Lost in the old port of Muscat

Tim Richards traces the lines between ancient and modern Oman.

The first thing I notice about Muttrah is that it's the quintessential image of an Arabian coastal town.

As the ancient port for Muscat, the capital of Oman, it's been a welcome safe harbour upon this rocky coast for centuries. As I stand on the corniche, a promenade curving its way around the protected cove, I can see modern port facilities and docked vessels to my left.

To my right, however, is a stretch of pure Arabia. Low white buildings of three or four storeys, many with decorative arches above their windows, are backed by stony brown hills without a scrap of vegetation.

Here and there I can spot old fortifications exactly the same colour as the hills, as if their turrets have sprouted from the bare rock. The most spectacular martial remnant is the remains of a fort built by the Portuguese after conquering Muscat in the 16th century.

There are the graceful lines of Islamic art here too, in the modern shelters along the foreshore, their domes criss-crossed by geometric patterns; and the beautiful patterned blue minaret of the mosque at the centre of the corniche.

As I admire the view, I notice the second thing about Muttrah – it's very hot.

I escape the heat of the morning by ducking into Bait al Baranda, an attractive 1930s house which is now a museum. Its exhibits form an introduction to the history of Muscat, tracing life in the area from its prehistoric past.

And I really do mean prehistoric – one of the prime items on display is the skeleton of a dinosaur found in the region. Well, partly. As it's related to a dinosaur once commonly found in Europe, some fossilised bones were obtained from international sources to complete it.

Past displays on geology and archaeology, I find a large history book whose pages activate an audiovisual display once turned; audio quotes from travellers to the port through the ages; and wonderful reproductions of ancient maps depicting Muscat, one of which describes the locals as "ichthyophagi" (fish-eaters).

Finally, in the centre of the second floor, are several full-size fibreglass versions of the oryx, an endangered local antelope species. Each of these has been painted in wild colours by a different artist, from Oman and beyond. It's a dash of playful modernity to round off the museum's historic tale.

There's plenty more colour in the Muttrah Souq, the traditional Arabian market whose canopied entrance stands on the corniche (though, in true Gulf style, a poster announces that the souq offers free Wi-Fi access).

On a broad stretch of pavement nearby, locals and tourists sit at open-air tables, sipping lemon mint drinks and watching the passing parade.

As old as the port, this marketplace is a maze of covered passageways leading randomly back from the main road, then heading all directions and criss-crossing each other. The broader passages are lined by businesses selling items to tourists – toy camels, Arabian slippers, perfume, decorated boxes – and can be strolled through in a matter of minutes.

I take a couple of random turns, however, and find myself in narrower lanes where the merchandise crowds in on each side, and locals far outnumber foreigners. I pass practical everyday items on sale, including clothing and household goods, until another twist in the path brings me to stores glistening with gold.

This section is the Gold Souq, and it's well named. Windows are draped with so much jewellery that it can be difficult to see inside the premises, where Omanis are engaged in serious negotiation with shopkeepers about their valuable goods.

Then, past the gold, the souq runs out and I find myself back in daylight, walking through a residential area along a narrow alley which I assume runs parallel to the corniche.

Intending to take a right turn at some point to return to the main road, I keep walking, walking… walking… down picturesque alleys which periodically branch and force choices to be made.

Between the occasional glance at Google Maps' satellite view, and following locals who look like they know what they're doing, I eventually pop out randomly into a square. It's right next to Bait al Baranda. So now I know where I am.

I end the day with a drink at the Al Boom restaurant at the top of the Marina Hotel, a slightly shabby building at one end of the corniche. From its open air bar there's a view over the harbour, hills and Muttrah itself.

It's a great overview of modern Muscat's most walkable district. As the sun starts to set over the encircling hills and the Gulf of Oman, it can hardly get any better.

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Oman Tourism.

THE FACTS

FLY

Oman Air (omanair.com) and its partners connect to Muscat from $1800 economy return ex Melbourne.

STAY

Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort, Al Jissah St, Muscat, shangri-la.com/muscat.

Park Inn, Sultan Qaboos St, Muscat, parkinn.com/hotel-muscat.

SEE

Bait al Baranda, $3 entry, facebook.com/baitalbaranda.muscat.

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