwa, it was probably dubbed
"the pearl of Islam" centuries before the "pearl" cliche became the principal
gem in the crown jewels of tourism prose. So forgive it for that, and just
accept that historically and spiritually Nizwa has special significance for
A comfortable two hours' drive from Muscat, Nizwa was the capital of Oman
during the sixth and seventh centuries and has traditionally been the home of
writers, poets, intellectuals and political leaders.
Many of the former imams (elected religious and political leaders) of Oman
are buried in Nizwa. Today's main attractions for the visitor are the dramatic
17th-century fort--considered the most important historic site in Oman--and the
fascinating souk which, on Fridays, extends its trading activities to include a
goat and cattle market.
Nizwa's souk is great theatre, not the least for its colourful cast of
Bedouin traders and their exotically attired women, but for the walled setting
and giddy array of fabrics, leather goods, weapons, silverware, jewellery and
5 JABEL SHAMS
WHEN the temperature creeps into the
mid-40s on the coast, Omanis head for Jabal Shams (Mountain of the Sun) where it
never gets above the low-20s.
Visitors to Oman head for the Sultanate's highest peak at any time for its
spectacular scenery and to trek the Jabal Shams Rim, a track that teeters around
the edge of a sheer 1500m canyon wall. It is still possible to see the remains
of ancient cliff dwellings once occupied by Persian settlers.
The real name of the canyon (unfortunately billed as Grand Canyon by tourist
operators) is Wadi Ghul gorge, and its residents are skilled weavers who sell
hand-woven rugs to visitors.
SUR is an ancient seaport on the east coast about
four hours by road from Muscat. The drive to the interior climbs through the
eerie moonscape of the Hajar Mountains but, down on the coast, the road follows
the beautiful coastline past Fins and Tiwi dotted with exotic wadis (waterholes)
such as Wadi Al Shab, a lush oasis of palm, mango and banana trees.
Traditionally built wooden dhows still ride at anchor in Sur's sheltered
harbour and, for less than 50 cents, the traveller can be ferried across the
lagoon to Al Ayja, a village isolated for centuries and protected by imposing
watchtowers and forts.
Al Ayja remains as shy and mysterious as a hermit crab in a beautiful shell
and approaching it by ferry is one of the truly magic moments still on offer in
global travel. There's drama, too, in the 300-year-old Sunaysilah Castle, which
dominates the skyline above Sur.
7 WAHIBA SANDS
MOST of the desert areas of Oman are flat
sand and gravel plains, but Wahiba Sands is desert in the romantic sense of the
Ranging in colour from amber to ochre, the sands stretch 180km north to south
and 80km east to west. The Wahibas extend from the eastern Hajars to the Arabian
Sea and comprise dunes up to 130m high plus surprisingly extensive woodlands on
the eastern fringe and a spectacular unspoiled coastline.
The Wahibas are the traditional home of the nomadic Bedouin and the adopted
home of the dune-bashing fraternity in their bucking and sliding four-wheel
drives. A number of adventure travel operators offer desert tours with overnight
accommodation in comfortable "Bedouin-style" tents.
KHASAB and the Musandam Peninsula are almost
one and the same, because Musandam is the smallest, and most northerly, region
It is separated from the rest of the country by the United Arab Emirates but
its population of about 35,000 is defiantly and proudly Omani. Khasab, the main
town, is about a 350km drive from Muscat.
The iconic attraction here is Khasab Fort overlooking the harbour and
representing the town's eastern line of defence. Within its walls is a massive
central tower that predates both the fort and the arrival of the Portuguese in
the 16th century. Khasab's souk offers many imported Iranian goods, and its
picturesque harbour is an attraction in itself.
Another standout Musandam attraction is Daba at the southeast end of the
peninsula and the gateway to the region, which has a harbour full of traditional
fishing and trading vessels plus a beautiful white-sand beach.
SALALAH is the capital of Dhofar in the extreme
south of Oman, a region that shares borders with Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Twelve hours by road or a one-hour flight from Muscat, it is popular for its
climate, environment and historic interest. A summer monsoon season from June to
September transforms the region into something of a rainforest with lagoons,
waterfalls and exotic gardens.
This is also where the olibanum tree, which produces frankincense, grows and,
for those who subscribe to The Bible's account of ancient history, would have
been the source of the Magis' gift.
The mountain of Jabal Qara boasts a site believed to be the tomb of the
Prophet Ayoub, known to Christians as Job of the Old Testament. During most of
the year, Salalah serves as Oman's resort playground, a place for scuba diving,
sailing, jet skiing and beach activities.
10 THE SULTAN QABOOS GRAND MOSQUE
visitors are welcome at Muscat's Grand Mosque, and a vast library and hall of
computers perpetuate a key role of mosques. They have existed throughout the
Islamic world and throughout the various golden eras
of Islam as centres for learning and thinking. The mosque is not only a place of
worship but a place for the dissemination of information and culture.
You may dwell on that truth at length, but the immediate impact will be the
beauty of the epic 416,000sqm complex and a prayer hall with a capacity for more
than 6500. Four hundred women worked for more than three years to produce the
magnificent prayer hall carpet.
How alien and aloof is this mysterious faith? Our guide Saleh answers the big
question. "This carpet is in the Guinness Book of Records," he tells me,