Beyond the Veil (originally published in Wings of Oman)

8 Dec

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In contrast to the no-looking-back modernity of Dubai and Kuwait City, Muscat is strongly in touch with its past. The Sultan himself takes a personal interest in heritage and laws exist to stop the building of skyscrapers lest they ruin the city’s historical character.

Enclosed by 400-year-old fortifications and a steep mountainside, the Old Muscat district is like a basket into which many of Oman’s finest heritage attractions have been placed. Whether you want to learn about the country’s role in the 19th century arms trade, its Bedouin handicraft traditions or how its citizens lived aeons ago, Old Muscat’s museums, military buildings and restored houses have all the answers.

The standout museum is Bait Al Zabair, a complex of elegant and angular cultural houses detailing the history of Omani arts, crafts, architecture, industry, fashion, agriculture and cartography.

Starting life in 1914 as the sumptuous home of statesman Sheikh Al Zubair bin Ali, two-storey Bait Al Bagh (House of Gardens) boasts gleaming khanjar (ceremonial daggers), muskets and fine examples of traditional dishdasha (men’s gowns), sirwal (women’s gowns) and lihaf (headdresses). The elaborate silver and gold al-hirz (necklaces) were designed to carry small copies of the Qu’ran. The hand motifs symbolise Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. The original furniture in Bait Al Bagh – tea trays, gramophones, pearl-handled chests of drawers – bespeaks 1930s England, although the beautifully carved al-sandouq (chests) blend Persian, South Asian and North African styles, while the flat, high-legged bed is distinctly Arabian.

A faraj (ancient irrigation channel) snakes through the garden towards the ultimate tribal scene: a barasti (hut made from palm fronds lashed together with rope) containing Bedouin rugs handwoven from goat hair. Next to this is a fascinating scale diorama of Old Muscat as it would have appeared in the 18th century. Little model soldiers roam the fortifications and fisherwomen kneel beside the pond-simulated sea.

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Bait Al Nahdhah (House of the Renaissance) is a tribute to the Omani cultural renaissance that began in 1970. Its collection of art works – the largest in the country – range from modernistic portraits to traditional etchings, conceptual sculptures to Muhammed Al-Zabair’s series of celebratory photographs, ‘My Beautiful Country’.

Bait Al Oud (Grand House) is done out in 19th century Islamic style and is remarkable for its dozens of early – and often inaccurate – European maps of the Arabian Peninsular, black and white photos of Muscat and antique Arabian coins. The model ships with curved prows are based on the sambuq (pearling ships) originally built in Sur and likely derived from Portuguese caravels.

Given the insight Old Muscat offers into military history, it’s apt that there’s a martial feel to its streets. Road barriers, gold spikes jutting from walls and zigzag patterns on the curbs surround the robust Muscat Gate on Al-Sadiya Street, used from medieval times until the 1970s to repel land-based invaders.

The Muscat Gate Museum makes a panoramic sweep across civic history from Neolithic times to the present, taking in the development of the city’s mosques, forts, souks (markets) and distinctive neighbourhoods.

Looming from a rocky headland on the harbour are the mustard-coloured turrets of the Al-Jalali fort, erected by the Portuguese in 1587 to defend against Persian naval attacks. Over the following centuries, the fort was modified and strengthened by successive Sultans. The only publicly-accessible section of it today is a small museum containing cannons, matchlock rifles, incense burners and a priceless old map showing Portugal’s colonial presence in Oman.

Al-Jalali comes to life during royal ceremonies when bagpipers fill the battlements and fireworks are let off overhead.

On the opposite western headland is Al-Mirani Fort, built at the same time as Al-Jalali. Legend has it that, in 1649, an Indian trader tricked the Portuguese in charge – who had fallen in love with the trader’s daughter – into removing all weapons and gunpowder from Al-Mirani. The local imam, Sultan bin Saif, promptly sacked the fort and this marked the end of Portuguese influence in the region.

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The Omani-French Museum is housed in the handsome white former French consulate on Qasr Al Alam Street. Its archive of treaties and proclamations, pictures of the first French diplomats to visit Oman and assortment of clothes and jewellery tell the story of the long-standing relationship between these two nations.

The crowning glory of Old Muscat is Al-Alam Royal Palace, the official residence of the Sultan of Oman. Although the public can’t go further than the gates, the view from here of the vaulted arches and the umbrellas-blown-backward cupolas is magnificent. Outside the palace walls are orderly beds of Burmese grass and delightful avenues of palm trees. During the era of the Arab Slave Trade, a flagstone stood on the site of the modern palace. It was believed that any slave who kissed the stone would be granted freedom.

(Originally published in Wings of Oman, October 2012)

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