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September 19, 2008

OMAN’S GATEWAY TO AUTHENTIC ARABIA


DISCOVER THE QUIET ELEGANCE AND CULTURE OF MUSCAT

Before 1970 the Sultanate of Oman’s elegant capital, Muscat, locked its fortress-styled gates at night, a curfew was imposed from sunset to sunrise and its citizens only travelled with kerosene lanterns when walking after dark. But 38 years ago, an extraordinary change took place under the leadership of the country’s new and charismatic ruler, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Along with developing a progressively modern and united country - though with the quiet cultural rhythms of Islam and Omani nationalism instilled in his people - His Majesty symbolically unlocked Muscat’s ancient Kabir Gate (Bab al Kabir) one evening and led Oman into the 21st Century.

Today, the city remains one of the most beautiful metropolitan destinations in the Arabian Peninsula. Overlooking the azure waters of the Gulf of Oman and gracefully nestled beneath impregnable jagged hills, Muscat’s white and sand coloured mix of classic buildings and modern Islamic architectural lines create a montage of picturesque charm. Also one of the world’s cleanest cities - located a short distance from its U.A.E. neighbours, Abu Dhabi and Dubai - Muscat has been declared the gateway to ‘authentic Arabia’.

Although Muscat’s origins date back to the 1st Century, A.D. the city primarily remained a vital maritime port. As the country prospered, Oman’s merchant and naval fleet eventually helped create an empire that included East Africa, with Zanzibar named as the second capital of Oman in 1832. Yet it was 250 years earlier when events and architectural designs in Muscat truly became interesting.

MUSCAT’S FORTS:

During the late 16th century the Portuguese, who occupied the city for 150 years, constructed Oman’s most resplendent fortresses. Built on two serrated hills overlooking Muscat’s harbour the paired forts – Al Jalali to the east and Al Miranito the west - were used to oust Portuguese and Ottoman invaders a century later. Now guarding majestic Al Alam Palace - the ceremonial palace of H.M. Sultan, Qaboos - when bathed in the alluring twilight the forts resemble a mythical citadel from a dreamy Arabian tale.

Muscat’s Old Town, located at the eastern end of Greater Muscat Area between Muttrah and Sidab, allows visitors to step back in time into old-world Arabia. Much of the city’s rich history and heritage has been preserved, including remnants of Muscat’s original clay wall and three-access gates - Bab al Matha'eeb, Bab al Saghir and Bab al Waljat - which for centuries fortified the capital.

Easily accessible by foot, visitors can also observe the distinctive gold and turquoise exteriors of Al Alam Palace before visiting Al Zawawi Mosque, Muscat Gate Museum, Bab al Kabir and the Omani French Museum.

Also close by is Bait al Zubair, one of Muscat’s finest interactive museums. Occupying an old Omani dwelling, the main gallery displays a fascinating collection of weaponry, photographs, jewels and costumes. For cultural voyeurs, there is also an outdoor reproduction of a classic Omani Village, complete with souqs, a burasti house, fishing boats and a flowing falaj.

To discover the soul of Muscat visitors should spend a day at Muttrah, which winds along the Corniche, the city’s verdant waterfront. A place to watch fishermen roll their nets at dusk, Muttrah is also a colourful tapestry of fresh produce marketplaces, Indian and Arab restaurants and vibrant souqs. At dusk, visitors can charter a classic dhow at the Corniche and sail straight into an Arabian storybook, sharing some seafaring adventures with Sinbad the Sailor of the Thousand and One Nights.

The oldest marketplace in the capital is Muttrah Souq, where bartering with gusto is considered de rigueur. Opened all year round except public holidays visitors enter beneath a palm leafed entrance located behind Muttrah Corniche, into a labyrinth of tightly-packed, narrow lanes which sell pure Arabic exotica –gold, silver, textiles, pottery and dates, together with piquant aromas of incense, spices, frankincense and sandalwood.

Also encircled by white-fringed beaches and an eye-catching harbour that fans out to an equally dazzling coastline, Muscat offers a wealth of adventure sports, with major diving sites and marinas providing plenty of sideline activities, from catamaran and dhow cruises, snorkelling, fishing and kayaking to whale and dolphin watching. There are also Muscat’s luxurious beachfront resorts, which offer superlative spa and wellness treatments; Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa featuring three hotels - the six star Al Husn, the 5 star Al Bandar and the five star Al Waha, The Chedi Muscat, also a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, and InterContinental Hotel Group’s six-star flagship property, Al Bustan Palace, built on a grand scale to host the leaders of the six members of the Gulf Co-Operative Council (G.C.C.) and currently undergoing a multi-million dollar refurbishment. And for retail therapy, the neighbourhoods of Qurm and Ruwi offer colourful Indian markets, souqs and shopping complexes.

A dual carriageway leading into central Muscat directs visitors to the diplomatic district of Al Khuwair, also home to several museums including the national heritage-theme Oman Museum and the fascinating Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum at Bait Al Falaj Fort in Ruwi. For children, there’s the Science Museum also known as the Children’s Museum at Qurm and the brilliant Natural History Museum at Al Khuwair, a great place to get acquainted with Oman’s diverse topography and archaeological history.

Islam’s beauty is splendidly unveiled at Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, north of Muttrah at Ghubrah. Upon entering the Mosque’s massive, white-marble courtyard an imposing wooden doorway featuring carved verses from the Koran leads visitors to five towering minarets that symbolise the Five Pillars of Islam (with the highest soaring over 90 metres) and a prayer hall lit by 35 Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Accommodating over 6,000 worshippers, the Prayer Hall also features gilded murals, a gold-painted mihrab (facing Mecca) and an enormous prayer mat. Taking over four years to make and 600 Iranian weavers to tie 1.7 million knots in 28 different colours, the mat spreads across 4,200 square metres and weighs 21 tonnes.

With its spectacular harbour, world-class museums, ancient gates and forts and vibrant streetscape, Muscat is Arabia’s gateway to a wealth of new experiences.

MUSEUMS / GRAND MOSQUE INFORMATION:
  • Bait Al Zubair (as featured on page one) is open Saturday-Thursday, 9.00AM-1.00PM and 4.00-7.00PM. Entrance: 1OMR (A$2.80)
  • The Muscat Gate House Museum provides an illustrated history of Oman including Muscat and the Royal Family and its rooftop provides visitors with panoramic views of Old Muscat and Muttrah Harbour. The museum is open Saturday-Thursday, 9.00AM-1.00PM and 4.30-7.00PM. Entrance is free.
  • The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is opened from 8.00 –11.00AM, excluding Fridays to visitors.


For further information on the Sultanate of Oman, email info@omantourism.com.au
Visit: www.omantourism.gov.om
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