Oman’s move toward modern development came in 1970, but this Arab nation has managed to retain its rich cultural heritage in many ways, from the traditional familial structure and renowned Arab hospitality to the architectural design of new homes and city planning.
The City’s Take on Modern Traditional
While exploring the Sultanate you will notice many architectural themes: richly decorated front doors, carved wooden ceilings, and traditional arched windows. These design motifs have been carried from Oman’s rich history into today.
Much of Oman’s early architecture within its cities are found in the mosques and forts, traditionally constructed from clay or mud bricks. These strong buildings reflect the geography of the land surrounding them. Mutrah Fort overlooks the Gulf of Oman in Muscat. Built into the crags of a mountain, it looks like an extension of the rocks rather than a fort simply built atop them. Nakhal Fort at the base of Jebel Akhdar does not follow a traditionally symmetrical pattern due to the rock on which it sits. In fact, the builders integrated the mountain face into the structure of the fort to create a seamless transition between earth-made and man-made materials.
Although buildings today are made from polished marble and limestone, the browns and whites of the stone complement perfectly the ancient forts and castles that overlook the cities. In fact, royal guidelines in Oman dictate that all new construction reflect the traditional heritage of Omani and Islamic culture. A prime example is that family dwellings can be no more than three stories high to follow the example of old Omani houses.
Sultan Qaboos University outside Muscat is newer construction that represents traditional ideas, including windows on the north and south to prevent glare from the sun, geometric patterns in the tiles decorating the buildings and surrounding flower beds, and the general symmetry carried through the compound as a whole. Other government construction such as Majlis Oman, the building that houses Parliament, contains the same symmetrical features and clean lines with simple details like arched windows and embrasures on its fortress-like roof (an embrasure is an opening in a wall or parapet). Even the famous Mutrah Souk carries the thematic features such as richly carved ceilings and geometric designs.
Omani architecture is subtle and continuous, reflecting the communal lifestyle of the Omani people from ancient days until the modern era. Even as the city develops, the heart of Oman remains the same. Take some time to notice these details as you drive through the cities. Such details can be true Omani experiences in and of themselves.
Exploring Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
One of the most prized pieces of architecture in the Sultanate of Oman is not a fort that protected the people in ancient times, one of the many palaces of a past or present sultan, or a village that has lasted centuries. The most prized is the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.
Located just outside the capital city of Muscat, the Grand Mosque sits elegantly on an open plain between the coast of the Gulf of Oman and the foot of the beautiful mountains. Its five towering minarets, prominent dome, and stunning gardens cannot be missed as you drive along the highway leading into the city. Intended for Islamic worship, the Grand Mosque is also open to the public from 8 to 11 a.m. every day, except Friday. A trip to this exquisite building should be near the top of your list of things to see when visiting Oman.
Since the Grand Mosque is a religious site, it is important for all visitors to follow the dress code: covered shoulders and pants for men, and long sleeves, long pants, skirt, or dress, and a head covering for women (a simple scarf draped over most of your hair is appropriate). There is no entry fee, but bring some money if you would like to purchase something from the gift shop. Photos are allowed everywhere on the grounds, so don’t forget your camera or phone—you will certainly want to take pictures.
As you enter the grounds, take in the beauty and symmetry of the dome and minarets, as well as the immaculately groomed landscaping. Walk directly toward the dome, and you will come to the women’s prayer hall. Remove your shoes before entering and enjoy the carved wood doors and ceiling, and the chandeliers.
After you exit the women’s prayer hall, turn left and walk toward the tallest minaret in the outer courtyard. On your way, notice the sunflower design found on many of the pillars around the mosque; they are special to Oman since it is the first Arab nation to see the sun each day (and it is Sultan Qaboos’ favorite flower). The courtyard hallway that surrounds the mosque is filled with intricate and colorful mosaics from many countries around the world including Morocco, Turkey, India, Tunisia, and of course Oman.
The pinnacle of the Grand Mosque’s beauty is found in the main prayer hall. The exquisite chandelier, intricate mosaics, carved stone, and general splendor will leave you stunned. Take your time to soak in the craftsmanship and spectacular views around the prayer hall, and perhaps talk with one of the guides—you are sure to learn many things from these Omani experts.
If you have time, the last stop on your visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque can be the Islamic Resource Center. While there, you can taste delicious dates, drink famous Omani coffee, and have your questions about the beliefs and practices of Islam answered.
The four-day Magic of Muscat tour includes a visit to this wonder of the city and it is a piece of Omani architectural art that you are sure to remember for years to come.
Getting Out of the City
Although the city of Muscat has many interesting areas to explore for beautiful architecture, there is a simple day trip outside the city that will give you amazing views of Oman and its traditional architecture. The following guide will lead you to the heights of Jebel Akhdar and the hidden and abandoned village of Wadi Bani Habib.
Jebel Akhdar (Arabic for “Green Mountain”) has one of the highest mountain peaks in all Oman and is also the most easily accessible. A four-wheel drive vehicle is required (a checkpoint at the bottom of the mountain ensures all vehicles that enter are capable of the climb). Drivers with little mountain-road experience need not be scared as the entirety of the way is a wide, paved road lined with sturdy guard rails. The two-hour drive from Muscat to the base of Jebel Akhdar winds through the northern mountain range of Oman and gives you the opportunity to catch a glimpse of many small Omani villages.
On your way up the mountain, take time to stop at a few of the many lookout points to see the extraordinary views. The small village of Sayq is a great place to enjoy a coffee break or lunch at the famous Anantara Resort. Their Al Maisan restaurant (Anantara.com) serves a wide variety of cuisine and its dining room extends to an open-air terrace with spectacular canyon views.
After your relaxing break at the resort, continue down the main road of Sayq leading you to Wadi Bani Habib. Oman has hundreds of wadis or valleys, but this one is unique due to the two abandoned villages that sit on the faces of side-by-side mountains. Park at the top and begin your decent into the valley using the winding staircase built into the rocks. At the bottom of the stairs, continue across the valley and follow the wall until you find an opening. From there, begin your adventurous exploring of the two villages abandoned only two decades ago. Climb over the ruins, take pictures of rustic metal doors, and imagine the life the villagers lived. The staircase to the second village is a bit tricky to find, but if you follow the black water pipe running along the valley, you are sure to find the way up.
After you complete your exploring and climb out of the valley, return to your vehicle and continue the journey up the mountain by following signs for Alila Resort at the peak of Jebel Akhdar. This five-star resort has a fantastic restaurant for your next snack or meal. The views from the balcony of the Alila of the rocky terrain, deep canyons, and steep cliffs are truly breathtaking.
Take it slow on your way down the mountain and before long you will be back in Muscat with another incredible day in Oman in the books.