Treasures of Muscat

Sonia Nazareth takes you on one of the more captivating, yet less advertised journeys in Oman`s Capital City

Landing at Muscat is like landing on an ornamental place-mat. Deep brown mountains like jagged combs facing upward loom large as you approach the landing strip. You want to abandon the capital city, for all that the rugged mountains and verdant valleys between them hold. These treasures include perilous climbs along mountain ledges, excavation of hilltop forts, rambles through enticing green wadis, exploration of turtle sanctuaries and halts at Bedouin desert safari camps.

But hold your camels and give Muscat a chance. You’ll find that this—like other journeys in the opposite direction of the herd—can be sweetly rewarding. The Grand Mosque welcomes you into the city where water and serrated mountains are wallpaper. Your eyes drop to the edge of their stalks at the architectural beauty, but your heart will be most moved by the warmth of its community centre that`s always willing to offer kawha (coffee), a fistful of dates and as much interaction as you’d like on the nature of faith.

But the most accurate insights into people and places can usually be gleaned in a city`s market. In the warren alleyways of Mutrah Souq, a traditional Arab market, you’ll be charmed into picking up a dish-dash (traditional long-sleeved robe), a khanjar (omani dagger) that’s on a “one-time-only-offer”, and traditional hats for friends who`ll probably never wear them. But that’s the best part about these alleyways, you lose yourself and find treasures you didn’t know you needed, untill you got here. To learn more about the goodies you bought at the market and artifacts you’ll encounter in forts and palaces as you go along, the Bait Al Zubair Museum is a good place to start. Its carefully curated collection of Omani objects, high on ethnographic content, let you feel the energy behind the displays and appreciate with deeper insight all that’s ahead.

After this heady cultural trail, a Dhow Cruise is stellar for masterly inactivity, especially around sunset. It`s a key trailer into all that Muscat has to offer—Portuguese forts, ancient royal palaces (some converted to luxury hotels) and cruises offering snorkelling and diving—for those keen on acquaintance with its remarkable marine life.

What’s truly amazing is how any work gets done when the food is as good as this. At Khargeen’s, delectable aromas waft seductively forth. You`re smelling Shuva (goat or cow) that has been roasted for up to two days in a large fire pit frequently dug in stony earth. It’s understandable that you want to bottle the fragrance when engulfed thus by a place that sells hibiscus milkshake, sizzling kebabs and lamb stew with green olives. But the only bottled scents you end up taking back are perfumes from Amouage. This local luxury brand specialises in exotic Arabian ingredients—frankincense, myrrh, rose—that recall local heritage and the tradition of perfumery.

Like Amouage, the recently opened state-of-the-art, Opera House has a master plan too. Showcasing both traditional music and diverse artistic creations from around the world, this music sanctuary is driven by the idea of being a laboratory for international cultural and intellectual exchange.

Expect to find offerings like La Traviata, sitting cheek-by-jowl with pipe organ recitals and music sessions with maestros of Arabic song. Illuminating through its ambitious repertoire the larger spirit of Muscat—that since its proud seafaring days has always been adventurous and eager to embrace the future, with ceaselessly intrepid and audacious spirit.