A friend of mine who, like most Malayalis, has left his mark all over the Arab Gulf, once whispered to me conspiratorially: “Dubai is slutty, Qatar is greedy and Saudi Arabia is bloodthirsty. But Oman is charming.”
It was hard to argue with his conviction but then, a few days in Oman’s capital Muscat left me completely smitten. I returned with the impression that Oman may have indeed been the original Arabia of Sindbadian times -- its long, spectacular coastline of cerulean waters and ancient markets redolent of spices and echoing with Urdu, Malayalam and Gujarati might testify to that. And if you drive by the postcard-inspiring Muttrah Corniche at dusk, just a glance at the gigantic dhows moored in the marina will transport you to the realms of the Arabian Nights.
Another reason tempts me to strengthen my case. Muscat may not have Dubai’s nightlife or Qatar’s pomp, but it has something else that runs deep -- culture. Its shared history with the Indian subcontinent dates back many centuries. Recently, a potsherd with Brahmi script estimated to date back 1,900 years was discovered in Oman. If you care for present-day international relations, the Sultanate governed by the charismatic and respected Sultan Qaboos bin Said is one of India’s most trusted allies in the Arab Gulf.
To the traveller, Oman offers everything from sightseeing and shopping to cuisine, adventure and nature. Here are seven precious experiences, which I recommend that you take home from Oman.
1) Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
Most Omani Muslims are neither Sunni nor Shia; they owe allegiance to the Ibadi sect, which is one of the oldest schools of Islam founded 50 years after the prophet Muhammad’s passing. Named after its chief patron, Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos, the Grand Mosque was built in 2001 and its construction utilised 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone.
The mosque grounds are a veritable oasis in the 45-degree desert heat. They are planted with rows of lush neem trees in which sunbirds, bulbuls and doves seek refuge. The lawns are a welcome green and the drip-irrigated flowerbeds are in riotous flower. The mosque complex and the grounds sprawl over 416,000 square metres. The gold-plated dome rises 50 metres, along with an imposing 90-metre main minaret. The women's prayer hall has ceilings of Indian teakwood and walls engraved with Quranic verses in ornate thuluth calligraphy. The spacious main musalla (prayer hall) can accommodate 6,500 worshippers. Its highlight is a magnificent 14-metre-high Swarovski crystal chandelier. It shines down on the world's second-largest handwoven Iranian carpet. Non-Muslims are not permitted to walk directly on the carpet; they are restricted to a blue cloth-covered walking perimeter from where they can view the features of the mosque. The walls are lined with shelves of Holy Quran, and their hue and design are in faithful harmony with the patterns on the carpets, windows, ceilings and doors.
2) A night on the dunes
Though air-conditioning is ubiquitous in Oman, to know the true colour of scorching heat you must visit the dunes. This is the authentic desert -- hundreds of square kilometres of shifting sand dunes rippled by the wind’s erratic calligraphy, cud-champing dromedary camels, and the desert’s intriguing inhabitants -- the once-nomadic Bedouin.
Wahiba Sands (also known as Sharqiya Sands) is the province of the Wahiba tribe of Bedouins and measures 14,500 square kilometres in total area. The dunes rise nearly 200 metres and tower around us like waves frozen in a dun-coloured ocean. Dune-bashing is a favourite pastime of the guides and offers them the perfect opportunity to exhibit some reckless but skilled driving on the dunes. Before entering the dunes, they lowered the air pressure on the Land Cruiser’s tyres for greater traction on the soft, slippery sand. Then, adrenalized, they raced at terrifying speed, whipping up mammoth clouds of dust.
We stopped at a Bedouin tent and were offered coffee by a striking Bedouin woman, her eyes lined darkly with kohl. Her hands and feets were deep orange with henna. She said it kept her body cool in the roasting desert heat. Inside the tent, away from the glare of the sun, it was still a suffocating 40 degrees.
Just before we checked in at the luxurious Desert Nights Camp, we watched the sunset from the dunes - the blood-red sun sank slowly on the hazy horizon. The desert night is a phenomenon. All through the early evening, the wind whipped up a light, fine dust that penetrated everything. The temperature dropped to a very pleasant 20 degrees and the moon painted the ribbed dunes in silver. An oud player strummed his instrument, punctuating the quiet night with melancholic strains.
Only Scheherazade could have made it more romantic!